Sunday, September 01, 2013

Seamus Heaney, and Ships that Sail the Air

by J J Cohen

In memoriam Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Shortly after news began to circulate of the death of Seamus Heaney, Facebook and Twitter burgeoned with favorite quotations from his oeuvre and memories from his recent readings (especially at gatherings this summer in Edinburgh and Dublin). The generous flow of loved lines seemed perfect tribute. On FB I offered the following personal memory.
RIP Seamus Heaney, who changed Beowulf forever -- among many other poetical wonders. My single personal encounter with him was during a lunch at the Faculty Club to welcome the first year enrollees of the PhD program I was attending. Nothing says "welcome!" like a ridiculously formal meal in an ornate setting with assigned seating, no introductions, and food you don't eat. I nervously took my allotted chair between Seamus Heaney and Helen Vendler as something en croute was served. A chain of silent obscenities swirled through my head. "I don't belong here," I whispered to Heaney, because in my immaturity I did not know what else to say. "Neither do I," he replied.

He was a poet of astonishing talent. He also had a good heart.
On Twitter I wrote that
Seamus Heaney changed Beowulf forever. Some think for the worse -- but for me, he made the poem teachable. Students love his love for it.
I mean that. I've been teaching Beowulf for a long while, and have witnessed a clear divide between classes before and after Heaney's translation: a time during which it was hard work to convince students to desire the poem versus one in which that desire is activated in swift, uncanny, and beautiful ways. His translation of the Old English poem has sometimes been disparaged as Heaneywulf, but that to me is its strength. His Irish intensification of the medieval work as a multi-temporal rumination on postcoloniality, endurance, and long history is why the Heaneywulf works so well. His poetics are conservative and familiar, admittedly, making his popularity too easy to dismiss. But that comfortableness does not mean that his method and content lack complexity. For those who prefer more experimental modes of translation Heaney is also an excellent gateway.

When news of Heaney's death arrived I was hard at work on a section of an essay that explores an Irish and British tradition behind a segment of his poem Lightenings. "The Sea Above" (as my piece is called) is my contribution to the volume Lowell Duckert and I have put together as a follow up to our recent postmedieval issue on Ecomaterialism (I blogged about the conference that launched that project here). Elemental Ecocriticism will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2015. You'll find the list of contributors in my blog post. There will also be response essays by Stacy Alaimo, Timothy Morton, Cary Wolfe, Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino. I'll post more about the project here soon.

In the meantime, though, I thought I'd share with you an excerpt from "The Sea Above" that does some work with Seamus Heaney's work. Let me know what you think.

