Melody on the Cliff

If only I could hear again

the fair lady’s melody.

Her voice drifted over

the cliffs of Moher.

She played the harp

at the edge

of civilization.

Her fingers danced

like the wind.

 

If only I could hear again

the fair lady’s melody.

Under those supple eyelids

what did she see?

Was it dark blue waters

stretched beyond comprehension?

Past which, did she wonder

if distant cousins

lived, who, exiled

from the island

lost all knowledge

of the golden harp?

Her harp was glorious

in its poverty, all polished wood,

with strings which carried more colors

than a rainbow.

 

If only I could hear again

the fair lady’s melody.

Was it of light green fields

filled with barley first sprouted

centuries before bursting

from Celtic bodies

whose pockets held seeds

meant for munching on the march?

 

If only I could hear again

the fair lady’s melody.

Her voice drifted over

the hills of County Clare

where flutes were fashioned

to sound like the whistles

of local birds perched upon short brush.

Words above the burren,

songs carried for centuries.

 

She wore plain brown wool

as plain as her demeanor.

Truly emerald-esque,

modest yet cherished.

If only I could hear again

the fair lady’s melody.

cliffs_of_moher

I took this photo in May 2013 at the Cliffs of Moher.

Boland’s Correlation of Syntax and Existential Significance in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”

Eavan Boland uses anastrophe throughout her non-traditional elegy “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” in order to grammatically display the paradigm of history versus past. Like in much of her other poems, Boland focuses on the domestic sphere of the past in contrast to what is recorded and deemed historically worthy. Boland begins by furtively including the title of the piece, in the tradition of early modernists such as William Carlos Williams, as the object of the first sentence. The first sentence’s subject is the speaker who would “wish to prove” (4) what the title states. This technique is indicative of the poem’s theme. The speaker means to say through inversion that the past is the subject of history, in that the anonymous people who built the famine roads have been relegated by the maps of recorded time. And instead of the two being a dichotomy, in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” Boland elevates the causal, private past to a state of mythical proportions because, even though it is deemed more significant, history is ultimately dependent upon the past.

Boland relies upon hyperbaton whenever discussing the metaphor that is extended throughout the poem. The line “Look down you said: this was once a famine road” (8) is given more rhetorical gravity instead of having the speaker simply state you said look down. This is because the famine road that the speaker encounters is the vehicle, while the past is the tenor. Since these kinds of roads are unrecorded, the metaphor’s continuation would be the written lines on the implied map in the poem that are representative of recorded history. The speaker’s attention to the vivid abstractions in the forest where the famine road is located is such that the metaphor blossoms into a conceit. Not only does the speaker want to prove that science is limited, but she also desires to delineate what cannot be exactly recorded, specifically “the gloom of cypresses” (3). The trees would not hold such sad weight if it wasn’t for the realization that this was the spot where starving, toiling humans collapsed and died: “Where they died, there the road ended…” (16).

“That the Science of Cartography is Limited” is a complex poem in its many interweaving metaphorical aspects, which are made even more complicated by syntax inversion. Boland uses geometry in order to account for the phenomenon of not being able to comprehend something that was once tangible, let alone the contextually intangible. The speaker alludes to the fact that maps cannot represent the reality of the Earth as a spherical planet geographically. When the speaker pulls out a map she sarcastically states that “it is never so / I can say here is / the masterful, the apt rendering of / the spherical as flat” (18-21). The association is that not only humans are unable to fully understand the implications of what is recorded, whether it is a map or history, but that the entirety of the picture is even more incomprehensible. If the map represents history, then that means that the planet Earth is the past. Thus, each line on the map is the record of a famous person in history, and hence the famine roads are not represented because they are deemed insignificant.

The geometric aspect of the conceit can be extrapolated in order to fit in with the speaker’s sorrow at the forsaken deaths of her Irish ancestors. In using inverted syntax, the speaker also suggests that history is convex, or the outer, visible side of the sphere that is human experience. This would mean that the past is the concave portion that is not visible in retrospect. It is buried underneath the facts. However, the only fact that the speaker reveals in the entire poem is the one that her lover informs her of: “in / 1847, when the crop had failed twice, / Relief Committees gave / the starving Irish such roads to build” (12-15). The famine roads end abruptly because they were intended to be short. The poem implies that the British colonial overlords wanted the starving Irish to be wiped from existence, so why then would their roads be featured on any map? The Anglicization process of Ireland had been well under way by the mid-19th century. This was at a time when ideas of those such as Thomas Malthus were still prevalent in British society, and the Empire’s reaction to the catastrophe in its own backyard, the potato famine, signifies the developing Social Darwinist mindset of British authorities. The Irish culture and people in and of themselves were deemed insignificant and unworthy of history. Since the British were successful in allowing a large portion of the Irish population to starve to death or emigrate, much of Irish history itself was oppressed. The cliché that history is written by the victors is true in this case, consequently Boland develops a multi-faceted metaphor interlaced with inverted syntax in order to mythologize the lives of the average Irish famine victims.

