May 312016
 

Westering

In this final piece (the only poem referring specifically to California) Heaney draws on a series of physical and metaphysical ‘spheres’: moon, earth, self, soul. He divulges his emotional responses to home and faith. He paints his narrative against bleak landscapes: the moon’s surface, Calvary (where Christ was crucified), Ireland in trouble. He uses the gravitational pull between objects, physical and spiritual, to illustrate things caught up in an inexorable clockwork.

In this final piece, the poet admits he is ‘disposed ( ) towards origin and the inward path’(DOD142). If Heaney was ‘unhappy and at home’ in Tollund Man (in this collection), his sabbatical in America has taken him away from home but is not delivering much that cheers him as he thinks of his return to Irish shores.

A wall map has triggered poetic charge: I sit under Rand McNally’s/‘Official Map of the Moon’. The poster’s visual representation of the craters and mountains that pit the lunar surface sets off spontaneous associations: its (frogskin) colouring (shades of dull green); its exaggerated skin-tissue markings (enlarged pores held/ Open).

Heaney’s attention is fixed on a particular crater (one called /’Pitiscus’ at eye Ievel); it generates the involuntary memory of the moment a life-phase ended: the last night /In Donegal.

The pristine purity of the crater’s Latin derivation (see below) was reflected in the moon’s presence: Heaney’s sharp shadow cast Neat upon the whitewash / From her bony shine; darkness made luminous: The cobbles of the yard/ Lit pale as eggs. The allusion to eggs, of symbolic significance in Servant Boy, Somnambulist and Bye Child, introduces in turn images of Irish subjugation, personal guilt and aberrant Irish behaviours, issues that whirl around in Heaney’s subconscious and contribute to the current tristia of a poet in exile.

Heaney sums up the carefree schedule prior to that last evening in western Ireland (Summer had been a free fall) and the final curtain of impending departure: The empty amphitheatre / Of the west.

Exodus was set to coincide with a solemn day of fasting and penance: Good Friday, bypassing the visible side-effects of mainstream worship: life brought to a halt (shopblinds drawn on the afternoon); the absence of human presence in the street: Cars stilled outside still churches,/ Bikes tilting to a wall; silence broken only by their passing car, a momentary distraction to those inside the church (We drove by,/A dwindling interruption).

Heaney’s experience of the Catholic Crucifixion Mass has left indelible memories: the aggressive sound of bells (clappers smacked); the church stripped of ornamentation (a bare altar); subjugated congregations bent in prayer over the image of Crucifixion and stigmata (the studded crucifix).

He ponders the link between that émigré moment and the Crucifixion: was it his moment of severance from his Faith; has non-compliance disqualified him from redemption; can he ‘pray’ for things henceforth or just hope for them: What nails dropped out that hour? The question is left in abeyance.

On a journey that involved great distances (Roads unreeled) its darker moments (Falling light) were bolstered by lyrical images from his Irish memory bank: fly–fishing casts /Laid down /On shining waters.

Heaney is suffering dark moments right now: his Ulster home (Six thousand miles away) sleeps beneath the moon as depicted on the Rand McNally wall-map, pitted in the poet’s consciousness by the marks of Crucifixion (Under the moon’s stigmata).The poet makes three pleas (linked to pictures of the moon landing of 1969): that Ulster’s Troubles will not increase (I imagine untroubled dust); that sectarians burdens will be eased by a loosening gravity; that the symbol of self-sacrifice (Christ weighing by his hands) will no longer be exposed to atrocities committed in Northern Ireland in his name. Heaney’s hopes will be dashed.

