Plying the Trade
District and Circle
By Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A Hagging Match
Back in the cellar smithy, far back and far down where all the ladders of the language start, where a flickering forge-light gutters and the one lame god goes hammer and tongs at the making, you hear the sledge zing against the anvil, as if it drove tent stakes through the underearth, and imagine you have come upon the word-hoard of old legend, the tongue's native trove. You recognize it by the feel of the place, the clean matter-of-factness of hosed-down chamfered concrete , the familiarity of its night after nightness , its daytime dark lit up by the fire-fanged maw of the fire-box . Images in silhouette against the cinderblock swell and shudder and shift in Protean forms, held captive less by the walls than by the cadence of blow upon echoed blow, each one so eye-shuttingly right, so unanswerably landed , it anticipates whatever moves the shadows make. Sound begins to signify, to take the shape of the iron it pounds, which by its yielding tapers to an edge, then a blade, then a point.
Out of sound comes this single image-flicker: "Axe-thumps outside." The sound is pure in that it is placeless: one imagines a house for the noise to exist outside of, and perhaps a listener sitting inside it, but by the next line we set him adrift on the sea -- the night sea, in fact, black and formless, an unknown lacking all signposts and punctuation. Only the continuing rhythms--of whetted blade through wood, of blind keel through water--give hope that there is some bedrock one is cutting toward: a solid stump of a chopping block, an expectant you on the far shore. We find that there is, that the water slaps in time with the heart's own pulse: "you / whom I cleave to, hew to" -- and suddenly, as if to challenge the very idea of separation, Love itself takes up the axe like a pen. Cleave to . Hew to . Words that are their own opposites, that knit up the breach they open, the way waves behind a boat's wake heal.
But if Seamus Heaney were only in the business of marrying opposites, of welding the abstract to the physical, of casting iron-hard, consonant-thick syllables that are themselves palpable, the mouth would resent the weight. In the new poems of District and Circle , sound is more than signifier, more than music, even; it is the agent of continual surprise, able to remake itself upon the instant, a talent we tend to grant only to the animate: the caterpillar's license to mothdom, a snake to his new skin, an actor to his role. Yet a syllable is metamorphic in the narrow cocoon between the open air and the conscious brain: for good reason are the bones of the inner ear named the anvil and the hammer . Heaney himself motions toward this phenomenon in his essay "The Redress of Poetry" (1989), where he speaks of language's "breakaway of innate capacity," and a poem, in light of this, as "a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential." In "A Hagging Match," the title itself sparks the breakaway. Match , outstripping its initial senses of rival , companion , pair , and challenge , also connotes fire in its atomic state, a shiver of flame beneath the paper of the poem beneath the kindling for the stove beneath the hush of a falling axe; it is the fragment of heat inside a fragment of wood, the seed of a home's warmth, of bread baked and broken together, and of poets' metaphors from time immemorial for the lover's heart. These related images apply to the poem, ignited by what initially seems the least relevant of the word's applications. Heaney constructs his poems to flare up this way, but the construction is invisible under the firework of associations that result.
If two or more meanings of a word are at play at one time, we tend to call it a pun. For purposes of public entertainment, self-humiliation, or poetry, puns and their authors are objects of some derision. W.H. Auden is author of their harshest condemnation (though he himself was an active practitioner): one stanza of his "Doomsday Song" ends, "And a jackass language shocks / Poets who can only pun." Wordplay can be used to much more serious effect, however, if one brings the whole historical freight of one's diction to bear on the subject at hand; the effect is a loose constellation of meanings that work upon one another without being connected by syntactic lines. In Hamlet's phrase, "shuffle off this mortal coil," shuffle off means sweep aside ; its sense of walk clumsily is not really active--that is, the intransitive walk clumsily does not fit grammatically as a substitute for shuffle . Yet the aural imagination nonetheless toys with this other sense of the verb, and is rewarded three lines later when "the whips and scorns of time" recall the movements of an old man under a heavy load. The ear, too, picks up some tiny trace of the word shovel , shuffle 's etymological cousin: in the context of a man mulling thoughts of suicide, the word's history, even as an unconscious, far-off echo, asserts itself. When a word's stars come into alignment like this, we say "it sounds right." So hag , in the above poem, carries with it a slew of inactive, yet felt significances: in addition to being both the cleaver, the cloven, and the cleft, it means a physical rift, as that between indoors and out, the I and the you; or an oasis in bogland, which, considering Heaney's preoccupation with bogs and all that are in them, seems an apt metaphor for the poem's domestic scene; to fatigue, to be fatigued, to egg on: all three are verbs that figure in a marriage, and in a match between the married. How they figure is not grammatical, but musical; they are a harmony we hear without listening to it.
