Active Images

Heaney and Derry

Rosie Lavan

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     When Seamus Heaney writes about place he is always also writing about time. This is of course not unique to Heaney, but the relationship between time and place was under unique strain for writers of his generation. This is especially plain in his rare urban poems, which consider the cities of Derry and Belfast. The rural retrospectives on his south County Derry childhood are held together, enclosed, and protected, like the family life they so often recall, which Marie Heaney described to her sister, Polly Devlin, as being “like an egg within the shell, without any quality of otherness, without the sense of loss that this otherness brings”. Lasting loss and uncertain potential enter the poetry when Heaney writes about what happened when he left that world – when success in the eleven-plus sent him away to St Columb’s College in Derry. He arrived there as a self-conscious exile, in more ways than one, in a city which had been a point of departure for so many, like the ‘emigrant family leaving Derry’ in the 1930s, remembered in Gerald Dawe’s poem ‘Snap’. Or, indeed, like the more remote patron saint Columcille, for whom the city was named Doire Colmcille, and whose name its famous boys’ school bears. From Derry Heaney moved to Belfast, again for education and with the support of a scholarship, and he spent over a decade there, which was, needless to say, a decisive period in both personal literary, and collective political, terms.

     Writing in the Irish Review in 1997, Eamonn Hughes argued that the familiar divisions in the North – nationalist and unionist; catholic and protestant; Irish and British – have tended to obscure other “potentially more interesting, though still largely unexpressed” divisions, such as that between Belfast and Derry. Heaney cannot be placed altogether comfortably in Hughes’s discussion of Belfastards and Derriers, partly because its key mission is to examine “the valorisation of the rural in Irish culture which gives rise to an overarching prejudice against the urban”. And yet, while it would be bordering on the perverse to argue against Heaney’s obvious situation in the valorised country, his aloof arbitrations between his two first cities are of more than passing interest. In fact they are of profound significance, reminding us that Derry and Belfast were decisive sites in Heaney’s progress. When they are appear as subjects in his poetry they function, perhaps inevitably, as ciphers for “the situation”, but in more complex and revealing ways than might initially be presumed. Time motivates and defines his Northern city poems. When he writes about Derry the tone is tender and elegiac. When he began to write about Belfast, in the handful of poems from the early work in which the city features, he set it in the present tense: even poems about the city’s history are written in memory of contemporary, class-marked belligerence. It took a long time – the better part of three decades – for him to return in his poetry to the city as he had first known it in the late 1950s, and relieve it from synonymy with the Troubles.

     There are clear and compelling reasons behind this distinction. Heaney’s adolescent school days in Derry city were “cloistered”, to borrow the title of the prose-poem he wrote about St Columb’s, published in his Honest Ulsterman pamphlet Stations in 1975. Geographically situated in the city Heaney was also decisively separated from it, a boarder on the inside of the College looking out, and in the put-and-take of teenage allegiance still very much marked out, and identifying as, a country boy. Famously, ‘The Ministry of Fear’, from the ‘Singing School’ sequence in Part II of North, is dedicated to his friend and St Columb’s contemporary, Seamus Deane. Like ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’, which might confidently be identified, according to Heaney’s implied schema, as more Belfast than Derry, ‘The Ministry of Fear’ began life as a series of verse letters Heaney wrote to friends during his year in Berkeley in 1970-71. At St Columb’s two decades earlier, he recalls:

          I gazed into new worlds: the inflamed throat

          Of Brandywell, its floodlit dogtrack,

          The throttle of the hare. In the first week

          I was so homesick I couldn’t even eat

          The biscuits left to sweeten my exile.

          I threw them over the fence one night

          In September 1951

          When the lights of houses in the Lecky Road

          Were amber in the fog.

There are passionate but unpredictable elements in the city: “the inflamed throat” of Brandywell and the hopeless dash and “throttle of the hare” make way for the sad defiant stealth of the child. And there is something compelling about the place. Even though the child is an outsider, the city holds his gaze, and its social and domestic lives are made distinct through illumination: at the floodlit dogtrack, and in the lighted windows on the Lecky Road.

