My favourite Novel of all Time… Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

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READING IN THE DARK *

BY SEAMUS DEANE
*Page references are from the Vintage, 1997 edition

This has to be one of my favourite novels of all time – definitely the best book never to win The Booker!  There you go – I’ve put my cards on the table for all to see.  This incredibly well-crafted novel is set in Derry over a 16-year period from 1945 to 1961, the book presents a child’s view of the tensions in the city during that time.  Throughout the book we are reminded of the conflict that surrounds the narrator.

An example of the narrator’s direct involvement is shown in the story of the St. Patrick’s Day riot where the police baton-charged a march and were enticed down a long street where half a barrel of oil was poured onto the street as they approached.  Two police cars skidded sharply under a hail of stones and one burst into flames.  Here the writer emphasises the hazards and dangers of the time and shows the children’s thrill at getting the better of the police.

The reader learns to piece the story together of a tense historical period, where secrets about past deeds are buried and rarely, if ever, revealed even to those who are closest to those who participated in them.  Few direct references are made to the actual events of the time, with the exception of the 12th of July celebrations, commemorating the triumph of the Protestant armies at the Battle of the Boyne; the Apprentice Boys march on the 12th of August, celebrating the liberation of the city of Derry from a besieging Catholic army in 1689; and the 18th of December, the burning of Lundy’s effigy.  These are briefly mentioned and used as landmarks to guide the structure of the book.  Deane also refers to the church festivities on the 15th of August which were turned into a political event as time went on.  With knowledge of these events, many aspects of the boy’s story are more meaningful to the reader who can then understand the significance of many apparently general comments.

The unnamed narrator is a young boy, who describes the years of his growing up in Derry in the 1940s and ‘50s.  He is the third oldest of seven children in a working-class Catholic family.  The story traces the family’s complicated history which reveals many secrets surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Eddie, his father’s brother. Eddie had been accused of being a police informer and had been unable to prove his innocence.  He was executed by the IRA in a remote farmhouse under the orders of the narrator’s maternal grandfather.  However, it emerged later that the real informer had been McIlhenny, his aunt Kate’s husband, and therefore Eddie had been killed in error.

The boy’s mother knew this, and when she found out she warned McIlhenny in time for him to escape to America.  She did this because she had had a relationship with him in the past before he married her sister.  Her husband did not know this.  He was unaware that his brother had not been an informer and dies at the end of the novel, grieving for the trouble he thought his brother had brought upon the family.

The boy’s mother has had to endure her husband’s suffering, unable to tell him the awful truth.  When she learns that it was her own father who organised Eddie’s execution, she cannot cope with what she knows.  She becomes emotionally crippled with guilt and helplessness and begins to disintegrate emotionally and psychologically.  Now only the boy knows the full story and like his mother he is bound to silence.  He uncovers the truth bit by bit but it is a large burden of knowledge for a young boy to carry.

 THEMES AND ISSUES

The Theme of Secrecy:  A well-known saying in the North of Ireland is, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.  This saying reflects the troubled times in the North.  Seamus Heaney used the phrase as the title and the theme of one of his most impressive poems on the Northern Troubles which raged from 1969 until 1998.

There is a natural reserve built in to any discussion about politics or about happenings where there may be conflict.  This is very much the case in many novels written about the Northern situation, and Deane’s novel is no exception.  There is very little direct discussion about what has happened to Eddie.   Much of the information comes to the boy in a vague, roundabout way and it takes the boy’s perceptive abilities to link the threads together.

Secrets abound in the novel, and as the human mind is naturally curious, the boy is determined to find out what is obviously being hidden from him.  The boy knows that his grandfather is a possible source of information, especially now that his health is deteriorating and he appears close to death.  The boy is often sent in to sit with his grandfather and eventually, he tells him that Eddie was executed as an informer, but that there was more to it,  ‘He shut his eyes and he told me, he told me.  He, Grandfather, had ordered the execution.  But he was wrong.  Eddie had been set up.  He had not been an informer at all’ (p. 126).

Meanwhile, unaware that the boy already knows something, it takes quite some time before the boy’s father can bring himself to tell his sons the truth, as he understands it, about his own brother.  In a quiet country church, he finally managed to do it.  ‘Eddie was never killed in that shoot-out,’ he said suddenly and looked away from us immediately … ‘No, he wasn’t killed in the distillery.  He was an informer.  His own people killed him.’  Now he had said it all, and a great shame and sorrow was weighing his head down towards the front of the pew’ (p. 133).