The conceit is present in almost every line of the poem, tracing back in retrospect to the first where “the fact that this shading of / forest” (1-2) is not able to convey the scent of balsam is relative to how cartography cannot express the pain and emotion of human life and work. This is in spite of the fact that the result of the work, the famine road, is tangible, yet the futility that went into the construction must be inferred in its intangibility. The past has been covered by “ivy and scutch grass / rough-cast stone had / disappeared into” (9-11) in another syntactical twist. And yet the speaker never states anything illogically in the poem, rather, each time the road is mentioned a clause is interposed between the subject and object. Whether the break is parenthetical or hyperbaton, each of the five sentences in the poem carry the weight of the theme through Boland’s nuanced grammatical technique. In the end, those humans who died building the famine roads are nothing but a part of the earth in the forest, which is why to the speaker they would be “the line which says woodland and cries hunger / and gives out among sweet pine and cypress” (25-26). Boland’s point is that it is necessary to reverse the significance of history over the past in order to try to understand what really matters in existence. Although it is difficult to do so without the speaker’s imaginative creativity and syntactical nuance, since the line “will not be there” (28). Even still there is the potential for existential meaning in unwritten roads.

 

The Question Raised in Heaney’s “Casualty”

Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty” is an elegy for a fisherman in loose iambic trimeter that reflects not only on the implications of tribal or societal obligations and subsequent political affiliations, but ultimately questions whether it is worth it to act on a moral imperative. The poem follows the uneventful life of an anonymous and unassuming “dole-kept breadwinner” (14) who, according to the speaker, frequents two very different kinds of “haunts.” The fisherman’s rightful place is on the water, and yet his other preferred habitation, the pub, is connected by the image of consumed liquid, although the latter will be his demise. However, nightly drinking will not kill the fisherman in a conventional way, but it will cause the fisherman to patronize a bar in a Unionist neighborhood because of the Bloody Sunday curfew, and consequently the Catholic fisherman’s moral ambiguity will contribute to his death. The speaker remembers how they would talk of the Provisionals, which as a literal definition is synonymous with the transition into the first section’s last stanza, where the most explicit connection between the two is displayed: “But my tentative art / His turned back watches too” (36-37). The speaker then correlates this arbitrary act with the turning point of his intellectual affiliation, and hence the (albeit early) turning point of the poem, when the fisherman “…was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew” (38-39).

Heaney divides “Casualty” into three parts, the first two having three stanzas, the last having only two, with the final being a truncated triplet. At first sight the poem’s development seems confusing, or at least non-linear, as the narrative is shifted back in time once the speaker mentions the death of the fisherman in a bombing at the end of the first section. The rhyme scheme remains relatively uneven albeit slipping into abab at certain points when Heaney wants to highlight the significance of the passage. The next two sections shift from the funerals for the Bloody Sunday victims and the fisherman’s solitary funeral, to the tranquil scene of the speaker going out to fish instead of being at his friend’s funeral. However, the speaker envisions the man coming back from the dead through the light on the “indolent” waves, and desires for the ghost to ask him again the extent of their duty to their “tribe.”

The title itself represents the anonymity of the subject of the poem, as the speaker describes the personal habits and shortfalls of a man who was not involved politically. And yet the fisherman is a victim of his own habitual need to have a pint in a pub, but only because of Bloody Sunday. The poem takes place in 1972, soon after British paratroopers opened fire on a group of protesters, killing thirteen. The speaker lets the reader assume the specifics of exactly how the fisherman is killed, except that the speaker can “see him as he turned / In that bombed offending place, / Remorse fused with terror / In his still knowable face” (64-67). The first section leads up to this moment by explaining how the man would coyly order drinks, and the relationship between him and the speaker. The first line along with the entire first stanza describes how the man “would drink by himself” (1) in a way that earned the respect of the speaker of the poem. The speaker goes so far as to say that he “loved his whole manner, / Sure-footed but too sly…” (16-17) because he could relate to that sort of attitude on a larger scale when it came to the speaker’s political leanings. 

