Friday, August 26, 2011

Back to school::lessons

 "And how many hours a day did you do lessons?' said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.
Ten hours the first day,' said the Mock Turtle: 'nine the next, and so on.'
What a curious plan!' exclaimed Alice.
That's the reason they're called lessons,' the Gryphon remarked: 'because they lessen from day to day." 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Forklifted Into Light: The Heavy-duty Machinery of Poetry

Human Chain is Seamus Heaney's twelfth poetry book.
The volume was shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize and it includes  poems Seamus Heaney had previously published in literary magazines in 2009 and 2010.

I found helpful three online reviews of Human Chain: one by Nick Laird, one by Colm Tóibín (who was also a judge in the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize) and one by Kate Kellaway.
These articles provide context to the poetry volume, among which the fact that in some of the poems Seamus Heaney alludes to his experiencing a stroke.

 The opening of the poem Chanson d'Aventure talks of a ride in an ambulance:

"Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked
In position for the drive,
Bone-shaken, bumped at speed."

The first poem in the volume, "Had I not been awake" explores the boundaries of awareness in a roundabout of metaphors of wakefulness, dream, life, death, and the minute vibrations of nature:

"Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore."

Poetry being, however, the blissful no man's land it is, it allows each one of us his/her own reading of poetry beyond any helpful context; hence the notes below.

In Human Chain, a return to the twelve line poetry formula that yielded Seamus Heaney's masterpiece Squarings is apparent.
An argument that might be made is that the hyaline matter of poems crafted in this formula might be beholden to the twelve line structure itself, or to the three and four line stanza patterns that are at play in the book.

The poems in Human Chain bring forth the radiant light that is characteristic of Seamus Heaney's poetry - whose style is timeless balance and internalized emotion, in the purest of classical forms:

"It was the evening before I came to
To what I was hearing
And missing: summer's richest hours

As they had been to begin with,
Fork-lifted, sweated-through
And nearly rewarded enough

By the giddied-up race of a tractor"

(From The Baler)

Clearly, there is a heavy duty poetic machinery at work in Seamus Heaney's poems, one that (fork)lifts us into translucent spaces.

"Zoom in over our shoulders,
A tunneling shot that accelerates and flares.
Discover us against weird brightness. Cut."

(From Wraith
     for Ciaran Carson)

Part of the volume includes poems of short and glittering verses, among which Eelworks.

Classical innuendos can be retraced in Canopy, a poem that harkens back to Dante's Inferno:

"if a twig had been broken off there
It would have curled itself like a finger
Around the fingers that broke it
And then refused to let go".

and in the facilis descendus Averno overtones from Virgil's Aeneid in the poem Route 110:

"Smithfield Market Sundays. The pet shop
Fetid with droppings in the rabbit cages
melodious with canaries, green and gold

And silent now as birdless Lake Avernus."

The universe Seamus Heaney evokes is one of small towns, fields and woodlands, rendered through the eyes of an adolescent.

At the Griffin Poetry Reading in May 2011, Robin Robertson read, among others, one poem from Human Chain: A Kite for Aibhin.

Both the reading and the poem I thought memorable:

'Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and - separate, elate -

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall."

   Seamus Heaney -Photo credit: Jemimah Kuhfeld & The Griffin Poetry Prize website

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Death of Ulysses

After skimming through Book IX of the Odyssey to get a a glimpse of the 'grey sea' as Ulysses and his companions leave the island of the Cyclopes, I'd like to take a step back to Book V of the Odyssey.

Book V narrates Ulysses's voyage out on the open sea after he is set free from Calypso's island.

All Ulysses has at his disposal is a rickety raft he has created himself out of:

"...adler and poplar, tall pine trees
long dead and seasoned, that would float him high"

to ferry him over a very rough sea.

A narrative of the ordeal he undergoes ensues:

"A great wave drove at him with toppling crest
spinning him round, in one tremendous blow,
and he went plunging overboard, the oar-haft
wrenched from his grip"

"He had been flayed there, and his bones broken..
Then the backwash
hit him, ripping him under and far out."

"Swollen from head to foot he was and seawater
gushed from his mouth and nostrils"

Miraculously, Ulysses appears to survive this segment of the journey and Book V ends with with the king of Ithaca falling asleep after he made it ashore:

"In quiet sleep he sealed his cherished eyes."

