May 312016
 

Toome

Heaney’s second of three ingenious place-name poems contains a phonetic energy that identifies the poet’s specific Ulster background and alludes to the ‘Irish underlay’ of place, time and language that he explores in Wintering Out. As Heaney points out in the notes that follow the ‘languagey’ poems bridged the gap between his working language (English) and his Ulster Irish origins.

The poet rehearses the pronunciation of a village that lies within an emotional stone’s throw of his childhood home at Mossbawn: Toome. He describes in words the oral gymnastics required to produce the genuine Ulster sound: My mouth holds round/ the soft blasting (the burst of compressed air from the throat released by consonant plosive [t]). Distance lends enchantment: Toome, Toome.

Mouth becomes metaphor: his tongue a dislodged slab of stone at the mouth of an underground souterrain of passageways; he himself an archaeologist panning through the layers of time: prospecting what new.

There is nothing new: ten millennia have produced a rich Ulster growing medium (loam), signs of stone-age endeavour (flints), evidence of all-Irish resistance to the English and Scots (musket-balls), shards of pottery reflective of broken societies (fragmented ware), Celtic and Viking ornamentation torcs and fish-bones.

Akin the farmer in ‘Gifts of Rain’ who gropes to find his submerged plants, the poet delves with his arm (first sleeved in alluvial mud) to be swallowed up beneath bogwater and tributaries and enter Celtic myth: Medusa-like (elvers tail my hair).

  • blasting: (onomatopoeic intention) the compressed air gathered in the mouth behind voiceless alveolar consonant [t] is discharged alongside rounded vowel sound [uː];
  • dislodged: moved out of position;
  • slab: heavy, flat (stone) object;
  • souterrain: (underground) chamber, passage;
  • loam: humus, a rich growing medium;
  • flints: hard rocks from which prehistoric tools and weapons were chipped;
  • musket-balls: shot fired from the earliest form of infantry firearms; Toome was both one of the sites of the 1798 rebellion and a site of major archaeological finds;
  • ware: general name for man-made articles;
  • torcs: Celtic neck ornaments of twisted metal threads
  • fish-bones: Celtic and pre Celtic ornamentation;
  • sleeved: enclosed;
  • alluvial: derived from silt deposits;
  • shelve: slope downwards;
  • tributaries: small rivers flowing into larger rivers;
  • elvers: young eels often migrating en masse;
  • tail: a part, strand that hangs down; plait;
  • (DOD) ‘It seems to me … that Wintering Out represented a significant shift in direction. The very notion of the phonetic as subject matter … How did this occur to you – the idea that the sounds of words …could be matter as well as means for poet ? … (SH) Those languagey poems were all post-Berkeley, as far as I remember… The place poems came from a different source, etymological day­ dreams of sorts, playing with the fit between place and name … They harked back to the Irish language underlay and were laying claim to a hidden Ulster the Uladh of Doire Cholmcille rather than the Londonderry of the Plantation and Siege. But you’re right to think of their energy as phonetic rather than than political … What happened in them was a kind of melt-down of memory-stuff and Ulster myths of belonging’(DOD124);
  • Tongue’ is a word that reverberates through the volume, and the saying of other names – ‘Anahorish’, ‘Toome’, ‘Broagh’, for instance – is a common activity in the book . Not knowing the ‘tongue’ of the country you travel in is the deepest kind of estrangement; and Heaney’s preoccupation with the tongue, in this book which subtly registers the contours of a divided culture, derives from the fact that the tongue, or language, he speaks, and uses as a poet – English – is not native or original to the land he comes from – Ireland – or straightforwardly iden­tifiable with the feelings or aspirations of the community from which he derives. English is, at least in the traditional national­ist reading of the case, the imposition of the colonial oppressor, dispossessing the native Irish of their own first ‘tongue’. The historical and political themes of Wintering Out, therefore, are necessarily implicit in the actual tongue spoken in Northern Ireland; and the book includes many poems about language itself’ (NC37);
  • (there are three) shorter pieces of great originality, the ‘place-name poems’ ‘Anahorish’, ‘Toome’ and ‘Broagh’. Heaney says of these poems in ‘Unhappy and at Home, with Seamus Deane The Crane Bag vol I.i 1977):

I had a great sense of release as they were being written, a joy and devil-may-careness, and that convinced me that one could be faithful to the nature of the English language – for in some senses these poems are erotic mouth-music by and out of the anglo-saxon tongue – and, at the same time, be faithful to one’s own non-English origin, for me that is County Derry.;

  • They are envisaged, then, as sudden whooping retrievals of reconciliatory ‘vocables’ from within the etymology of the warmly cherished place-names of Heaney’s home, and they may have been sanctioned by the Gaelic tradition of dinnseanchas … They insist that the importance of a place depends not on the world’s having heard of it, but on its significance for the poet who writes it’ (NC43-4);
  • (The final line introduces a compelling) ‘quasi-surreal Medusa image (probably owing) something to the Medusa heads of Celtic Britain and Ireland, illustrations of which Heaney would have found in Anne Ross’s Pagan Celtic Britain which he cites during his discussion of ‘The Tollund Man’ in ‘Feeling into Word ‘’ (NC45-6);
  • Another major legacy of colonialism, broached first in ‘The Last Mummer’, and then explored in a succession of poems – ‘Tradi­tions’, ‘Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’, ‘Toome’, ‘A New Song’ and ‘Gifts of Rain’ – is the linguistic dispossession of the Irish people. Though on one level these poems mourn the ‘Vanished music’ (‘A New Song’) of Gaelic, on another they deny silence and loss … Heaney has commented that thanks to (Joyce) English is by now not so much an imperial humiliation as a native weapon’ (MP97);
  • For Heaney, the poet remains a diviner, a kind of Magus ‘summoning and meshing … the subconscious and semantic energies of words’, and by drawing upon the Gaelic place-names which encircled his Mossbawn home, he attempts to re-connect the ‘energies of generation coursing through Man, land and language, to restore continuity while acknowledging change.’Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’, and ‘Toome’ renew an ancient genre of Irish poetry called dinnseanchas, which are ‘poems and tales which relate the original meanings of place names and constitute a form of mythological etymology’(MP98);
  • 4 quatrains in a single sentence; unrhymed; variable line length (4-7 syllables);

  • balance between enjambment and punctuation;

  • the title introduces a kind of plosive explosiveness: ‘Toome, Toome’ … boom boom;

  • sensitive first person responses to sound; body parts that produce sound;

  • oxymoron: ‘soft blastings;

  • comparison: human tongue; ‘slab’ guarding the entrance to somewhere worth exploring;

  • layered history: a Heaney notion derived from layered peat; a time line into the past linking Vikings and colonial oppression in appropriate references;

  • finale: narrator assimilated into his ‘common ground’, dissolving to become a medusa-like figure;

  • the mood music moves from initial percussiveness to a final magical, watery make-believe sequence;

  • 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: ten 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 , for example, bring together a cluster of plosives: alveolar [t] [d] interspersed with nasal [n] and [m] and sibilant [s];
  • 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.