May 312016
 

Land

Heaney’s 3-poem sequence approaches the title from different angles: a man steeped in country practices announces his intention to go; the effigy he intends to leave behind will transmit the messages of home to him; creatures natural to the Irish landscape-home are under threat from lurking, man-made dangers. A disastrous future for Ulster is on the cards.

Land is all-encompassing: the ground beneath the poet’s feet; the extent of the family farm; his Ulster homeland; Irish territory.

I

The voice is that of a countryman by instinct (first person and barely anonymous) setting out his routines: measuring his personal domain in age-old units (I stepped it, perch by perch); separating and selecting natural growth that will serve many purposes (Unbraiding rushes and grass); re-staking his claim (I opened my right-of-way); dealing with a mixture of terrain (old bottoms and sowed-out ground); recycling stones off the ploughing to mark his ground (raise a small cairn); dealing with standing water (Cleaned out the drains), cutting back growth that impeded movement (faced the hedges). In sum the long and physically demanding life of an Ulster farmer: I often got up at dawn to walk the outlying fields.

The man has taken on and met the demands of a job (habits for those acres); life was humdrum, made ends meet, produced neither ‘feast nor famine’ So that my last look would be/ neither gluttonous nor starved.

This countryman is ripe for a change: I was ready to go anywhere.

II

The émigré’s parting gift will be unpretentious yet iconic: a vegetal effigy (plaited and branchy) in a field already harvested: a long slope of stubble; a woman unnamed but reminiscent of emblems of Irish nationhood such as Kathleen Ni Houlihan.

Heaney’s figure will be constructed from the land: old wet leaves,/rush-bands and thatcher’s scollops,/ stooked loosely; designed to symbolize fertility and renewal (her breasts an open-work of new straw); decorated by human hand in celebration of Irish bounty (harvest bows); a still, silent figure transcending the immediate: Gazing out past/ the shifting hares.

III

An émigré is listening for the ‘morse’ from home; his Irish memory bank discerns the wary footsteps of II’s ‘shifting hares’: I sense the pad unfurling under grass and clover.

Dwelling now on foreign soil (phantom ground) and in need of messages to break the loop of silence the poet/ émigré adopts the ear-to-the-ground pose attributed to American Indians seeking to detect the vibrations made by animals and men.

What comes down the wire cannot be anticipated (must not be surprised): either faint signs of optimism (a small drumming) or disaster … a major problem that suddenly catapults him skywards (in bursting air), like a hare caught and helpless, in a man-made trap: snared, swinging/ an ear-ring of sharp wire. The pessimistic view of a disintegrating Ulster is the one that will prevail.

  • perch: post 11th century archaic unit of measurement (about 17 feet/5 meters in length); more than 150 perches to the acre;
  • unbraid: undo, separate, unravel;
  • rushes: plants growing in marshy ground;
  • right-of-way: legal path that crosses someone’s property;
  • bottoms: lowest stretches of farmland;
  • sowed out: planted with seeds;
  • cairn: a landmark built of rough stone;
  • drains: channels that carry off liquid waste;
  • faced: clipped, tidied up the surface;
  • outlying: peripheral, remote from the centre (of a farm);
  • composed habits: adopted routines appropriate to life outdoors;
  • plait: made up of interwoven strands (e.g. of straw);
  • stubble: cut stalks of harvested cereal left sticking out of the ground;
  • thatcher: craftsman who builds a roof using straw, reeds or rushes; skilled in a very old trade;
  • scollops: the ornamental edges produced by a thatcher;
  • stooked: sheaves of straw gathered together;
  • harvest bows: a successful harvest was celebrated in the community with garlands and ribbons tied in bows;
  • pad: fleshy under-part of an animal’s foot;
  • unfurling: expanding as it is planted on the ground;
  • loop: a curve that forms a circle;
  • phantom: not real, illusory;
  • bursting: snapping, breaking apart violently, turning things upside down;
  • snare: a trap with a wire noose set to catch wildlife;
  • wire: metal thread;
  • the word ‘ear’ is ( ) also prominent in Wintering Out, as the poet describes himself listening in to the language of his original place. He lies ‘with my ear / in this loop of silence’ in ‘Land’ (NC40);
  • Heaney’s traveller will carry with him a series of visual and emotional snapshots as he moves to pastures new. In a collection that portrays a poet poised to make changes to his lifestyle (first a sabbatical in America, then within a year of his return much more fundamental moves), this triptych captures the ‘more inward, broody’ mood that Heaney commented on to DOD (124);
  • (i) 2 stanzas (ll 9+4) in 5 sentences; unrhymed;

  • copious use of enjambment; past tense describing a walk;

  • stanza 2 indicates that along the line, Heaney is ready for the next stage, will be Wintering Out;

  • first person narrator;

  • traditional pre-decimal measures: ‘perch’, ‘acre;

  • dual intention: right of way: landowner’s prerogative; person’s freedom to change;

  • vocabulary of farming traditions includes symbolic ‘cairn’ (man-made monument);

  • next move uncertain, change essential: ‘ready … anywhere; reinforced by repetition of ‘out’;

  • (ii) 3 triplets in 2 sentences unrhymed; variable line length of 4-8 syllables;

  • Rural references; natural products used to build the mannequin/scarecrow figure;

  • impermanent human presence replaced by country icon/ spirit figure;

  • choice of female spirit/ figure hints at the Earth Mother fertility figure of many primitive cultures;

  • inanimate yet alive: ‘gazing out’; more positive use of the preposition ’out’ than in (i) above;

  • (iii) 6 couplets in a single sentence ;use of colon;

  • variable line length (4-9 syllables); unrhymed; first person;

  • synecdoche: ‘pads’ for mammals (rabbit/ hare);

  • present tense: the poet is still on his land;

  • conflation of human and animal linked by their common use of ‘sense’ viz sense data reception;

  • loop’: pseudo-scientifically silence presented as circular, completing a sense circuit; the ‘ear-ring’ shape of the snare that will kill;

  • conditional ‘if’ clause;

  • dream/ reality: ‘expect’ … must not be surprised’;

  • sound sequence: ‘silence’ > ‘drumming’ > ‘bursting’;

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;

  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first lines draw together bilabial plosives [p] [b], sibilant [s] sounds and alveolar plosives [d] [t];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.