To be an informer was one of the worst possible crimes that any person could commit – to inform on your own people for a few pounds was unforgivable.   Families who had informers in their ranks could never be trusted and life could be and was often made a misery for anyone related to an informer.

‘He was talking all the time, forcing it out of himself, and Liam’s face was white as a star beside him.  Informer.  Betrayed his companions.  Why he did it could not be known.  His brother.  Thank God his parents were not alive to see it.  It was so stale a secret, like a gust of bad breath, and the way the three of us were crouched together in the middle pew of the church, like conspirators, with the sun beginning to warble again, it was like a false relief, as though the church were a machine that had stopped throbbing to let the world come in again around its becalmed silence’  (p. 134).

The boy’s mother is also very protective of the awful secrets that she has to carry and she is determined not to reveal them to any other person.  Again, secrecy is vital, as the revelation of what she has done would do irreparable damage to her husband and to her sister.  The boy can see this worry in her because he shares some, but not all of what she knows.

‘We were pierced together by the same shaft.  But she didn’t know that.  Nor was I going to say anything unless she did.  And even then, when it had all been told, I had the sense of something being held back, something more than she knew, something Grandfather had cut out’ (p. 127).

It is this desperate clinging onto awful secrets which fuels the whole novel.  As the plot unfolds, the enormity of the secrets is impressed upon the reader.  The action of the novel escalates and this keeps the reader turning the pages to find out if a secret will be told.  Feelings, which accompany secrecy, intensify as the story goes on.  Fear, intense shame, guilt and helplessness are all present.

The Theme of Family Relationships:  One of the main themes of this book is the topic of family relationships, which are under strain partly due to the times they live in.  The boy’s relationship with each parent changes as the story unfolds.  He rarely asks questions yet he is given information from various sources.  By piecing the fragments together he realises that neither parent knows exactly what happened, yet he is prevented from interfering and informing them by an awareness of the pain that this would cause them.

Each piece of the jigsaw puzzle he finds causes further alterations in the boy’s relationship with both parents.  Sometimes one parent will tell him a little, giving him the impression that they trust him.  At other times, he learns something from outside the family, which draws him away and makes him more reserved with them.  It is only when his grandfather tells him on his deathbed that he had ordered Eddie’s execution and that Eddie had been set up, that things begin to change radically for the boy, ‘I left him and went straight home, where I could never talk to my father or my mother properly again’ (p. 126).

The boy knows that his mother is struggling to live with the knowledge that her husband is unaware that his innocent brother was murdered under her father’s instructions as punishment for a crime that he had not committed.  She has also had a relationship with McIlhenny, her sister’s husband, and her husband is unaware of this too.  McIlhenny was, in fact, the informer who had framed Eddie, her husband’s brother, and she was the one who had alerted him before he escaped to Chicago.  As a result of her actions she is tortured by a mixture of guilt and grief.

It does not help when she realises that her son knows the truth.  This heightens the strain between mother and son.  Instead of sharing the burden, they become isolated from and wary of each other.  The father cannot understand why their relationship has suddenly deteriorated.  Near the end of the book, the boy’s mother finds the strain of keeping this secret too much for her, and she begins to disintegrate emotionally.  Even though he did his best to reassure her that he would never say anything, she wished he were not there,  ‘Why don’t you go away?’ she asked me.  ‘Then maybe I could look after your father properly for once, without your eyes on me’ (p. 224).

Father and son do not have a particularly close relationship: there are many unspoken barriers between them.  His father is bitterly ashamed of having an informer in the family and rarely speaks about his brother Eddie.  A few brief glimpses into the past show that as children, the boy’s father and Eddie had been close friends, which made the blow even harder when Eddie was accused of betraying the family.  At one point, he is unable to prevent himself from hitting his son when he speaks disrespectfully of Eddie.  He was angry with his son for antagonising the police and challenging him.

‘Was there something amiss with me?  No, I told him, there’s something amiss with the family.  The police were on top of us long before I was born.  If he wanted to blame someone, let him blame Eddie, not me.  He hit me so fast, I saw nothing.  My shoulder felt hot and broken.  I got up, hating him, although I could feel the tears coming as the pain increased through the numbness’ (p. 102).

