Poems from Beneath the Mire

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We don't write much about poetry here at the floss, which is something I'm considering changing, since it's so easy to post, talk about and enjoy. (Is that something you guys would be interested in?)

Using my post from last week on strange things found in bogs as a segue, I wanted to focus in this post on the Nobel prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, much of whose early work is also concerned with strange things found in bogs. "Some critics regard these early bog poems as Heaney's chief legacy," the BBC writes, "eloquently examining the collective historical conscience, going below the more recent Protestant and Catholic hatreds into primeval Celtic behavior, "domains of the cold-blooded," where stark evidence of a murderous past has been preserved in the timeless vegetal world of the bogs." (Couldn't have said it better myself.)

I love Heaney's bog poems, and though they span several books of his early poetry written in the late 60s and early 70s, I think they read wonderfully when taken together. I'll post them here, in chronological order, along with some photographs of some of the bog-things he describes.

Bogland

for T.P. Flanagan

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

T.P. Flanagan was an Irish painter, and this is the painting, called Boglands, for Seamus Heaney, which inspired the poem:
boglands_for_seamus_heaney_1967.jpg

Bog Oak

A carter's trophy
split for rafters,
a cobwebbed, black,
long-seasoned rib

under the first thatch,
I might tarry
with the moustached
dead, the creel-fillers,

or eavesdrop on
their hopeless wisdom
as a blow-down of smoke
struggles over the half-door

and mizzling rain
blurs the far end
of the cart track.
The softening ruts

lead back to no
'oak groves', no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

Perhaps I just make out
Edmund Spenser,
dreaming sunlight,
encroached upon by

geniuses who creep
'out of every corner
of the woodes and glennes'
towards watercress and carrion.

From wikipedia: "Bog-wood is wood from trees that have been buried in peat bogs and preserved from decay by the acidic and anaerobic bog conditions, sometimes for hundreds or even thousands of years. Because bog-wood can remain undecayed for thousands of years it is of use in dendrochronology, often providing records much older than living trees. Wooden artifacts lost or buried in bogs become preserved as bog-wood, and are important in archaeology. Bog-wood may be used in joinery to make furniture or wood carving. Bog-wood sometimes has aesthetically interesting shapes (similar to driftwood) and as such may be use as ornaments.

The Tollund Man

I

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters'
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

The Tollund Man is one of the best-preserved bog bodies ever recovered. He was a victim -- perhaps a willing one -- of some unknown sacrificial ritual in the 4th century BC in what is today the Jutland peninsula of Denmark.

Bog Queen

I lay waiting
Between turf-face and demesne wall,
Between Heathery levels
And glass-toothed stone.

My body was Braille
For the creeping influences:
Dawn suns groped over my head
And cooled at my feet,

Through my fabrics and skins
The seeps of winter
Digested me,
The illiterate roots

Pondered and died
In the cavings
Of stomack and socket.
I lay waiting

On the gravel bottom,
My brain darkening,
A jar of spawn
Fermenting underground

Dreams of Baltic amber.
Bruised berries under my nails,
The vital hoard reducing
In the crock of the pelvis.

My diadem grew carious,
Gemstones dropped
In the peat floe
Like the bearings of history.

My sash was a black glacier
Wrinkling, dyed weaves
And phoenician stichwork
Retted on my brests'

Soft moraines.
I knew winter cold
Like the nuzzle of fjords
At my thighs -

The soaked fledge, the heavy
Swaddle of hides.
my skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.
I was barbered
And stripped
By a turfcutter's spade

Who veiled me again
And packed coomb softly
Between the stone jambs
At my head and my feet.

Till a peer's wife bribed him.
The plait of my hair,
A slimy birth-cord
Of bog had been cut

And I rose from the dark,
Hacked bone, skull-ware,
Frayed stitches, tufts,
Small gleams on the bank.

Hand of the "Grauballe Man":
800px-Grauballemanden3.jpg

The Grauballe Man

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan's foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say "˜corpse'
to his vivid cast?
Who will say "˜body'
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus's.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

Another Danish bog body, Grauballe Man died around 290 BC. His body was so well preserved that fingerprints could be made from his fingers. His throat was cut and his skull fractured.

The head of the "Grauballe Man":
Grauballemanden_stor.jpg

Punishment

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adultress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Strange Fruit

Here is the girl's head like an exhumed gourd.
Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.

They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair
And made an exhibition of its coil,
Let the air at her leathery beauty.
Pash of tallow, perishable treasure:
Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,
Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.
Diodorus Siculus confessed
His gradual ease with the likes of this:
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.

The parallels between the murders of ancient Ireland which were being excavated from the bogs and the political killings in the modern-day Ireland of the 1970s, when Heaney was writing, are undeniable. Watching Heaney try and make sense of his homeland's bloody legacy of violence through poetry is entrancing.

February 5, 2009 - 2:29am
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