  • Rand McNally: an American publisher of maps, atlases, textbooks, and globes for travel, reference, commercial, and educational uses. In 1856, William Rand opened a printing shop in Chicago and two years later hired a newly arrived Irish immigrant, Andrew McNally to work in his shop. In 1859 Rand and McNally were hired to run the Chicago Tribune’s entire printing operation and in 1868, the two men formally established Rand McNally & Co;
  • Official Map of the Moon: map originally published in 1958; coloured green tending to blue and very detailed;
  • pore: tiny opening in the skin through which liquids and minute particles may pass;
  • Pitiscus: a crater visible from Earth in the lunar southern hemisphere; thought to have been created by an impact; named after the 16th century German astronomer and theologian who first coined the word trigonometry; pisticus : (Latin)‘pure’,’pristine’, ‘genuine’;
  • Donegal: Ulster County to the west of Derry along the border with the Irish Republic;
  • whitewash: lime and water solution used for painting walls;
  • bony: gaunt, angular, thin;
  • cobbles: small rounded stones used to create a road or yard surface;
  • free fall: unchecked downward movement under the force of gravity;
  • amphitheatre: classical round open-air space with area for drama or games and tiers for spectators;
  • blind: window screen;
  • clappers: the internal tongue of a bell that produces the sound; altar bells are part of the Catholic Mass and rung at the holiest moment when the bread and wine are consecrated,; the ringing of bells symbolises reverent rejoicing;
  • stud: a circular ring or knob projecting from a surface;
  • nails: metal pins used in building to secure joints;
  • unreel: unwind; as a noun ‘reel’ is the device fitted to the rod for winding and unwinding fishing-line;
  • cast: the action of pitching the baited fishing-line out into the water;
  • laid down: landing on the water without sinking;
  • stigmata: marks of injury left on Christ’s body by the Crucifixion of Good Friday;
  • gravity: weight on the moon is a function of its gravity; its smaller mass than the Earth’s makes the moon’s gravity much less; also a pun: seriousness, formality;
  • loosening: slackening, fixed less firmly to the surface;
  • DOD ‘You didn’t actually write much about California itself. You may recollect Patricia Beer’s complaint… that in the book’s final poem, ‘Westering’, you couldn’t wait to tum your gaze from California to Donegal.’ SH ‘Patricia Beer was right. What the Californian distance did was to lead me back into the Irish memory bank’(DOD142);
  • The moon serves as the presiding symbol in the final poem of Wintering Out, ‘Westering’, which garners together some of the key images of the volume. In his search for common ground, Heaney has explored place, name, history, myth, home, but struggled to find a sense of shelter anywhere on earth (NC113)
  • As regards Heaney’s attitude to religion at this stage in his career: if Christianity did not possess either relevance or moral force why would it appear (‘Christ weighing by his hands’) in such major poems as ‘Westering’? Clearly Catholicism permeates his poetic consciousness, with its weighty emphasis on ritual supplication, on awe, grace, guilt, humility, responsibility, discipline, and its burdened and burdening vocabulary’ (MP114-5);
  • what is true of the Earth’s spin, and of celestial bodies (most noticeably the moon) was true for Seamus Heaney and his family moving in a westerly direction in 1971, changing continents to take a sabbatical year at Berkeley University, California. ‘Westering’ deals with much more than geographical coordinates: it bolsters Heaney’s growing urge to venture into the unknown;
  • In his ‘Passage to the Center’ (pub.1991, U.P.Kentucky, p.99) Daniel Tobin suggests John Donne’s Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward as the key to understanding Westering . The ‘ Heaney ( ) version … establishing him as a kind of pilgrim of the imagination travelling away from the center of his faith, his home’:

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, /The intelligence that moves, devotion is,/ And as the other Spheares, by being growne/ Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,/ And being by others hurried every day,/ Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:/ Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit/ For their first mover, and are whirld by it./ Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West/ This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East./ There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,/ And by that setting endlesse day beget;/ But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall, Sinne had eternally benighted all./ Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see/ That spectacle of too much weight for mee. (ll.1-16) O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;/I turne my backe to thee, ( )/ Restore thine Image, so much by thy grace,/ That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

  • The suffering and endurance of the imagined or recalled figures of ‘Wintering Out’ are complemented by the volume’s two references to Christ: at the end of ‘Limbo’, ‘where he is a figure of the most intense exclusion and ineffectualness (‘Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, I Smart and cannot fish there’)’, and in ‘the surreal image of the final line of ‘Westering’ – and therefore of the whole book – where, in a figure of lonely unconnectedness which perhaps draws on Salvador Dalì, the poem locates ‘Christ weighing by his hands’ in the moon’s gravity.’ (NC40);
  • 9 quartets in 6 sentences (including 1 question); line length between 2-9 syllables; unrhymed;
  • varied verb tenses from simple present to pluperfect;
  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery; the question varies the intonation;
  • metaphor poster document akin to the skin of an amphibian creature;
  • moon’: symbolic link between California and home;
  • moonlight effects of reflection (‘shadow’) outline (‘neat’) and colouring ‘whitewash … bony (both colour of bone and angular) … eggs’:
  • simile: cobble and egg shapes likened;
  • time sequence: first and last verses addressed from California; central ground sited back in Ulster; summer journey precedes Easter departure;
  • declining enthusiasm for the status quo: ‘final > free fall > ending > empty’;
  • Ulster life brought to a halt by Catholic devotions: ‘shopblinds drawn … stilled … still … Bikes tilting’; the piece will confirms the poet’s thirst for onward momentum/ time for change;
  • metaphor: a moment of realization/ decision based on image of the nails fixing Christ to the Cross being removed;
  • the symbolic act of journeying seeks not to lose the world outside nor freedom of will: fishing metaphor in which the angler determines the spot his bait will land;
  • contrast between Catholic devotion and the world outside: ‘bent … crucifix’ as opposed to ‘light … shining’;
  • return to the poster and the poet’s present via the religious signs of Christ’s suffering (‘stigmata’);
  • all troubling elements coalesce: distance (‘miles’); moon ( its surface ‘untroubled dust’ unlike the Ulster community); conscience eased (‘a loosening gravity’); Christ slumped (‘weighing by his hands’);
  • 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, for example, bring together the airflow of bilabial [w]and plosive [p] alongside a cluster of other plosives (alveolar [t] [d], velar [k] [g]) interspersed with nasal [n] and [m];
  • 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.