Another piece of the family history which adds further strain to family relationships, is the fact that his mother’s father killed a policeman in his youth in retaliation for a close friend’s death.  Unshakable alibis enabled him to escape the punishment.  This is something that the family must live with and they are constantly reminded of it in subtle and not so subtle ways whenever they come into contact with the police.  One incident is the repeated persecution of the boy’s mother by Sergeant Burke when the children are at school.  As a family living with the guilt of murders committed or organised by other members, they have difficulty maintaining steady or open relationships due to the burden of secrecy imposed on them.  Like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who had blood on their hands and troubled consciences, this family, even though the main members concerned did not actually commit the crime, are tainted by it and must live with the consequences.

Deane depicts the family in a very credible manner.  The absence of significant conversation and the conveying of information through a child’s thoughts and reflections show all too clearly how the family structure is being worn down.  Yet, at the same time, the family shows a resilience and a determination to keep going despite all that has happened and is happening, perhaps because of some inner strength, never acknowledged.

The Theme of Growing Up:  This novel is narrated in the form of an autobiography and it shows a progressive change in the boy’s outlook on life from the time he discovers what has happened to his family in the past.

Here the main character’s development is rather a painful one as the boy begins to realise the extent of the tragic happenings in his family and he has to try and accept that they are irredeemable.  His uncle cannot be resurrected and his grandfather has always had two murders on his conscience.  His mother has been betrayed in love and his father believes he has been betrayed by his own brother.

All of the above have a significant impact on the boy.  As an observer from the outside, the boy watches his parents and because he cannot do anything to heal their wounds he simply retreats into himself.  ‘But knowing what I did separated me from them both.’  For much of the time he is alone, alienated by what he knows and unable to confide in anyone, least of all in a family member.  Isolation from those around him is a noticeable part of his growing up (as it is in our other texts).  At no point does he relate an in-depth conversation with any member of his family about his family.  He is very much on his own with his thoughts and with his efforts to link up the things he knows by using his own initiative.

He is an avid reader and often reads late into the night, finding solace in books,

‘I’d switch off the light, get back in bed, and lie there, the book still open, re-imagining all that I had read, the various ways the plot might unravel, the novel opening into endless possibilities in the dark’ (p. 20).

Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free.  As a child he had the ability to think things out in detail.  This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired.

As he grows up, he becomes more and more distant from his parents because this is the only way with which he could cope with what he knows,

‘I went away to university in Belfast, glad to have so mishandled everything that I had created a distance between my parents and myself that had become my only way of loving them’ (p. 22).

In a sense, this attempt was successful as ten years on, much of what had once been clear in his mind had become more vague.  The years passed and the memories began to become so confused and muddled, that he wondered at times if he had dreamt it all.

The novel ends in 1971 with the musings of a young adult who is home again for his father’s funeral.  It is a desperately sad ending as the family’s grief is for more than just the loss of a member; the father dies still unaware of the dreadful truth.  The chief mourners, his wife and son, have a lot to lament.  It is left to the reader to surmise how the young man is now feeling; relief that his father dies without knowing that his brother had died in error, anger that he could never be told, or guilt that he knew all along?  Or is it just an intense, heartbreaking sadness?  Deane deliberately ends the story with a sparse use of language. What is left unsaid speaks volumes, we are left as Seamus Heaney says in “Harvest Bow”, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.   Isn’t this always the case?

LITERARY GENRE

Type: Social Realism/Autobiography/Memoir:  In Reading in the Dark, fiction and fact, myth and history combine to create a hybrid between two modes of writing, autobiography and fiction.  If the reader did not know it was a novel, he or she might be forgiven for assuming that it was purely autobiographical.  For the narrator, there are two worlds: the city of Derry and its haunting secrets of the past and the wealth of legends that haunt his childhood.  Both worlds, real and unreal, are cleverly intertwined in the novel, which gives strength to the impact of the book.

In some respects, it also takes the form of a detective novel, if the suspense of finding out the truth about the real murderer and the real informer are taken into consideration.  However, it would be insulting to the author to dismiss it as such, because it contains far more than that.  Much of what happens to the family is a glimpse into the fabric of life in Northern Ireland at the time, and it is based on real happenings.  It is therefore socially realistic.  It is also a novel with a tragic ending, yet it does not completely fit the general definition of tragedy.

Essentially then, Reading in the Dark combines two genres, a socially realistic novel and tragic fiction, with a hint of a detective novel and political thriller thrown in for good measure!

