- Of New CalligraphySeamus Heaney, Planetarity, and Lyric’s Uncanny Space-Walk
I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.—Seamus Heaney, “Crediting Poetry,” 1995
In the final moments of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Dave Bowman, reaching for the film’s iconic black monolith, transforms into a colossal fetus. Encased in what appears to be partially an amniotic sac and partially an astronomical orb, the fetus rises into space, eventually hovering adjacent to Earth. Earth takes up the right half of the frame, radiant; the encased, planet-sized fetus takes up the left half of the frame, glowing. The soft black cushion of space stands between fetus and planet as they seem to gaze at one another, the “face” of one turned toward the “face” of the other; the viewer, facing straight ahead, gazes at both.
This essay deals with the relationship between, and reimaginings of, two different figurations of the notion of the uncanny: Sigmund Freud’s reading of the body of the cisgendered, childbearing woman as the site of the uncanny and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s theory of planetarity, which shifts that site away from Freud’s gendered figure and toward the planet Earth. In the final scene of Kubrick’s film, viewers experience a Space Race imaginary in which those two uncannies become interdependent because, as Donna Haraway writes, the “fetus and the planet earth” become twinned through “images of glowing free-floating human fetuses” and “NASA photographs of the blue, cloud-swathed whole Earth” (1997, 174). Spivak describes the relationship between these two uncannies as one “where the discursive system shifts from vagina to planet as signifier of the uncanny” (2003, 74). I suggest, however, that in lieu of a discrete shift, the middle of the [End Page 101] twentieth century sees both uncannies mobilized due to two sets of culturally significant images to which Haraway alludes: NASA’s images of the Earth from space and Lennart Nilsson’s iconic midcentury fetal imagery.
I also invoke the image from 2001 in the interests of analogy. If the 1960s and 1970s see the uncanny woman and the uncanny Earth living vibrant and interconnected lives, the work of late twentieth-century poet Seamus Heaney engages both in an even more transformative manner. Heaney’s career begins with some conflations between these two figurations of a heim, or home, that is also unheimlich, or the opposite of the familiar, paralleling print and media culture’s interest in their symbiosis. The gazes of the speakers in his early poems appear to resemble the gaze of the viewer at the end of 2001: staring at womb and Earth, moving at times from one to the other, contending with both and occasionally lingering in the pregnant space in between. In his famous bog poems, however, which were composed during the aforementioned decades, the objects of his speakers’ gazes begin to transform. Picture the womb planet and the planet Earth drawing closer and closer to one another, extinguishing that space in between. In a revision from which his subsequent poetry never recoils, Heaney collapses the distance between the two uncannies and enmeshes them.
Further still, Heaney’s later work stakes a claim for the uncanny as a fundamentally poetic concern. By way of introduction to this suggestion, consider Heaney’s late-career poem “Alphabets,” with a simile reminiscent of my hypothetical edit to the final frames of 2001:
. . . As from his small windowThe astronaut sees all he has sprung from,The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent OLike a magnified and buoyant ovum.(57–60)
Commissioned to address the relation between poetry and learning, “Alphabets” was written as a response to an implicit question about what kind of work lyric does (Heaney and Brandes, 20). It is with this directive in mind that Heaney reaches for the figure of an astronaut looking at Earth as well as the figure of an ovum. And immediately preceding the line break and the “Like” that, respectively, hold distinct and conjoin Earth and ovum, lives that “singular” O, that pesky and famous lyric sigh. As if adding a third figure to this altered [End Page 102] space odyssey, Heaney...