Monday, October 29, 2007

Heaney’s “Mossbawn” and the Absences of Love

As a refugee within his own country, Seamus Heaney’s poetry is often concerned with his place among his own people. It is particularly concerned with the domestic, and, in exploring the placement of others in the domestic, he is placing himself in an analogous relationship to those about whom he is writing. In particular, “Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication” is a conscious nod to this act. “Mossbawn” particularly focuses on the idea of absences, which Heaney uses to achieve his own placement.

It is important to note from the beginning, these are two separate poems that are gathered together under the act of dedication. This helps rectify the disjunction between the two sections, the somewhat jarring lack of continuity. It also allows the poem to be analyzed as a single writing act—two separate poems, but one act of writing. For the brief purposes of this paper, I use the word act to connect the two separate poems. Even if they were written separately, with separate inspirations, methods, etc., Heaney’s grouping asks us to read them together, as if they were one poem. To borrow Trinitarian language, “Mossbawn” is two poems in person, but one in essence.

Subtitled “Two Poems in Dedication,” it is also dedicated to Heaney’s wife, Mary. This double dedication is the first indication of its self-awareness as a poetic act. It would not be unexpected for the reader to presume that the “she” in the first section is Mary both because of this dedication, and because of the poem’s imagistic intimacy. There is first in the poem a “sunlit absence” (1), but this absence is filled with leftovers of human action, “the helmeted pump in they yard” where “water honeyed / in the slung bucket” (2-5). Somebody—the “her” that first appears in line 10, presumably—has set the bucket under the faucet after using it. Some of the water originally poured for use remains. These leftovers signify both the work that has been done, and the absence of the worker. The sun which lights the absence also stands as a signifier of passing time. It hangs in the sky like a hung skillet cools against the wall after use (6-8). In line 9, Heaney makes a startling metaphor out of the wall the skillet is hung on. He calls it the “long afternoon.” As the skillet is the sun, the wall is the sky it moves across while it cools after the height of noonday heat. The noonday heat is the use of the skillet during daily work. Heaney’s larger metaphor connects the passage time in the workday with the work that is done during the day. It is a sparse, but tightly wound metaphor.

Heaney then moves indoors to the only person in the poem, whose absence has been pondered in the first part—a household matron at work about the house. After things have cooled some, she spends time baking, the oven rekindling the heat of the day as the scones rise. Again there is the image of passing time: “the ticking of two clocks” and rising scones (23-24). Again, the image is related to the work accomplished during the day. The tasks are the passing of time itself. Heaney invokes absence once more: “here is a space / again” (22-23). This time, however, it is the absence of action. It is waiting, a rest and Sabbath, similar to the rest of the skillet on the wall or the sun in the sky after a period of intense heat, intense work. While she waits, there is the evidence of work on her: whitened nails from the flour and “measling shins” from the heat of the stove (21). The intertwining here, between worker and work, evidence of each other left on both (c.f., the bucket left under the faucet with unused water in it) is similar to the intertwining of time and daily work. Both metaphors are connected in the various absences of the poem. It is in these absences that love lies. This is clinched by the last stanza, an image of a used tool:

And here is love

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin. (25-28)

Part 2 of Heaney’s poem, “The Seed Cutters” is placed next to “Sunlight” to both continue the theme of absences, but also to place himself in the larger context of poetry. There is a self-conscious nod to Heaney’s own place as an artist in ‘painting’ this portrait. He says “Brueghel, / You’ll know them if I can get them true” (29-30). Brueghel is famous, of course, for his portraits of peasants and folk culture, something for which Heaney is also known. Brueghel is the perfect person to stand in for Heaney’s own art in this poem: the artist who stands by and steadfastly captures the actions of those around him, particularly those close to him. We know from Heaney’s other poetry that he often reserves the sonnet form for those with whom he is especially close (c.f., “Glanmore Sonnets”). The seed cutters of this poem are not named, in the same way Heaney does not name himself, though he does write in the first person, placing his work among the seed cutters. There is an echo here of Heaney’s poem “Digging,” where he explicitly compares the spade with which his father digs to his own pen. This comparison stresses both the mimetic and creative aspects of art. He is both imitating his father and doing the work of creation. Similarly in part 2 Heaney’s work is mirrored in the work of the seed cutters.

The anonymity of both workers and writer is itself explicitly mentioned in the final lines: “Under the broom / Yellowing over them, compose the frieze / With all of us there, our anonymities” (40-42). In this final line, Heaney places himself in the picture literally, describing the way in which the scene itself frames them, creates their picture. In many ways, Heaney is only a mimetic conduit for this framing. Yet he also actively paints himself into the portrait, both through his mention of Brueghel and in the way his own poetry is mirrored by the work of the seed cutters.

This anonymity is also a type of absence in the poem. Art is necessarily full of absences. Its mimetic nature creates a hollow shell, which, as Socrates points out, lacks the self, or reality of the original object (or scene, in this case). Yet from “Sunlight,” we see that it is in the absences—the leftovers of human activity, the Sabbath rest after the act of creation—that love lies. There is love, then, in the art of Heaney, through his absence of creation, similar to the way the love of the woman in “Sunlight” is demonstrated in her absences.

More importantly, it is in these gaps that Heaney places himself and his art. As I said, art is necessarily mimetic, a gap unto itself, but there is also the creative energy that seems to find its own restless place only in this gap. Heaney’s act of creation is itself love, a work of tribute. This love is the source of Heaney’s creative energy. Such energy is present in the act itself—the work of the poem, so to speak—but it is more present in the poem’s silence on the page, like the subject of “Sunlight.” One could ask if a poem exists on the page, and there is no one there to read it, is it still a poem? Or is it simply a collection of words? Heaney’s poetry makes the case that there is love in the absences, and it is in these absences where he finds himself. If a poem ceased to be a poem when there was nobody to read it, then Heaney, and the love in his poems, would cease to be also. It is in the silence of Heaney’s poetry that it speaks. It is in the waiting of the book on the shelf that his poetry exists, long after the heat of creativity has cooled, and only the leftovers of human action remain.


Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication

for Mary Heaney

1. Sunlight

There was a sunlit absence. 1

The helmeted pump in the yard

heated its iron,

water honeyed

in the slung bucket 5

and the sun stood

like a griddle cooling

against the wall

of each long afternoon.

So, her hands scuffled 10

over the bakeboard,

the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat

against her where she stood

in a floury apron 15

by the window.

Now she dusts the board

with a goose’s wing,

now sits, broad-lapped,

with whitened nails 20

and measling shins:

here is a space

again, the scone rising

to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love 25

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin.

2. The Seed Cutters

They seem hundreds of years away. Brueghel,

You’ll know them if I can get them true. 30

They kneel under the hedge in a half-circle

Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.

They are the seed cutters. The tuck and frill

Of leaf-sprout is on the seed potatoes

Buried under that straw. With time to kill, 35

They take their time. Each sharp knife goes

Lazily halving each root that falls apart

In the palm of the hand: a milky gleam,

And, at the centre, a dark watermark.

Oh, calendar customs! Under the broom 40

Yellowing over them, compose the frieze

With all of us there, our anonymities.


james said...

Insightful essay, many thanks.
It's always nice to read comment by someone who takes so much heed of context :)

Ailbhe said...

I believe you've made a factual error - aren't the poems dedicated to Heaney's mother, not his wife?

Anonymous said...

Mary Heaney was Heaney's aunt. His wife is Marie.


Maria Helena said...

Your essay is pretty good, congratulations.

Maria Helena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Naeem Nedaee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.