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166 Chapter 6 Seamus Heaney Returning In his memoir “Mossbawn,” published in Preoccupations, Seamus Heaney tells of a recurrent experience he had while growing up in County Derry. This memory and its retrieval anticipate Heaney’s poetry of the past fifteen years or so, especially Seeing Things (1991), and suggest a solution to a problem posed in much of Heaney’s critical writing in the past few decades, which concerns itself with finding a “place” for poetry: I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft, perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse’s collar, and, once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. (P 18) This is about return. Return here could be said to be threefold: the poet returns to his first world in memory, and the memory itself is about a return, whose significance is that it was repeated, the implication being that the poet was always able to renew his world by leaving it and returning to it thus. Seeing Things contains many such returns to the poet’s first world; some of these memories are transfigured by the poet’s adult imagination, but many of them, like the memory of the willow tree, are themselves about youthful transfigurations , and most of these are not unique but repetitive. Virtually all these memories are now reinterpreted and reappreciated in the light 167 Heaney Returning of adulthood. We cannot read Seeing Things without being initially reminded of Wordsworth, a connection that is only encouraged by Heaney’s 1988 essay on Wordsworth, in which he speaks of Wordsworth ’s effort “to retrieve for the chastened adult consciousness the spontaneous, trustful energies unconsciously available in the world of childhood.”1 According to Heaney, Wordsworth’s poetry in the years after 1795 was about a midlife journey of retrieval. At Racedown , “somewhat prematurely on the chronological scale, but with perfect timing on the psychological one, he was about to undertake the Dantesque midlife journey in memory, back through the dark wood.”2 Heaney’s readers are familiar with the way he assimilates his poetic task to that of poets he admires: when he writes critically of others, he brings himself along; when he writes poetry, he brings others with him. Passages from the underground journeys of Virgil and Dante flank the Seeing Things collection. Heaney retrieves these poets, whose task is itself retrieval. Heaney’s notion of return and retrieval is highly fluid. It is a midlife phenomenon, but it is also perpetual in those who can maintain a kind of “lightness,” a recurrent word in the collection. Such returns are known in Seeing Things as “crossings.” One such return occurs halfway through a literal bridge crossing in San Francisco, in which the poet imagines that a Vietnam-bound soldier, a fellow passenger , might as well be ..... one of the newly dead come back Unsurprisable but still disappointed, Having to bear his farm-boy self again, His shaving cuts, his otherworldly brow. (OG 353) The soldier appears to return to his own life. The poet recognizes in the soldier his own rural self that he must continually encounter, and so he returns to his own life as well. This return is evident in Heaney’s elegy for Philip Larkin, which heads the collection: Larkin’s shade, 1. Heaney, “Introduction,” The Essential Wordsworth (New York: Echo Press, 1988), 11. 2. Ibid., 5. 168 Heaney Returning quoting Dante, relates how he expected to journey to another world after death but discovered instead that he had only returned to the same world from which he had set out: “the heartland of the ordinary ,” one of the most meaningful phrases in Seeing Things (ST 9). It is apparent from these examples that not every “crossing” is an exhilarating experience, but it is implied that most of them are and that at least they offer the satisfaction of returning to our own proper element , where we may start over. In a poem near enough to the end of the book to have the power of summary, Heaney imagines a similar fate after death for his rural loved ones: They will re-enter Dryness that was heaven on earth to them, Happy to eat...


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