The Sky as Sea
Towards the end of the eleventh century, Bishop Patrick of Dublin catalogued in formal Latin verse the twenty-seven wonders of Ireland. These native mirabilia range from a stone that triggers tempestuous rains and an island where the unburied dead never decay to a fountain that turns hair white, a tomb that when beheld by women causes farting, men who transmigrate their souls into wolves, and a rock that oozes blood. The marvels joyfully violate the presumptions that quietly structure everyday life. Climate is no longer indifferent to human activity, death is not organic oblivion, the tomb fails as a terminus of agency, humans may love the animal for its inhumanity, and the lithic becomes creaturely. As quotidian certainties dissolve, ecologies of the possible wondrously flare. Listed as Patrick’s nineteenth marvel is De naui que uisa est in aere, “Of a ship glimpsed in the air.” The bishop writes:
A king of the Irish once attended an assembly
With quite a crowd, a thousand in beautiful order.
They see a sudden ship sail the sky,
And someone who casts a spear after fish:
It struck the ground, and swimming he retrieved it.
Who can hear of this without praising the Lord above?[i]
An unexpected vessel glides the clouds, celestial intrusion on a day otherwise given to earthbound affairs. An astonished crowd discovers that the air they breathe is sea, that fish, spears, and sky-dwelling swimmers course its elemental materiality. What had seemed a distant expanse for placing angels, fiery spheres and other incorporealities, an emptiness through which things move without encounter or touch, becomes inhabited, substantial, perturbingly entangled with life lived upon the ground. The thin substance through which human bodies move unthinking firms into a support for strange fish and lofty navigators, an ocean turbulent with changed perspective. 
This aerial ship is predictably cited across the Internet as evidence that UFOs once visited medieval Ireland. Yet Bishop Patrick quietly stresses not the futurity the vessel might herald but its arrival from an even stranger place, a compound and heterogeneous past. He provides his Latin lines with a patina of antiquity through deliberate archaism. The Irish are the Scoti, the name the Romans bestowed upon these people when they raided ancient Britain. Though I translated the phrase as “Lord above,” Patrick describes the Christian God as “the Thunderer,” an epithet stolen from the sovereign of Olympus (Jupiter Tonans, god of thunderbolts). The bishop’s story of sailors over Ireland and the blue become the deep possesses venerable textual precedent. In the Irish annals, cloud-sailing craft are recorded for 743, 744, and 748, depending on the source.[ii] The Annals of Ulster, for example, state laconically that “Ships with their crews were seen in the air.”[iii] Patrick may have obtained his story of airborne vessels from such an archive, or he might (as John Carey has argued) have truncated the narrative from an analogue to the account that appears in the Book of Ballymote, which likewise describes an aerial ship. Congalach was a tenth-century high king of Ireland. During a political gathering he spots a vessel in the clouds. Conversing briefly with one of its sailors makes the king realize the dangers of the ordinary world, and offers a chance for him to extend humane affect across what might have been an unbreachable divide:
Congalach son of Mael Mithig was at the assembly of Tailtiu one day when he saw a ship moving through the air. Then one of them [i.e. the ship's crew] cast a spear at a salmon, so that it came down in front of the assembly. A man from the ship came after it. When he seized one end of it from above, a man seized it from below. "You are drowning me!" said the man aloft. "Let him go," said Congalach. Then he is released, and swims upward away from them.[iv]
One of twelve monarchs who were supposed to have held the entirety of the island under their dominion, Congalach reveals here a wisdom lacking in the man who grabs the spear from the navigator and triggers a near drowning. He comprehends that for those aloft the air we breathe is sea, that danger inheres  even in transparent atmosphere.
Bishop Patrick of Dublin writes at a nexus in the transmission of the tale, as it mutates into further versions. For on the ground, historical reasons the episode will eventually be relocated to Clonmacnoise by the Shannon, an important monastery that built a reputation for wonders. Once tethered to this new foundation the narrative comes to feature an anchor stuck in the floor of its chapel and a swimmer who descends from the boat to free the embedded object. Seized by the curious monks, the sailor pleads for his life: “’For God's sake let me go!’ said he, ‘for you are drowning me!’”[v] Once released he swims upwards to his ship with the retrieved anchor. Seamus Heaney culminates this long Hibernian tradition when he celebrates the Clonmacnoise version of the wonder in a sequence embedded in his meditative poem Lightenings:
            The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
            Were all at prayers inside the oratory
            A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shimmied and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