The Structure of the Novel:  The book is written as a first person narrative.  A complex situation is presented from a young boy’s point of view and he comments on each happening ass it occurs.  The plot is clearly drawn and extremely well ordered.  It is written chronologically and meticulously dated.  This is important as part of the plot hangs on the accuracy of dates when the boy is trying to figure out who knows what and when.  This also emphasises the clarity of the boy’s memories.  Each chapter is sub-divided into different sections, which are short and condensed, and each section has its own significant link with the overall plot of the novel.

While the novel takes us through a 16-year period from 1945 to 1961, it does refer back to a period twenty years earlier to when Eddie disappeared in 1922 after the attack on the distillery, to 1926 when McIlhenny left for Chicago, to when his parents first met in 1930 and to when they got married in 1935.  This period is mentioned a number of times to remind the reader that this was a turbulent time, both for the family and for the province.  With this technique, Deane controls the plot so that the reader’s curiosity is aroused in the first few pages and maintained throughout.  Answers are given bit by bit, moving from the present to the past and back again.  The plot twists and turns as the true story gradually emerges.  The reader is challenged to work out what is happening each time that the boy gathers a new piece of information.

Old stories and fables are included at strategic points, which adds to the fictional aspect of the novel.  The child finds it hard to know what to believe as the legends of the past spill over into reality.  It becomes difficult to distinguish between truths and untruths as many of the family secrets are hazy and vague and take on the ghostly qualities of legends.  The chapter, Field of the Disappeared, illustrates this perfectly.  The boy is unsure whether the old tale is true or not, but it is here that Eddie is linked up with a ghostly legend.

Ghosts haunt the story from the very first page.  The boy’s mother is transfixed in the stairway watching a ghost she believes to be inhabiting the family’s house.  Her conscience torments her and memories of her past come back to haunt her.  Ghostly spirits are woven through the stories which the boy hears from adults and the ghostly memories of dead family members echo through the pages.  Yet for the narrator at the end of the novel, things are not as vague as they seem,

‘Hauntings are, in their way, very specific.  Everything has to be exact, even the vaguenesses.  My family’s history was like that too.  It came to me in bits, from people who rarely recognised all they had told’ (p. 225).

In the chapter,  All of It? (p. 182) everything finally comes to light (see p. 187), and the boy assembles all that he knows.  The enormity of what he has to carry becomes evident to the reader.  This chapter is appropriately placed close to the end of the novel, which unifies its structure.

The Style of the Novel:  Deane uses a beautifully poetic style of writing to create a tightly written story.  His writing is primarily clear and direct.  The opening lines of the novel illustrate this:

‘On the stairs there was a clear plain silence.  It was a short staircase, fourteen steps in all, covered in lino from which the original pattern had been polished away to the point where it had the look of a faint memory’ (p. 5).

The writing can be very factual and distant at the most emotional times, for example in the Pistol chapter when he is severely beaten.  ‘So they beat us too, Liam and me, across the table from him.  I remember the sweat and rage on his face as he looked’ (p. 28).  The description of the beating is related in a very matter of fact way.  In Roses the boy rips up the back garden coldly, methodically, almost in a trance or in a frenzy.  The incident is again presented in a factual way with emotions well disguised or hidden.  Yet this is what makes it all the more effective,

‘But as the nausea and dread died in me and I saw the broken roses hanging down in the choking dust, I gave up and stood there in a trance, hearing the front door open and my mother’s voice and the children babbling and running’ (p. 105).

Often a memorable image will follow on from what is presented in a factual manner,

‘Walking on that concreted patch where the bushes had been was like walking on hot ground below which voices and roses were burning, burning’ (p. 108).

Deane also generates suspense extremely well at intervals.  There is a great sense of excitement here:

‘The police and B Specials raced down after us, under a hail of stones thrown at the cars and the jeeps they rode in or ran alongside.  Advertising hoardings at the side of the street took the first volley of our missiles as the two leading cars hit the oil.  A giant paper Coca-Cola bottle was punctured, along with the raised chin of a clean-shaven Gilette model.  The cars swung and hurtled into the side walls, shredding stones from them like flakes of straw.  The oil glittered in the sudsy swathe of the tyres, and one car lit up in a blue circle of flames as the police ran from it.  The whole street seemed to be bent sideways, tilted by the blazing hoardings into the old Gaelic football ground’ (p. 36).

This notion of the street bending sideways extends the chaotic picture even further.

