I have recently studied some of your poetry for my leaving certificate english course and I feel greatly changed by what I read. To say the least, it made a strong impression on me. It was a memorable experience. I looked into five of your poems with great depth and they were; “A Constable Calls”, “The Forge”, “The Underground”, “The Tollund Man”, and of course “The Skunk”. These poems inspired a range of emotions in me that I would never have expected to feel while reading poetry. In the poem “A Constable Calls” I feel that the predominant mood is one of tension and hostility.
In my opinion it is an explanation of the relationship dynamic between two traditions juxtaposed in the north of Ireland. It is clearly not a friendly, personal relationship. I felt that the way in which you portrayed a young Heaney -an objective observer- was particularly effective to say the least. Even more impressive the young Heaney appears to offer up no opinion yet within the first couple of lines we have a clear sense of the constable. The image we are presented with of the constable is one of authority and control.
It appears even “The pedal treads” are delighted to be “hanging relieved” from “the boot of the law”. It seems to me here that not only does this boot refer to the actual boot worn by the constable but also the impersonal, forceful, powerful presence that is the law. I think you captured equally successfully the significance of the exchange between your father and the constable and its meaning to you with the phrase “Arithmetic and fear”. The air of unease and fear on the part of your father is almost tangeable here.
The lack of friendliness is accentuated by the brief exchange of words between your father and the constable. The stern, authoritarian tone of voice he takes with your father when he says “Any other root crops? Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that? ” and the single, unaccompanied response of your father “No” sent a shiver down my spine as I read. To me, this poem portrayed, extremely effectively, the relationship between your family and the law. “The Forge” in all its sensuous beauty is by far my favourite poem of yours.
The manner in which the “door into the dark” presents the reader with an interior, strange and atramentous, that as a young boy you are unsure about whether the threshold should be crossed or not. On a literal level, the image you give us as readers and to me as a seventeen year old boy is one of staccato rhythym, life and an abundance of energy, which, while I read it, bestowed onto me a sense of the importance the forge holds in the protection of Irish heritage and tradition as the old is pushed to give way to the new.
The incredible way that you blend together the “clatter/ Of hoofs” from the memory of the blacksmith and what now replaces it, “Traffic (is) flashing in rows” is enviable at least. This said, I believe too that there is a far deeper meaning, buried deep in under the skin of this poem, much more than just a celebration of local craftsmanship and of cultural roots. In my opinion you also mean to explore, rather ironically, the creative process and the writing of poetry through poetry. The forge in this case being an extended metaphor for the mind and the creative process.
Possibly representative of the centre of creativity, you speak of the anvil which “must be somewhere in the centre” but is not visible to you, the eager observer. If someday I am married and it turns out the way your marriage appears to have in “The Underground” I will be a lucky man. It is my firm believe that there is a strong divide right in the middle of this poem. It changes from pure ecstasy and excitement to a more sombre, worried, unsure mood towards the end but this is not negative. This is merely pointing out that not everything is all hugs and kisses.
It is saying that there are things that need thought to go with everything but that this is part of life. This, I believe, must be understood by the end of the poem to make it worth having read. At the start of any new journey there is aways a sense of excitement and exhiliration, but when things don’t go your way, you can be left “bared and tensed”. The poem encourages you to delve deep into yourself and seek out the part of your soul distant from even yourself and analyse why you have left this part of you isolate itself. I have an enormous admiration for the way you do this in this poem.
As well as this, I feel the unconventional way through which you portray love while also proclaiming your undying love for your wife is fascinating. The mellifluous writing and easy reading of this poem is something admired and envied. “The Tollund Man” in my honest opinion the most morose, grave, hard hitting poem of yours. It inspires a lot of thought about the human nature. It was written in response to the troubles in Northern Ireland and I feel that using the medium of poetry you search for an answer to modern problems in the past as it is well known that history is constantly repeating itself.
It is clear that you are drawing parallels between the ritual killings of the past and the murder of innocent victims nowadays in the north of the country. I feel that you search the memory of the Tollund to get answers but you do not want to “risk blasphemy” and “consecrate the cauldron bog/ Our holy ground and pray/ Him to make germinate”. It is my interpretation that in your mind the Tollund man is the key to enlightenment. Is it that you find it hard to confront the reality that is the mindless violence in Northern Ireland? As this is how it appears.
You also create a witty but macabre oxymoron at the end when you say “Unhappy and at home” as you would assume that the one place where a person should be happy is at home but that’s not the case here and I felt that here also you refer to the people who live in Northern Ireland that must deal with the worry of “The Troubles” everyday. I feel that a nice poem to finish discussing is “The Skunk” as even thinking of this poem brings a small smile to my face. The lighthearted humourous approach to missing and longing in this poem is astonishing.
I believe that this is a poem about your wife. It captures with an breathtaking level of finesse the beautiful nature of an everyday relationship. The ordinary mysteries at the heart of the normal relationship. The comparison of the skunk is probably to emphasise the animalistic naturalness of the relationship along with the primative, erotic nature of the attraction. As you “begin to tense as a voyeur” as you feel almost as if you are spying on the skunk as she passes, you are reminded of your wife and start to remember the way things were at the start, so romantic, so beautiful.
“After eleven years I was composing/ Love letters again” is a lovely image showing that the excitement and spark that holds a relationship together will not be evident every minute of everyday but that in the end of the day, if you love someone you will always be ready to show them if you need to show them. The long lines, and the enjambement of the poem add to the excitement, playfulness and ease of the poem. It is both sensuous and sensual as you begin to smell “Small oranges” and see the “desk light softened”.
The tension and expectation you feel is clearly akin to the way you felt about your wife at the time. This sensual imagery all portrays the richness of love. That is all I wanted to say. I believe that it was one of the most memorable experiences of my whole life reading your poetry and I mean that in a good way. It is something I will never look back upon doing in a negative light as I have gained some very important insights into life, love, tradition and conflict resolution from this.