Heaney does not chide the subject of the poem (whom Heaney revealed through an interview to be a distant relative named Louis O’Neill) because he can relate to the man’s ambivalence toward remaining steadfast in his allegiance to his tribe by only patronizing Catholic pubs. Instead, the fisherman is so accustomed to his habitual pub-going that on the night in question “He had gone miles away / For he drank like a fish / Nightly, naturally” (70-72). Heaney expands on the aforementioned cliché by posing the question of why should it matter that an innocent man was sitting in a bar frequented by Protestants. Through this Heaney implies that he objects to the extremism of the IRA Provisionals in randomly killing innocent Protestants in retaliation for Bloody Sunday. It just so happened that Louis O’Neill was a Catholic knowingly endangering himself by sitting in the wrong place at perhaps the wrong time. Heaney explicitly answers this dilemma with the question “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?” (78-80)

The figure of the dead fisherman transcends the actual person that Heaney knew when the subject directly asks the speaker if being associated with Protestants warrants death while sardonically saying he’s “…supposed to be / An educated man..” (81-82). This paradigm shift in time and space runs parallel to Heaney’s own detachment from the militant Republican cause. In 1972 Heaney left his academic position in Belfast and retreated south to a rural part of the Republic of Ireland in order to write the Glanmore sonnets and presumably get away from the heightening tensions that were brewing in Northern Ireland. Stepping away from the Troubles further alienates Heaney from his Irish predecessor, Yeats, in that the latter poet’s “Easter, 1916” romanticizes the struggle to oust England from Ireland, while Heaney’s “Casualty” takes a more complex and realistic approach. Heaney’s form in “Casualty” also serves to be antithetical to Yeats because it is in the same elegiac trimeter form as “Easter, 1916,” but with the infrequent rhyme scheme mentioned above, as opposed to Yeats’ conventional rhyming. Heaney utilizes the fisherman, a victim of the chaotic ramifications of political terror, in his poem in order to set an example of the arbitrary nature of death in the Troubles. 

The speaker in “Casualty” ultimately does not even attend his friend’s funeral, and yet imagines it while actually on the deceased’s boat. Heaney uses fishing diction in order to describe the imagined funeral procession as people “shoaling” like schools of fish by the hearse. This choice of words is an extension of the many different uses of fishing and water imagery throughout the poem, which is appropriate considering how Heaney ends the elegy by desiring the dead fisherman, the “Plodder through midnight rain, / Question me again” (112). Heaney’s transition from funeral to fishing boat in the penultimate stanza is fluid because the speaker cinematically shifts from the sound of the hearse’s engine “Purring” to that of the boat. While on the water the speaker states that he “tasted freedom with him” (102). Heaney no longer feels obliged to his kin to the point of not even attending the funeral, because the procession itself turns into a partisan statement. 

The speaker of the poem desires to get away from the political violence that’s tearing his countrymen apart. At his closing remarks, Heaney makes a sudden shift from speaking of the fisherman in the third person into the second person, so as to bring the subject nearer home and show the conjoining of their ambivalence. The speaker imagines the now “revenant” fisherman in his “proper haunt / Somewhere, well out, beyond” (108-109). Heaney questions the worth in pursuing a categorical imperative if the end result will so often become extremist. Thus, Heaney departs from Yeats’ romanticized battle against the English through the arbitrary death portrayed in “Casualty.”

13 unarmed protestors were murdered by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972. The British government would not admit Bloody Sunday as unlawful until 2010.

13 unarmed protestors were murdered by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972. The British government would not admit Bloody Sunday as unlawful until 2010.

Shadows of Clouds

flowing

through ancient

burial grounds

inside wrath

my heart and

the one beyond but

the water remains

underground

 

I saw a shape

but then it turned

into a tree

and I’m not

sure if I am

welcome here

 

I’m not sure.

Old Woman

Walking only a little

Along the Seven Woods Trail

With a Sean Bhean

Who only means well

One of the trails that Yeats frequently walked, May 27th 2013 at Lady Gregory's Estate in Coole Park

One of the trails that Yeats frequently walked, May 27th 2013 at Lady Gregory’s Estate in Coole Park