Some striking images are used to convey conflict to the reader:

‘It was a city of bonfires …………….. The night sky reddened around the rising furls of black tyre-smoke that exploded every so often in high soprano bursts of paraffined flame.  The acrid odour would gradually give way to the more fragrant aroma of soft-burning trees that drifted across the little houses in their serried slopes, gravelled streets falling down from the asphalted Lone Moor Road that for us marked the limit between the city proper and the beginning of the countryside that spread out into Donegal four miles away’ (p. 33).

This is a beautiful piece of sensual writing: the sounds, sights and smells reach across to the reader.

Another memorable image in which Derry is brought vividly to life in this way is, ‘the shadows on the gable wall shrivelled as the fires burnt low to their red intestines’ (p.  34) and another example, ‘The dismembered streets lay strewn all around the ruined distillery where Uncle Eddie had fought, aching with a long, dolorous absence’ (p. 34).

There are many haunting descriptions in the book.  Katie’s story especially is an excellent example of this:

‘The greenish light came into  the room in mid-air and spread all over it, and with that came this whispering of voices, a man’s and a woman’s, whispering, whispering, furious, almost as if they were spitting in anger, except that the voices were dry, whipped up like swirlings of dust in a wind’ (p. 69).

In many ways, it is this haunting quality of the book which remains in the reader’s mind long after the book has been put down.  (Warning: Katie’s Story should not be read late at night!  Be warned!).

Deane also has an accurate way of describing people.  Crazy Joe, the local crackpot, ‘had a sculpted, clean appearance.  His medallion face fronted his large head like a mask, and the head itself, perched on his tiny body, swung and vibrated all the time like an insect’s’ (p. 81).

There is little use of direct speech in the novel, and when it is used, it is as a vehicle for important parts of the story, for example when the boy’s father tells him what he believes really happened to Eddie.  It is well used when Katie is telling the children a story and commenting on it, as this makes it more immediate.  Deane is particularly economical in his use of dialogue, which serves to emphasise Northern reticence about sensitive issues – Remember, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.

CULTURAL CONTEXT

This novel is essentially a child’s account of growing up in a world of conflict.  In Derry during ‘the Troubles’, your religion, your family history in ‘The Troubles’ and your own behaviour all ‘labelled’ you.  Religion is rarely mentioned directly but this does not mean that it was unimportant.  We know that it was a huge cultural factor at the time.  Often what is left unsaid is more powerful than what is said, as much may be implied.  In the chapter Fire it is pointed out that Protestants had more excuses to celebrate than Catholics – this is only one of a few direct reference to Protestants in the book.  Priests make a brief appearance, for example Fr. O’Neill, when he marched the boy down to the local police station to ‘apologise’ for throwing a stone at a police car.  There are other references to priests, such as Fr. Nugent, the Spiritual Director who knows all about the facts of life, Fr. Gildea, the Maths teacher and Fr. Moran who comes to hear his grandfather’s confession before he dies.

Family history, however, was a significant factor in the way in which people were treated in the community.  People were judged by their connections.  This family had a cousin in gaol because of connections in the IRA, an uncle who was ‘known’ to be an informer and a grandfather who managed to escape punishment for murdering a policeman.  Therefore they were a ‘marked’ family and the boy was often treated more harshly because of this ‘history’.  There were a number of incidents involving Sergeant Burke.

One clear incident was where the boy was foolish enough to throw a stone at a police car to escape being beaten by bullies.  As a result he was taken by the police and for punishment, deliberately classed as an informer, to embarrass him by public humiliation.  This was particularly difficult for him, because his father’s brother was widely believed to have been an informer, making it even harder for him to disprove the rumour.  It was a clever ruse by the police who knew what would hurt most – to disgrace the family by bringing up the sins of the past.  Sergeant Burke had a strong reason for his intense dislike and ruthless persecution of the family.  The policeman, Billy Mahon, who had been killed by the boy’s maternal grandfather, was his colleague and close friend.

The small, closely-knit community also magnified the errors people made.  The boy’s mother once told him something worth thinking about: ‘People in small places make big mistakes.  Not bigger than the mistakes of other people.  But that there is less room for big mistakes in small places.  She smiled ironically’ (p. 211).  Here she may have been referring to mistakes in love, but the saying applies to the disappearance of Eddie and McIlhenny, as well.

A strong feature of the culture of the time is people’s belief in old tales and stories.  One story is told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead.  The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away.  The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window.  The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the boy is entranced by it.

