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Heaney and Derrida: A shadow play

Separating Seamus Heaney the man from Seamus Heaney the poet is difficult given the intimidating bodyof criticism that has grown around the Poet Laureate’s works over the years. To approach a Heaney poem is to approach it in the twilight consciousness of a divided Ireland, an approach exemplified by critic David Llyod’s summary of Heaney’s poetry and its complex concerns– “Nationalism, and the concomitant concern with racial and cultural identity, are … political phenomena, oriented towards the production of a sense of popular unity and conceived within a generally oppositional framework … uttering and reclaiming that identity beyond the divisive label of ‘Anglo-Irishness’”

However for the purposes of this essay, I would like to steer clear of an appraisal of the poem as a response to “The Troubles” and concentrate instead on a close reading of the poem. By doing this I hope to surface some of Heaney’s concerns as a craftsman,as a poet. This sort of close reading can be justified by the poet’s own words from Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney – “… the eighties, which was a decade of considerable dismay in Ireland – and in myself. It began with the hunger strikes; and as it proceeded, the stalemate in the North showed no signs of being broken … People in the nationalist camp were caught between the Provisional killers and the revisionist historians Romantic Ireland died again … I felt unmoored from much that I had grown up with … I too came to realize that much of what we accepted as natural … was a cultural construction, yet I was slow to begin the deconstruction.”

From the frontier of writing can be read as one such attempt of Heaney’s to ‘dig’ under his own skin, the Yeatsian mask of the political poet, to examine the assumptions, the interrogation and the values his poems are subject to. Yeats himself however was more overtly optimistic when it came to the redeeming power of poetry—““art can outface history, the imagination can disdain happenings once it has incubated and mastered the secret behind happenings.” Heaney on the other hand, for all his deep ties to the land of his ancestors, treads an uneasy ground between the trappings of national identity and the Catholic sense of grace as the poet himself was fond of saying.

In one of his interviews, the poet explicitly links “political poetry” with poets like Pablo Neruda and the later Adrienne Rich. He goes on to contrast these poets with Robert Lowell who “when he wrote ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’ rose to the occasion of the res publica. With him, it was more a case of anxiety than issue.” In the rest of the interview, Heaney refuses to include himself in the former category of political poets while remaining noncommittal about the relation his poetry is in with the sort of poetry he admires in Lowell. What comes across strongly however, is the emphasis on the poet’s inner state and on giving “vent and voice to a predicament as well as addressing the state of the poet’s world.”

The first thing that strikes me about the poem is the surprising density of interrogation, the poet isolated and then riddled by lines of sight. The lack of proper nouns, the leaving out of particulars of time and location, and the spare, almost skeletal descriptions in the initial portions of the poem, only adds to its haunting quality. The troops who inspect the make and number of the car, the “one who bends his face towards” the window, the “cradled guns” further away peopled by ever more watchful eyes. The interrogation chamber is the car which becomes the locus of observation, perhaps a metaphor for the problematic public/ private nature of the craft of poetry. The poet with little room to maneuver, with little perspective but an intense awareness of being watched, of having his every move, every letter on the page inspected. Then the guarded unconcerned acceleration, the nonchalance which is the lilt of the verse on the page, masking the anxiety, the responsibility of penning the words in the first place.

All this of course smacks of oversimplification. One can easily see that the poem has two clearly demarcated movements. While the first four strophes report the actual incident, the succeeding strophes turn the situation into an extended metaphor of the writing process, the working through of identity and expression. But in the same breath, one realizes that the first few strophes are not simple reportage but a way of easing the reader into what will be a deconstruction and translation of the experience of writing from experience itself. There is an undeniable allegorical impulse in the poem which speaks to Coleridge’s characterization of allegorical composition as the employment of images that “convey, while we disguise, either moral qualities or conceptions of the mind that are not in themselves objects of the senses.”

The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

It is interesting to note that the one still point for the most part in the poem is the car itself, housing the poet or alternatively the reader—a singularity or a subjectivity that gets explored as the narrative unfolds. The car itself is a private space, an illusory safe house, is also claustrophobia and oppression— the singular subject against the world. The car and the passenger seem suspended in a balance of forces, the center of a menacing circle, a trap.I think of all the words in the first two strophes it is “nilness” which is the most evocative. It might only be slightly flippant to say that Heaney’s deconstruction/ interrogation of experience and the near-mythic cultural subject begins with the Word. The present indefinite tense and the series of dynamic verbs reinforce the sense of a narrative unwinding with only the slightest intervention from the narrator who is simply a powerless part of the greater scheme of things.

It might be helpful at this juncture to pull away slightly from the action of the poem and consider Jacques Derrida where he seems to eerily foreshadow the concerns of the poem.

“Although the experience of an event, the mode according to which it affects us, calls for a movement of appropriation (comprehension, recognition, identification, description, determination,interpretation, and so on), although this movement of appropriation is irreducible and ineluctable, there is no event worthy of the name except insofar as this appropriation falters at some border or frontier.”