With sonorous assertiveness Heaney accomplishes fully the perspective shift inherent within the medieval tales of navigated ether. Out of the marvellous as he had known it: when the sky becomes roiled waters for unknown mariners, when firm ground is rendered ocean floor, when unexpected fish, aquatic javelins and wayward anchors turn air to brine and altars to reefs, prospect shifts. Impalpable air thickens to tempestuous surf, creating a denser version of what Julian Yates calls “the mutual or medial impressions left by the confluence of cloud and human person – the imagination become weather report.”[vi] Ecological enmeshment wondrously materializes, and habitual modes of dwelling are upended. Familiar terrain becomes unheimlich, un-home-ly, for (to quote the poet William Carlos Williams), “the sea is not our home .... / I say to you, Put wax in your ears rather against the hungry sea / it is not our home!”[vii]
How much more so when that sea is sky. Displaced from our practices of quotidian habitation – from the assemblies we attend with throngs, from the hushed regularity of the cloister -- we might enact a theological impulse and declare that the stone upon which we raise our houses and the wind against which we secure the door are not ours to own. We might turn our attention to divinity and cry that mundane life is brief sojourn, that the eternal home is elsewhere, that a Paradise after death awaits. Yet paradeisos means “enclosed park”: can we really desire to reside forever behind walls?[viii] In the late Middle English poem Pearl, for example, the narrator twice chooses a life among sorrows over the stillness that holds the gem-hewn dwellings of heaven.[ix] His earthly inclination is at once a religious failing and a powerfully comprehensible human choice to mourn the daughter he has lost and to love the green world in which he dwells. Like that anchor lodged in a world-not-to-be-endured, like that sailor who swims deep air and risks drowning for discovery, we could linger for a while in this dangerous space, this sky become sea, this world that is the world in which we dwell, elementally reconfigured. Upon hearing or reading such a story, we might even cast our eyes cloudward in the hope of glimpsing some vessel glide, unmoored for a few moments from the terrestrial tethering of our lives. If mundane expands to become more fully sublunary, if the “under moon” of which that adjective is composed stretches upwards to embrace a heaving vastness between landed lives and closed, incorporeal heaven, then for a moment we might be loosened from our earthly boundedness, unfastened from what Dan Brayton calls the “terrestrial bias” of our ecological frames.[x]

[i] From his poem De mirabilibus Hibernie (On the Wonders of Ireland). The Latin is from The Writings of Bishop Patrick of Ireland, 1074-1084, ed. Aubrey Gwynn, S. J. (Dublin: The Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1955) 64-65; the translation, somewhat loose, is my own. Patrick was bishop of Dublin from 1074-84.
[ii] John Carey, “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel” 16. The references to aerial ships are in the Annals of Ulster, Tigernach, Clonmacnoise, and the Four Masters, as well as some manuscripts of Lebar Gábala.
[iii] Entry for 749, but annals are one year ahead at this point. See the Annals of Ulster in the CELT (Corpus of  Electronic Texts),
[iv] Quoted and translated in Carey, “Aerial Ships” 17.
[v] See Carey, “Aerial Ships” 18ff for the story and the likely historical background to its transfer to Clonmacnoise.
[vi] “Cloud/land – An Onto-Story,” postmedeival 4 (2013): 42-54, quotation at 43. He continues with some lines I will echo but amplify later in this essay: “However, scan the skies, however you may, I defy you to discern a finite agency, the ‘hand’ of this or that divinity, of Providence, a final cause, human or otherwise, even as you place one there. The weather remains an open system – that by your gazing you reduce to a dwelling” (43).
[vii] William Carlos William, Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1992), p. 200.
[viii] Cf. Tim Ingold: “It is perhaps because we are so used to thinking and writing indoors that we find it so difficult to imagine the inhabited environment as anything other than enclosed, interior space” (Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description [London: Routledge, 2011] 119). Though the authors of these medieval stories undoubtedly spent more time outdoors than most readers of this essay, the conditions under which inscription of their texts occurred would have been within enclosed habitation.
[ix] See “Pearl” in The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript : Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 5th edition, ed. Malcolm Andrew, Ronald Waldron (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007).
[x] Dan Brayton, Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012).


Lara Farina said...

Fabulous stuff. You must read Michael Faber's short story, "Fish" (in the collection Some Rain Must Fall).

Unknown said...

Somehow this reminded me of the moment in Woolf's Mrs Dalloway when everyone stops to watch the skywriter. Another throng bedazzled by an airship:

"Suddenly Mrs Coates looked up into the sky. The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something! making letters in the sky! Every one looked up."

sean o'driscoll said...

I always wondered if there really were historic annals that Heaney was drawing on in this poem.
Amazing research, thank you