Another story was about an enchanted field, known as ‘The Field of the Disappeared’.  Here the souls of all those from the area who had drowned or disappeared came together three or four times a year on certain holy days to cry like birds and look down on the fields where they had been born.  Any human who entered the field would suffer the same fate.  Birds did not fly over the field.  The boy’s father told his sons this story as they looked across the field.  This reminded the boy of his uncle Eddie whom he knew was on his father’s mind – perhaps his lost soul may come here too?

Katie’s story was told to him by his aunt, his mother’s sister.  A young woman was looking after two orphans, a boy and a girl, who both became possessed by some spirit and were never seen again.  The woman reported this, but she was not believed by the local priest who suspected that she was going mad and seeing things until he saw it himself.  Stories such as these show the resilient beliefs in the supernatural that were in the community, and they come up frequently in Deane’s book.

GENERAL VISION/VIEWPOINT

Overall, this book is a product of Derry’s troubled times and it is not unique.  It is not a completely hopeless view of life at the time, but the book has a tragic and traumatic outcome and there is little present to alleviate it.  In the last section of the book his father dies, and his mother remains haunted by what she has done.  A young English soldier was shot dead outside their door by a sniper during a street search, bringing the conflict literally onto their doorstep.  Ironically, the barricades are beginning to come down as his father’s funeral is about to go ahead.  Sadly the family barricades never did come down, and this makes it even more tragic when the actual political barricades are lifted.

Deane parallels the personal story with the political developments that are taking place in the community. The secrets and mistaken beliefs that divide a family are symbolic of the secrets and divisions that divide a whole people.  The author is not a detached observer: the gap between Seamus Deane and the narrator is so narrow as to be almost indistinguishable.  The reader is invited to sympathise with the boy in the unique position he finds himself in.  We, the readers, are expected to do our fair share of ‘reading in the dark’ also!

 

A Word About the Author Seamus Deane
Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1940, Deane was brought up as part of a Catholic nationalist family. He attended St. Columb’s College in Derry, where he befriended fellow-student Seamus Heaney, Queen’s University Belfast (BA and MA) and Pembroke College, Cambridge University (PhD). He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a founding director of the Field Day Theatre Company.
seamus deane Reading in the Dark (published in 1996) was his first novel and it  won the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize and the 1996 South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, is a New York Times Notable Book, won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Irish Literature Prize in 1997, besides being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996.   The novel has been translated into more than 20 languages.  Since the publication  of Reading in the Dark in 1996 Deane has garnered for himself the reputation of being one of Ireland’s pre-eminent academic scholars and literary critics and has also edited the very influential Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.
 

 

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Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’.

The Blackbird of Glanmore

 by Seamus Heaney

On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.

 It’s you, blackbird, I love.

I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: “I want away
To the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.”

And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer –
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,

My homesick first term over.

And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks –
I said nothing at the time

But I never liked yon bird.”

The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel

In front of my house of life.

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

This beautiful, haunting poem is the last poem in Heaney’s celebrated collection District and Circle – and for a very good reason.  The final words of the poem are ‘when I leave’ and thoughts of death and leaving are scattered throughout the poem.  This may be a poem, therefore, where Heaney confronts his own mortality and we also know that he was very ill during the writing of the poems in this collection.  He tells us elsewhere that in order to understand the North he had to leave it  and after his move South, to gain a greater perspective of his home place, Glanmore became his haven, his ‘house of life’; it became, in effect,  a place of inspiration to rival Mossbawn and Anahorish of his youth.  The poem opens as he returns home to Glanmore in his car and as he pulls up on the driveway he sees a blackbird and he recalls lines he has translated,

 I want away

                              To the house of death, to my father,

Under the low clay roof.

He also recalls another earlier poem Mid Term Break which tells of his young brother who died tragically in a road accident.   It is as if the blackbird, presiding spirit in the background, has brought him full circle, to the last word, ‘when I leave’.

Heaney uses an ingenious structure in this poem, alternating between five-line and one-line stanzas. The single lines create a feeling of a set of refrains (repetition), although they are all different. The repeated structures also create a sense of return, so that the poem keeps coming back to the passing moment in which it is set.  The first and last lines of the first stanza, “On the grass when I arrive” and “In the ivy when I leave” are also the first line and last line of the poem itself.   This clever circular composition emphasises the completeness of the moment. It also suggests the cycle of life – and of course there is also an allusion to the title of the collection District and Circle, a reference to the London Underground.   The tight, united form is echoed by the use of half-rhyme throughout the poem, which is particularly noticeable in the second last stanza: “talkback”, “comeback”,  “goldbeak”.