At the end Book V a huge sense of disbelief reigns supreme in this reader's mind, a disbelief that the story can follow its course within the boundaries of fiction convention with Ulysses still alive.
In fact, the unfolding of the scenes in Book V appear to lead to only one possible and climactic outcome: the hero's death, symbolically rendered through:

In quiet sleep he sealed his cherished eyes.

This is perhaps the ending of Ulysses' story, cut short by drowning, well before his hypothetical return to Ithaca, the recounting of the fall of Troy and his eventful voyage. 
Yet the story does go on in Book VI, where the clock is turned back to where it all started: sailing off from Troy.

It feels as if, at this moment of narrative cesura, the fictional & poetic discourse takes on the attributes of a cult of the dead. 

The king of Ithaca, a protagonist of The Trojan War could not have died a simple and anonymous death, submerged by waves.

 He would have to be reborn to the story, all naked, at the beginning of Book VI.

The almost certainty of Ulysses being forever lost, as apparent in Books I and II of the Odyssey, is awkwardly negated by the fabricated and his not quite credible re-appearance in Ithaca.
If Ulysses is alive, why can't Penelope recognize him upon his return to Ithaca?
 Who is the stranger (or perhaps the impostor) that has taken Ulysses' place, the stranger that she has to put to test to prove his identity?

This stranger is an unconvincing king, a fictional surrogate in the construction of the Odyssey, meant to replace the one who:

In quiet sleep he sealed his cherished eyes.

Somewhere in Book V of the Odyssey, a prophecy comes forth that Ulysses will die from a death coming from sea, after he returns to Ithaca. (In auctorial terms this might be read as a deferral of the death which may have already taken place.)

Would then the subsequent chapters be meant to act as a funeral oratio?

It little profits perhaps  that in this post we bring forth the idea of poetry and fiction as a vehicle for the cult of the dead.

And in  the end, who needs all this heroic stuff?

Perhaps some of us  would much rather choose the approach laid out in Margaret Atwood's poem Circe:

"I search instead for the others,
the ones left over
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think of themselves as
wrong somehow"

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Eye of the Cyclops

Last night, inside the Indigo bookstore at Bay and Bloor in Toronto, leafing through magazines in the Travel section I found an article on the Greek island of Serifos.

Serifos is situated roughly 73 miles from Pireus. Its luminous, azure-blue & white images, pressed between magazine covers, made me want to find out more about this island.

Back at home, a search on youtube for "Serifos" yielded the same blue-on-white scenery, yet nothing earth-shattering.

Serifos, however, continued to remain the focal point of my evening.

While the geography of the Odyssey places the island of Cyclopes somewhere in Sicily, the search that I had started brought back a different tidbit of information.

According to some sources, the island of the Cyclopes in the Odyssey could have been Serifos.

Verse 194,  Book IX of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fitzgerald brings us ashore on the island inhabited by the one-eyed giants:

"As we rowed on and nearer to the mainland
at one end of a bay we saw a cavern
yawing above the water, screened with laurel."

It's an ill fated voyage for Ulysses, who disregards the advice of his companions to get whatever he can from the cavern and  then go back to his ship.
Instead, Ulysses chooses to wait for the Cyclops Polyphemus, who devours two of his warriors on arrival.

Ulysses zeroes in on the weapon of revenge:

" an olive tree, felled green...
And it was like a mast
a lugger of twenty oars broad in the beam...

.. Now I
chopped out a six foot section of this pole.

I held this
in the fire's heart and turned it, toughening it."

In the evening, when Polyphemus returns, Ulysses pours the Cyclops a cup of strong wine which renders the monster vulnerable.

"Even as he spoke, he reeled and tumbled backward,
his great head lolling to one side: and sleep
took him like any other creature."

It is the moment Ulysses chooses to attack Polyphemus with the pike made out of the olive tree trunk:

"I rammed it
deep in his crater eye, and I leaned on it
turning it as a shipwright turns a drill..."

The eye of the Cyclops is out.

Time to leave the island of Serifos.

 "...Cast off the mooring lines,
and filing to sit in beside the rowlocks
oarsmen in line dipped oars in the grey sea. "

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