Heaney sounds right more often than any other living poet, a product of instinct, not of poring over dictionary entries in search of arcane and archaic interlacings of Indo-European roots. He did not need to know that hag and hew were related to mention them in the same breath; nor quid and cud to call a mouthful of tobacco his ginger calf's lick (in "A Chow"). His ear told him. It is an argument for the idea of a collective, shared subconscious that Heaney's readers also recognize the sound; from the start of his career, reviewers have noted that "the visceral impact of his speech is his signature" ( Publisher's Weekly ). He seems instinctively to give words the room and the situation they need to manifest the full range, depth, and history of their meanings, "a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential."
This generosity is not merely linguistic. It appears in his relations with people, too, and it is this that makes him, as a man, someone worth listening to. Just as he hears in the word match both the bond of love and a challenge to it, he registers a person's manner and its obverse in a single breath. In the poem "Senior Infants," he meets an old friend with whom he had suffered a flogging in elementary school, and the man approaches "with his stick in the air and two wide open arms," as if time had added something of the schoolmistress to his character. The protagonists of District and Circle are rich with ambiguous phrases and gestures that are plumbed time and again but always refuse to give up a single answer. In one poem, a narrowing of eyes during a friendly conversation signals both wariness and closer inspection. Elsewhere, armed guards nod on passing the poet's father "as if deliberately they'd aimed and missed him / Or couldn't seem to place him, not just then." The blackbird of the collection's concluding poem, "The Blackbird of Glanmore," with whom the speaker identifies completely "for a second," nonetheless keeps his distance--"your ready talkback, / Your each stand-offish comeback"--and in that distance is a constancy that Heaney aspires to: "On the grass when I arrive // In the ivy when I leave." So most of all, the poet scrutinizes his own tentative approaches, little feintings and retreats, as in this encounter with a tin-whistler in a subway stop, from the first in a series of five sonnets he titles "District and Circle":
As the music larked and capered
It is a tribute to the ease with which Heaney lives in poetic forms that he finds a way to conclude the tidy couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet without being conclusive.
More importantly, it is a tribute to the way Heaney lives that he feels no compulsion to pick a side, whether between schools of thought about his art, or in Ireland 's divisive politics, or even concerning his own character. His relation to the world is much like his relation with his mother as it appears in an elegy for her from his book The Haw Lantern , where he describes them folding sheets in tandem:
Just touch and go,
The drawing near and drawing away, the stance of give and take, is in one sense artistic-- District and Circle includes elegies for multiple poets as well as translations from others' work. It is also personal, because his poems spring out of a past--past literature as well as his own past life--that he continually approaches and pulls back from, never content to settle in one place or another. And there is a give and take with language, too, that seems in his poems never codified, but forever expanding, almost infinitely suggestive. The blaze in the word-forge is hot as ever and the stuff of his trade hanging around is are fire-sharp, old tools that have purchase and spring and [are] fit for the strain , sweat-smoothed handles socketed in dead true and dead straight , all that tackle of the mighty, simple dead . It amazes that they have not hardened, but are being newly shaped, tinkered with, scrapped, reformed. What blacksmith tempers his instruments in moving water? This one is still looking for fresh currents, like the Irish river Moyulla (her name itself a corruption), of whom he says, "She was in the swim / of herself":
Henry Walters even owns a magnifying glass.