Michael Cavanagh, “Seamus Heaney Returning”

I’m collecting notes for a longer piece on Seamus Heaney, but I’m unsure where to start. Cavanagh, in this 1998 paper, tracks the theme of return in Heaney’s poetry. (Obviously, he does not get to all of it, because some of it does not exist in 1998.) He makes a solid case for simply thinking about what return could mean. It could speak to a tension in Heaney’s very concept of poetry. Does a poet, like Heaney’s meditations on Yeats suggest, wall himself off from the world in some kind of artifice? Is that his true home? Or does he find a rhythm in nature itself and try match his meter to that, as Wordsworth seems to have done? (117, 121-123)

Return could also speak to Heaney’s own physical location, whether in Ireland or outside of Ireland (128-129). This makes all the difference for a poet who spends so much time writing about his childhood and his home. I’m not sure what to do with the autobiographical details Cavanagh provides, whether they concern statements on poets he’s reading or his life outside of poetry. While I subscribe to New Criticism (heck, I describe my Straussian leanings as “New Criticism on steroids”), I do find these sorts of details useful. They need to be employed for the appropriate theme and audience, however.

For those of you reading Heaney with me, what is most powerful concerning the theme of return is what exactly return gives us. Cavanagh’s Heaney seems to see the task of the poet as nothing but returning. Cavanagh opens his paper with a recollection by Heaney, one in which the imagination of child’s play opens a new world:

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. (117)

I remember a tree in my front yard that I used to climb. I’d sit on a branch overlooking the yard and pretend I was piloting a helicopter. I can remember the bark being soft and the interplay of light and shadow being almost mysterious. It was like you were seeing from within the tree, seeing as the tree itself. I can’t imagine that Heaney means much differently here, except that he paid a lot more attention to things than I ever did. Thanks to my rotten lack of imagination, I called my tree the “helicopter tree.” Heaney, on the other hand, noted his tree’s hollowness, “gnarled, spreading roots,” “soft perishing bark,” and the pithy inside.

The childlike imagination takes careful note not through words or concepts, but a sensational memory. One where every part of one is engaged, where it is impossible not to be overwhelmed. That’s the world looking through the mouth of the tree opens up: nature, through its mouth, allows one to speak truly (117).

The poet’s task is necessarily complicated because it is not easy to return to this world. Heaney’s Nobel address, Crediting Poetry, gives two stories that should always be spoken when speaking of Heaney. First, the story of St. Kevin, a monk who in his cell stretched out his arms in the form of a cross. Poor Kevin kept his arms out so long that a blackbird built a nest on them. “Overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small,” Heaney declares, Kevin kept the same position until the eggs had hatched. Nature, in bringing us back to childlike, imaginative play, brings us back to natural, innocent sentiments, ones before we become afraid of each other, before we realize our capacity for violence (123-124).

That’s one story. The other speaks to the Balkanized world we are increasingly becoming. Ulster, 1976: a group of Protestant workers with one Catholic are stopped by armed gunmen. The gunmen ask for anyone Catholic to step forward. The one Catholic feels the Protestants squeeze his hand, as if to say, “don’t go. We won’t give you up.” He steps forward and everyone else is gunned down (124).

Cavanagh sees in Heaney a natural law, or as Heaney himself puts it, “the actuality of sympathy between living creatures” (124). I need not say more about the price one may pay for the promulgation, the realization, of that law. I can only say as I feel nowadays, that I hope all of us have a place to which we can return, somewhere we can call home.


Cavanagh, Michael. “Seamus Heaney Returning.” Journal of Modern Literature 22.1 (1998): 117-129.

Kay Ryan, “Erratic Facts”

Erratic Facts (via the San Francisco Chronicle)
Kay Ryan

[It] was a very bizarre, erratic fact.

W.G. Sebald

Like rocks
that just stop,
melted out
of glaciers.
Often rounded
from erasure.
As though
eggs could
really be
made backwards,
smoothed from
and angular.
And let’s think
it’s still early
in the work,
and later
the eggs
will quicken
to the center.


Sometimes a few words can be put together that speak everything. Those words don’t have to allude to creation myths or embrace intricate symbolism. They can just be.

It’s not hard to imagine where this is spoken, but it takes a little effort. “Like rocks that just stop, melted out of glaciers.” At first, my mind goes to the Grand Canyon, the slow, immense power of geological time. A universe that is ultimately beautiful.

But that’s me, not reading words carefully enough. “Like rocks that just stop:” someone has stopped. Someone is feeling cold and hard and paralyzed. Not the Grand Canyon, with its crevices and jagged edges, but a rocky shore, with slick, egglike rocks, ones “often rounded off — egglike sometimes from erasure.” The kind of place one goes to stare for hours, to see if anything is beyond.

Her attention turns to the shore itself, and in describing what she sees, renders the fact of loss with only one word: erasure. It’s crazy to say any good can come of loss. There’s never enough time; possessions left behind almost seem junk; they’re gone and we’re left behind. At the shore, we just want to know if there was anything else.

