3 prose-poems celebrate places, people and routine events of school-aged boyhood.
- The Lagans Road
Heaney uses the iconic road already featured in the previous poem as the means to a particular end: a rite of passage leading him physically to his first day at Primary School and opening up a contingent host of new experiences and sense data.
The geographical context is set: the physical road, typical of neglected country roads; this one in its bog-side situation, a wilderness experienced daily between human settlements, between home and school.
The magic of that very first journey to school is still tangible, as if the queen of elfland was leading me away from family and familiar settings. Not a fairy-tale queen taking him to school, in fact, but neighbourly flesh and blood: Philomena McNicholl… a fey if ever there was one.
First impression: the first impressions of a ‘new’ boy: its wartime appearance (a couple of low-set Nissen huts): the noise and the activity surrounding it.
To illustrate how it felt both physically and emotionally Heaney chooses a legend from Red Indian folklore; it describes irreversible change and a sense of inevitably accepted by the Indians of the Pacific Northwest on the road to the land of the dead; they perceive a kind of recognisable reality, are comforted by evidence left by those who preceded them but know that there is no way back: feeling at the same time lost and homesick.
The adventure starts: the going-in; the coat-hooks (on different levels for children of different heights); ultimately the strange room, where our names were new in the rollbook and would soon be called. Heaney has understood he has passed the point of no return.
- Whilst the creation well-turned sentences in prose may have freed him from the strictures of poetic composition Heaney ensures that his talent with words and sounds is ever present;
- Heaney intuitively senses the moment for assonant and alliterative effects: description of the road’s surroundings: grass verges/ high hedges; marsh rushes/ little shrubs and birch trees; Phgilomena: Ginger hair, freckled face, green gymfrock – a fey; Indian folk-lore: cast-offs scattered; the classroom: place/ strange/ names.
- Tall Dames
Distance lends enchantment in a passage describing figures from Heaney’s lost domain of childhood, Traditional stereotypes of rural Ireland generally include itinerant groups living on their wits. In this passage Heaney vividly recalls specific groups, who ‘walk tall’ in his memory noting particularly the poise and dignity of the women-folk.
He considers that for these women to be labelled ‘gypsies’ is not appropriate, recalling that as a young male, his instincts drew some vague promise of delight from their visual appearance: They inhabited the land of eros. Their unpredictable arrival coincided with the circus at which a fortune teller, swathed in her silks and beads beckoned invitingly from the back door of a caravan.
The speaker deciphers the social status of these squatters on the long acre; such women would now properly be re-defined as travellers; ‘tinker’, on the other hand, was not a derogatory term, describing people with a manual skill to offer.
The women-folk stood out: Marvellous, upfront… in unerotic woollen shawls.
In a less than reverent comparison, Heaney asserts that they were as determined to relieve one of ones money as the Church: their speech cadenced to beg and keep begging with all the stamina of a cantor. They were fertile: children on their arms or at their heels. Noble savages, Squaws of the ditchback, they were in step with Yeats’s ‘tall dames’ of Avalon.
Their reality was difficult for a schoolboy’s mind to grasp: even in broad daylight they seemed made up like something out of story time in Infants’ school.
In comparison their men-folk were less colourful and ‘different’, tied up with the chores of their trade for example searching for lost horses.
Their encampment was steeped in silence but for its green wood in the fire spitting under a pot slung from a tripod, an image contributing to the idea of ‘make-believe’ (the stuff that leprechauns are made of !).
Heaney has dredged from within himself the ‘something’ described in the later poem, The Apple Orchard that he requires to transmit the abiding feelings generated by this colourful ‘race’ and their lifestyle: the arrival of the tinkers was a breath of fresh air, adding an extraness in the air as if a gate had been left open in the usual life, as if something might get in or get out.
- The ‘Notes and Acknowledgements’ indicate that Tall Dames‘ is adapted from A Gate Left Open , a programme note for the Dublin performance of Janáček’s Diary of One who Vanishes’ (October 1999).
- Heaney creates phrases that supersede mere prose: land of eros, glimpsed occasionally; woollen shawls, woven; patterns of tan; towards you out of storytime; spitting under a pot slung from a tripod; left open in the usual life.
Heaney attended St Columb’s College, Derry as a boarder from 1951-7. The cold weekly journey from home to school and its accompanying metaphorical sense of displacement are recalled with regretful clarity.
The school bus with its discomfort and regulation signage heralds the period in life distinguishable by school-uniform: back in the days of peaked caps and braid piping; the bus drivers were as ominous( ) as hangmen visiting the ultimate punishment on hapless schoolboys; the conductors carried plump bags of coin and ticket-punch a-dangle on its chain but would not collect fares until the bus had its full complement of boarders.
Schoolboys in transit to a common destination on their own special bus with regular stops at shop doorways or appointed crossroads picking up boarders in clusters…with suitcases
The journey had its own ‘anatomy’, especially the demands made by the Glenshane Pass both on both vehicle’s engine (the heavier she pulls) and the bus’s jolted contents.
As If ripped from the bosom of his family the boy was in no hurry to arrive, his feelings reflected in a plea that employs the subjunctive mode: Let the driver keep doing battle with the gear-stick, let his revs and double-clutchings drag the heart. Anything in fact that postpones arrival at the summit, at the frontier between the known country and the unfamiliar lands beyond.
Once there, a moment of respite for the engine to cool; then, last hopes dashed, on again with manoeuvres requiring the labour of the tyres and spin marks on the gravel (heavy vehicles needed to be parked on the level because in the ‘fifties’ brakes were notoriously prone to overheating)..
When you are opposed to the journey then fare-collection becomes an act of lifting, made to seem almost dishonest; the collector has no apparent liking for the youngsters Unfamiliar, uninvolved, almost…angered, impacting on the schoolboys around: one by one we go farther into ourselves.
If, on the return journey, their boarding week over, the schoolboys were in charge of the vehicle it would share all the celebration of their return: Heaney’s imagination throws caution to the wind sending the bus flailing downhill with the windows all lit up, empty and faster and angrier bend after bend.
- Early gear-boxes were primitive compared with the automatic versions today; gear changes then required two kicks on the clutch (the first to disconnect gear and engine, the second to engage a new gear) for each gear-change. Going uphill, heavy transport lost speed and struggled in low revolutions. Here Heaney recalls the sounds and jolts that went with it;
- peaked caps were dome-shaped headgear for boys in 4 or 6 triangular sections sewn together with a visor-shaped peak to shade the eyes; worn more often in grammar- and selective- schools; they would be in school colours and might bear an insignia; blazers were also part of the uniform; they were of the same colour and were sometimes decorated around the edges of sleeves and lapels with narrow ribbon-like pipe-braiding;
- lock: when the steering wheel was fully engaged to the left or right;
- prose is given poetic flavouring: plump bags of coin/ ticket-punch a-dangle on its chain; the going’s good; double-clutchings drag the heart; the labour of cut and spin; unfamiliar/ uninvolved.