This is a poem about the act of witnessing.   The poet reminds us that our lives are as much about observation as action and in this poem Heaney explores the act of ‘coming home’ through the ironic presence of a blackbird, a creature sometimes associated with being a harbinger of death.

As mentioned earlier, this poem is also an echo and a remembrance of Heaney’s wonderfully poignant earlier poem Mid Term Break which specifically examined the death of the poet’s younger brother Christopher.   This meeting of texts and meeting here  with the blackbird who we are told, had ironically witnessed the earlier death, reveal how we are all mixed up in each other’s exits and entrances into life and death and we always try to make sense of our world less we slip down into the despairing melancholy of utter absence.

Heaney’s evocation of his brother’s absence through death, and yet continued presence through memory,  is a perfectly compressed elegy to tenderness and love:  A little stillness dancer’.  He is always about, haunting the edge of the poet’s consciousness, at the edge of his thoughts and observations, watching him perhaps too, perfectly preserved through time.

There are places in the poem where the sound of the words suggests an influence from Old English poetry, which used alliteration and combined nouns: “Haunter-son” and “Hedge-hop” illustrate this.   “Hedge-hop” is a perfect description of a blackbird, and its two-syllable alliteration mimics the bird’s movement.  In places Heaney uses the sound of words to create specific effects: the car lock “clunks shut”; here assonance of the ‘uh’ sound emphasises the onomatopoeia of  “clunks”.

The paradoxical (seemingly contradictory) image of the “little stillness dancer” is thought provoking, and captures the idea that the blackbird, even though it stays where it is, is filled with energy and the potential for movement.  Coining metaphors like this is one way in which Heaney creates a fresh look at nature.

The imagery of the translated lines about the “house of death” also repeat the idea of a journey between life and death, confirmed in the narrator’s memory “one gone to him [God]”. The “house of death” is then mirrored and reversed by the phrase “my house of life” towards the end of the poem. Whether it’s a metaphorical or real house, this image undoes the narrator’s sadness, and is a reminder of his good fortune at living a long life.   It seems to me that there are echoes here of Emily Dickinson’s poem,  ‘Because I could not stop for Death’

                        We paused before a House that seemed

                        A Swelling of the Ground-

                        The Roof was scarcely visible-

                        The Cornice-in the Ground-

However, despite these associations with death, the poem favours the energy and life of the blackbird. There is the bird’s “ready talkback”, which suggests cheekiness, and although there is “panic” at the sound of the car lock, it is “shortlived”.

The poem seems to be a mixture of sadness and hope or pleasure in the bird, the memories and the moment.  Blackbirds are often used in Irish poetry as mystical, mythical messengers (cf. Austin Clarke’s great poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn) and this is picked up by the introduction of the superstitious neighbour, but it is not supported by the pleasure of seeing the blackbird in the rest of the poem. In direct address to the bird at the end of the poem, the narrator tells him he is “absolute/for you”, linking back to the love described in the second stanza.  Like the blackbird, the poem is full of suppressed movement, so that although it is only a moment in time and place, it contains much more, allowing Heaney to reflect on the passing of life, and the circularity of life.

The poem contains numerous snapshot moments of the poet’s personal experiences – some remembered moments are up to  fifty years old. He refers to the reported words of a neighbour who once used ‘Yon bird’ to refer to the death (ghost) of this brother. It becomes clearer from this point that the use of the word ‘bird’ suddenly becomes redolent of death. He uses ‘a bird’s eye view of myself’ to say that he reflected on himself and  on his own impending death, ‘A shadow on raked gravel’, with ‘shadow’ being a metaphor for his death or ghost.

So already at the end of District and Circle in the final poem of that collection, The Blackbird of Glanmore, we have the poet doing what poets do best, confronting one of the great elephants in the room, his own mortality.  Like Dickinson, whom we referred to earlier, the poet seems to have had an intimation of sorts, it’s as if this day in Glanmore is the day,

                        I first surmised the Horses Heads

                        Were toward Eternity-

We are also somewhat disconcerted by the realisation that grieving and bereavement is a life-long process and his young brother Christopher’s memory is always but a wingbeat away.  Like the earlier ‘Sunlight’ poems depicting his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn this beautiful poem is deceptive at first but like all of Heaney’s work deserving of a second look!