It takes a little while to realize there’s a message. Those egglike rocks, forged from erasure, endure. And just maybe they’re not rocks. Maybe they’re rocklike eggs. “As though eggs could really be made backwards, smoothed from something stranded and angular.” Massive glaciers, hardened, angular water, are slow moving worlds unto themselves. Harsh, undirected inertia. It’s almost tempting to think them the whole of time, spitting out rocks. It’s almost tempting to forget what comes after.

Maybe only grief can find the message, that we feel lost because we were given so much. That we are still entrusted to grow. It’s not small consolation. It’s the harshness of a true teleology, where we find purpose in the midst of chaos. Where we know a whole was – we really did lose – and that wholeness is possible again. “And let’s think it’s still early in the work, and later the eggs will quicken to the center.”

Seamus Heaney, “Antaeus”

Antaeus (poem via the blog of Anita Mathias)
Seamus Heaney

   When I lie on the ground 
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring 
   To rub myself with sand.

   That is operative
As an elixir. I cannot be weaned
Off the earth's long contour, her river-veins.
   Down here in my cave

   Girdered with root and rock
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
   Like a small hillock.

   Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
   Into that realm of fame

   Among sky-born and royal.
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
   My elevation, my fall.

Born of Earth and Ocean, Antaeus wielded a power more raw than divine. As long as he maintained contact with the Earth, he could win any wrestling match, granted his mother’s power. He could not and did not dream of ascent of any sort. Self-sufficient through his natural heritage, he harbored a strange resentment, a prideful nemesis to any ambition.

Antaeus was beaten by Hercules when Hercules realized the source of his strength. Hercules lifted him off the ground, crushing him in a bear-hug as he elevated him. Did Hercules understand what he had done? Heaney voices Antaeus, allowing him to speak the marriage of Earth and Ocean. If thrown to the ground, Antaeus rose as roses do in the morning; sand acted as an elixir for him. “The earth’s long contour, her river-veins” continually nurtured him. One might think Antaeus spoiled, a “mama’s boy,” as he did not need tools nor the company of others. In his cave, “girdered with root and rock” he remained “cradled in the dark that wombed [him],” fed just as the earth tends to its hills, its features.

The very concept of heroism entails an attack on Antaeus, the notion that this Earth is all one needs. Antaeus is mortal; he lives through this principle. One might attack his self-sufficiency, arguing it is more of a gift than the product of rationality. That much is true, but it is not clear Hercules understands what he does. Certainly, Hercules does not understand that the same spirit which seeks obstacles to overcome also wants to create devices, make plans, seeks to know. Sometimes, that same spirit chastens itself, learning acceptance.

Antaeus, for his part, does not understand the virtues of restraint. He too is a trained killer, only understanding human ambition as fruitless. Those he kills earn a fame like those “sky-born and royal;” they are remembered for their magnificent failure, but do not become gods or rulers. Antaeus serves as a most natural check on hubris. What he does understand is that the world around him changes entirely with his defeat. On the one hand, you could say “My elevation, my fall” is the normalization of hubris. Man must do more than strive, as he must remake the entire world. On the other hand, knowing that, whether or not Antaeus has actually been defeated remains an open question.

Blog in Review: “Not just a Bludgeoning Instrument,” 10/4/2016

Slowly reading a book on ancient Greek philosophy and architectural development. There’s a lot of speculation: ancient sources are taken far too literally at the very same time they are treated metaphorically. This leads to a problem like the following. Anaximander was said to have created a globe, a map, and a time-telling device. So far, fine. Some scholars speculate that they are all the same thing based on the phrasing of one source, but the scholar I’m reading tries hard to think through what they could have literally been. If there was a globe, it must have been made in the fashion of bronze tripods and basins of the time; the map must have been a brilliant artifact like a shield, as Herodotus tells us of a map that was a “thing of wonder” despite the fact it could not describe distances; the time-telling device is described by a word that in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon means the same as an interpreter of omens. Even though my details sound a bit scattered, you can see that the literary character of the works from which the speculation comes is not being addressed. A source makes mention of a particular thing, and that mention is treated as if it were in an encyclopedia. If Herodotus or Aeschylus has a specific use for that thing in their narrative, that may be neglected in favor of advancing an archaeological record, one which is not exactly the concern of all ancient writers.

All that having been said: the read is introducing me to historical detail I sorely need, and the speculation is interesting and challenging. The author forces you to really think through about what you’re getting from ancient sources and how they add up. That she forces them to “add up” may be a problem, but it is also helpful for having the most thorough discussion possible. For myself, I’m realizing that I’m far more thorough in making arguments than I thought I was. It’s not just about collecting lots of data on a thing: one must be able to weigh and consider what constitutes evidence before even trying out an argument.

I hope the last few entries have had a clarity you’ve found useful and pleasurable. Fanny Howe’s “Yellow Goblins” was a joy to read and think about, and while I feel like I gave a muddled appreciation of her imagery from “The Garden,” the artifact is plainly visible for you to consider. Walt Whitman’s “The Runner” was a nice excuse for me to talk about how democracy itself has previously been discussed in more sophisticated terms. Democracy is not just a bludgeoning instrument where majorities assert their will how they like. It involves a set of norms and practices that point at a species of democratic man.