It is this experience which is at the heart of the poem. The problematic of the poetic act is compounded by the heightened consciousness of the poet about his responsibilities to his reader, to the speaking of the ineluctable, to the questioning of the experience itself and the part the poet himself has to play in it again and again. Not Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” but a concern closer home to us, a continuous searching that fights to wrest meaning from even the most inhuman acts of the twentieth and this our present century. If the poet is to be a force of conscience in the world, and hold up his art as a mirror to the world at the same time, possibly the way to go is Heaney’s. The poet as subject is not isolated from the trauma of experience, is a chronicler and sufferer, not a superior consciousness at a remove from the parochial. His art forces the poet to be more critical of experience, not grow more forgiving to it or to himself.

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration--

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

A note on the cadence here. The two commas in “subjugated, yes, and obedient” slow the line down to a thoughtful crawl. It is interesting to note the contrast with the previous strophe where things move at a steady mechanical almost preordained pace as it must have seemed to the narrator. The obedience here, the subjugation is not just to the frontier, or to the soldiers with guns, but also the knowledge of crossing that frontier safely, the movement from experience to recollection to appropriation and analysis.

This brings me to the next movement in the poem—the supposedly inward movement of the “frontier of writing.” Strangely enough here the descriptions multiply. There is sound and there is allusive imagery. It’s almost as if the actual experience was a vacuum, an exchange of portentous signs which suddenly bursts into life here. For all its poetic devices, it is a carnival of images, with the rhyme reaching a playful crescendo in squawk/ hawk. It is as if the poet is almost reveling in the sudden safety of writing or the analyst’s couch—identifying and adding in detail that at the moment of the event was nothing but vagueness. In this way, writing as an act seems to overcome the nilness of the experience, conscripting it to writing’s own purposes. There is also the playful rhyme of writing/ repeating. One can picture the poet with his on-off mike announcing that all writing is necessarily repetition of data. But how does this transition dovetail into the previous movement? Isn’t this a simplistic retelling of the same story, done to death, stripped of surprise, repetitive? And here lies Heaney’s peculiar genius loci in the poem.

“Derrida finds a concept of the memory trace not as a pure positivity but as a difference of forces, a notion of repetition that calls into question the very meaning of primariness, that is, of a first time or an origin, a pictographic rather than a phonocentric conception of the dream … the dream not as succession but as the concurrence of non-concurrent times”
(Naas, Michael. "When it all suddenly clicked: deconstruction after psychoanalysis after photography." Mosaic [Winnipeg] 44.3 (2011): 81.)

To reword the quote a bit, the poem as a memory trace is not a pure positivity but calls into question the very meaning of primariness so that tallying the act of writing with the experience becomes problematic, if not impossible, a “concurrence of non-concurrent times.” While the poem draws an explicit contrast between the actual frontier and the frontier of writing, the difference in these terms is brought out not by force of argument but through sheer force of description..

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

“where it happens again.” Suddenly the reader is invited in to a space which seems suspiciously like a movie set. The guns are on tripods, one of many details left out in the gritty narrative gone before. The sergeant seems to slip into the role of a director, making sure everything is acted out correctly. There is no spectral figure bending its face towards the window.

data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

“data about you” This is a place where there is a continuous influx of data, surrounding the poet as also the reader.Not just information about the person in the car but the “poetic” data of “the marksman training down/ out of the sun upon you like a hawk.” The simile here is deliciously stretched. For the briefest moment, the line break leads the reader on to consider “the sun upon you like a hawk” as personification. Also the verb “training” in the context of the hawk simile adds a playful aspect to these lines. The poet seems to revel in his own powers, flexing his metaphors while an undercurrent of irony runs deep. There is also a sense of the inevitable about the entire strophe— writing as recollection, as ordering of data and anxieties. A Yeatsian echo can also be seen at work here—a reworking of Yeats’s “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”—which feeds back into the narrator’s sense of impending doom.

And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you'd passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road

The last strophes are strongly lyrical and are symptomatic of the poet’s surprising, if understated, use of metaphors. The completion of the act or performance of writing is a moment of freedom; the images can, on one level, be seen to operate under some birth symbolism or baptism maybe. The phrase “suddenly you're through” seems to celebrate this completed act of writing, the passage through an intense stretch of introspection, criticality, revisions and the final coming together of the poem. The word “through” can be read as an adverb or as an adjective. The escape from an interrogation as well the completed journey toward a goal, the polished windscreen, the slightly distorting surface of the poem. The tarmac road, the images of the soldiers all get taken up and harmonized with the water imagery with the trees in an encompassing act of poetic closure. The flowing and receding of the soldiers might also be an echo of the Iliad which Heaney translated at one point in his career— “they flocked back from their huts and ships to the Assembly, noisily, like a wave of the roaring sea” (translation by A.S. Kline). This undercurrent of war pervades the entire poem even though the poet in the end, like the reader, stays a mute spectator to the only-too-real phanstasmata of war.

past armor-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

Last edited by arkava, Feb/1/2014, 10:55 am
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