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Earlier this year, RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster ran a competition to find the nation’s best-loved poem of the last 100 years. It was an ambitious premise which wasn’t met with total approval in Irish poetry circles, but most people were happy to join in the fun, comment on the shortlist and of course the final winner. I blogged about the whole procedure here and although I was pleased to see some of Seamus Heaney’s words earn the title of ‘Ireland’s Best-Loved Poem’, I was slightly peeved that only one section of his beautiful sonnet sequence ‘Clearances’ was included in the competition under a title (When All The Others Were Away At Mass) which Heaney himself didn’t use.

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Following on from my rant in February, I decided to partly redress the balance and in homage to ‘Clearances’ produced an essay, or more accurately, a critique on the poem as a complete entity. My piece has just been published in the excellent Northern Irish journal, The Honest Ulsterman. It’s too long for a blog post, so here is the short section which refers to Sonnet 3 from ‘Clearances’, aka the potato-peeling bit. My observations and analysis are a result of a close (unsentimental) reading. I’ve also included something about Sonnet 5 as contextualising any of the sonnets lifted from a sequence is important. As stand-alone poems, they don’t give the full picture of what Heaney achieved in ‘Clearances’.

Sonnet 3,Clearances by Seamus Heaney (The Haw Lantern, 1987)

When all the others were away at Mass,
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives-
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Commentary (extract from longer essay)

The potato-peeling section (sonnet 3) of ‘Clearances’ is generally read as a touching recollection of one of those regular, often repeated household chores shared by mother and son, but what the text actually says hampers too cosy an interpretation. ‘When all the others were away at Mass’ reminds us that the eldest son in a large family was responsible for helping prepare the Sunday meal. The phrase, ‘I was all hers’ is interesting – why not ‘She was all mine’? Surely, a boy sharing his mother’s affection with eight siblings would relish an opportunity to demand her undivided attention. There is an odd ambiguity here:

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

The dropping, peeled potatoes are all that ‘broke the silence’ and are ‘Like solder weeping off the soldering iron’. They are ‘cold comforts,’ but at the same time, ‘things to share,’ whose ‘pleasant splashes’ interrupt the dream-like state of the workers’ synergy. The choice of words (my italics) emphasises the bittersweet experience of spending time alone with one’s mother. Memory filters through the lens of stark reality, and Heaney recalls how the sound of potatoes dropping into the bucket of water, ‘bring us to our senses’. It seems that in the practical, work-a-day atmosphere of the family farm and home, even on a Sunday, there is little space for surrendering to unadulterated emotions or for feeling too intimate, too bonded.

Heaney’s description of the wordlessness between mother and son as they perform their shared task, may imply the strength and unity of their bond, and is certainly an image of the healthy home environment. However, the magic of the moment is shattered in the last line of sonnet 3: ‘Never closer the whole rest of our lives’. The poet’s ‘sense of real’ allows him to record the physical and symbolic closeness as an epiphanic moment, but the sonnet paradoxically reveals the ambivalence of maternal attachment. This attachment is very much a double-edged sword and Heaney remembers only moments of intimacy rather than an enduring state of closeness.

Another snapshot of physical intimacy occurs in sonnet 5. As mother and son fold bed sheets together, the household task becomes a metaphor for the emotional attachment between the mature poet and his mother. In Room to Rhyme (2004), with reference to Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Self Unseeing’ and ‘A Church Romance,’ Heaney states, ‘much of my own poetry has involved the retrieval of such moments. Moments that suddenly come back with an uncanny ‘gleam’ as Hardy might have called it’. With particular reference to sonnet 5 of ‘Clearances,’ the poet goes on: ‘a memory of shared closeness […] a moment that would have been taken for granted at the time, but which in retrospect was emblazoned with blessings’.

The sheets form a sort of boundary between mother and son, and Heaney’s analogy involving the children’s game of noughts and crosses, brings to mind restrictions and rules. There is a strong suggestion that mother and son could be close and adversarial at the same time:

So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out floor
sacks.

If you are a brave soul and would like to read the essay in its entirety, you’ll find it at humag.co and while you’re there, you might like to check out the thought-provoking short story ‘All the Way from Zokandu’ by Anne Goodwin (Annecdotist) who is a regular contributor to the comments on Top of the Tent, and a true writing ‘buddy’.

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