My reading of Xenophon’s “Apology” stems from the work I’ve been doing on my dissertation. I’m happy with it, and it speaks for itself. Incidentally, Bill Kristol recently retweeted Robert Howse, resulting in some short remarks by Leo Strauss and an accompanying commentary getting a lot more traffic than I would otherwise anticipate. There’s so much on this blog to fix, but it wasn’t hard to fix up that commentary, and I think most of you would enjoy it: “Memorial Remarks for Jason Aronson.”

Kay Ryan’s “Fatal Flaw” is a challenging poem: Why exactly are things fatal flaws? I start from the assumption that we’re flawed not because of what we don’t want, but precisely because there are things we want, and we encourage ourselves to keep pursuing them. My commentary moves fast, but I think you can see the issues clearly enough.

Seamus Heaney’s “A Hagging Match” and Yehuda Amichai’s “Water Cannot Return” are lovely short poems that recommend themselves.

Even if you don’t like photography, I hope you will take a look at my reflections on a visit to an exhibition of Irving Penn’s work. The portrait of Simone de Beauvoir he took is remarkable. The way it works with darkness provides a peculiar clarity. Not an attempt to spell out every last detail, but a powerful wholeness where you can read her legacy simply by glimpsing her strength.

Yehuda Amichai, “Water Cannot Return”

Thanks to Juliana de A.K. for tweeting this poem.

Water Cannot Return (tr. Rabbi Steven Sager, from here)
Yehuda Amichai

Water cannot return in repentance.
To where would it return? To faucet, to sources, to earth, to roots,
to cloud, to sea, to my mouth?
Water cannot return in repentance.
Every place is seasons as of old, seas as of old,
every place is beginning and end, and beginning.


In her autobiography, Ivanka Trump recalls a time when she was much younger, in her father’s personal aircraft. Her father’s second wife was running late and the plane was due to take off. Ivanka saw Ms. Maples on the ground, rushing toward the plane, and brought this to the attention of her father, hoping he would stop the plane and let her board. Mr. Trump had the plane take off anyway, explaining that running five minutes late was unacceptable. “You have to be on time.”

It’s near impossible to overstate the impact divorce has on children. Children initially don’t know except through their parents; when they accept other authority figures into their lives, they are making an incredible commitment. It’s probably safe to say, as the HuffPo article linked above says, that Ivanka – maybe even all the Trump children – are just scared to death their father will cut himself off from them in a fit of arbitrary rage. That the abusiveness on display, where he’ll shout at a woman for 90 minutes in a “debate,” is being thrust on us because this is a dysfunctional family’s attempt to remain whole. To be sure, it looks like many Americans can relate to this far too well. Donald Trump’s perceived authenticity speaks to the fact that we’ve allowed a lot of toxic people to define us. We think crude self-assertion strength, imposing one’s will the only salient aspect of argument. People that read books, are honest, treat their children and others with respect, model positivity, give willingly are simply “chumps” not just according to Trump, but the longer this goes on, the American people themselves.

Clearly, a sense of home, a sense of wholeness is needed to not go insane. But how far does “home” reach? Not all of life can be having a perfect family, can it? Before I comment on Amichai’s lovely poem, this thought: the Bible does seem to say, for better or worse, that life is inheritance. God created, Adam and Eve betrayed, Seth and Noah affirmed, the Mosaic law perfected, the land itself the provision of covenant. The am olam has everything through God, and they know this because it has been handed down through the generations. “Honor your father and mother” is why Naboth cannot give up his vineyard. The inheritance is complete. What is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one’s God?

In this vein, it is easy to see t’shuvah cannot quite be repentance in the Christian sense. Turning back to God is merely a homecoming. A sense of transcendent justice, of sins that must be purged, is unnecessary. Ironically enough, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son speaks t’shuvah very well. The prodigal son returns home and is accepted. He’s back where he belongs, with his family.

Is what is true of us true of God, in whose image and likeness we are made? “Water cannot return in repentance.” Water is not simply water, nor primordial chaos. Because of God, it is the essence of life. It does not return, it does not repent.

Water goes. “To where would it return? To faucet, to sources, to earth, to roots, to cloud, to sea, to my mouth?” If it “returns” to the earth, it does so on its terms. Water courses, flowing through and defining life. “Roots” is the outstanding word, for water goes and life grows.

This seems a controversial position. If one identifies water with God, one might imply God entails progress, when the Biblical understanding entails God’s completeness. But Amichai understands that descendants as numerous as the stars are not the stars themselves, fixed and remote. “Home” must account for the dynamism of love; it is not enough for a family to be a barely functional family. That sense of primordial longing all of us have can only be addressed by the photographs that come with the frame for so long.

So Amichai, because he can do this, rewrites the cosmos:

Water cannot return in repentance.
Every place is seasons as of old, seas as of old,
every place is beginning and end, and beginning.

This sounds like Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. That is true, but only true because everything is under the sun, in its change, growth, blossoming. There is no return, no repentance, but a going back and forth. Seasons as of old, seas as of old, only bear witness to the world we help create. Every place is a beginning and end, and beginning.