     Like Liverpool, Derry is in the popular imagination a city of memory. Terence Davies’s film Of Time and the City, elegy for his Liverpool and the lives he had lived and known there, is a memorial collage, using archive footage of anonymous subjects to accompany a highly subjective personal narrative. It was also a backward look taken at a moment of self-conscious, outward-facing regeneration, which premiered during Liverpool’s year as a European Capital of Culture in 2008, five years before Derry held the equivalent title in the inaugural UK City of Culture competition. The late broadcaster Gerry Anderson’s Derry autobiography took a similar approach: A City Dreaming, directed by Mark McCauley, toured film festivals to acclaim before its BBC screening in 2015. Reaching further back, we might set ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’, first recorded by folk song collectors in 1930s New York, alongside Phil Coulter’s ‘The Town I Loved So Well’; the songs of parting and return are linked by Luke Kelly’s voice alone, which carried both tunes with its true bold passion. To leave a place once, as these works pronounce, is to prepare to return to it again and again, be it in regretful longing or in the process of rejection. Going is one thing; letting go is quite another.

     Heaney’s own last look at Derry in poetry, in the tripartite translation ‘Colum Cille Cecenit’ in Human Chain (2010) proved that the nostalgic turn to the city has been current in Irish writing for at least a millennium. In his translation of the anonymous eleventh- or twelfth-century Irish poem about the sixth-century Colmcille, he writes:

          II Is aire charaim Doire

          Derry I cherish ever.

          It is calm, it is clear.

          Crowds of white angels on their rounds

          At every corner.

The beautiful economy of this lyric is maintained in the third section, in which the exile’s backward glance must take in all Ireland:

          III Fil súil nglais

          Towards Ireland a grey eye

          Will look back but not see

          Ever again

          The men of Ireland or her women.

The vision of Heaney and the translated poet is aligned across centuries in seeing Derry as metonym for an Ireland which is left behind and lost. The sad charm of retrospect is matched by its problematic tendency to confine and preserve its subjects and this, of course, is the nostalgic trap of photography, the pre-eminent retrospective medium. “It is a nostalgic time right now,” Susan Sontag wrote in her much cited On Photography (1977), “and photographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos.” Given this albeit now traditional and well-worn association, it is worth recalling that when Heaney was contemplating Derry at a decisive point in the middle of his career, poems which bear close relation to those of the ‘Squarings’ sequence in his watershed volume Seeing Things (1991) should have appeared alongside a series of photographs of the city.

     Heaney’s ‘Five Derry Glosses’, three of which were revised and included in Seeing Things, were published in Donovan Wylie’s first book of photographs, 32 Counties (1989). Wylie, in Robert McLiam Wilson’s words “the demon genius photographer”, was eighteen when 32 Counties was published. It was an ambitious and assertive undertaking, gathering rural landscapes, street studies, and portraits of every county in Ireland under its politically eloquent title. His black-and-white photographs were accompanied by original work from thirty-two Irish writers, including John Banville, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon, and Edna O’Brien. The photographs for County Derry, exclusively urban in subject, were followed by Heaney’s poems, which take in county, city, and college scenes. They are not direct responses to Wylie’s photographs, but the collocation of word and image opens up new vantage points on Heaney’s Derry mnemonics.

     “All photographs eventually become documentary,” as Colin Graham has observed, and Wylie’s photographs suggest the persistence of poverty and its associated challenges which were disproportionately suffered by the Catholic population – the inequities fostered by institutionalised discrimination which prompted the first Civil Rights marches in Derry in the late 1960s, some twenty years before these pictures were taken. The duffle coat and thick-rimmed square glasses of the ‘Man from the Bogside’, shown in one of the photographs, would not have been out of place on those early protests. It may sound trivial but is not incorrect to observe that both have since been recuperated in the evergreen chic of vintage fashion. In Wylie’s photograph, they are the “fashionably old-fashioned details” which photography yields, like the grandmother’s chignon described in Siegfried Kracauer’s essay ‘Photography’ (1927). The man from the Bogside is representative of the other figures shown in Wylie’s photographs, none of whom – apart from the children being walked along a terraced street – betray any consciousness of the camera. A woman in a headscarf is shown in profile as she walks past the Foyle hospice; a small girl in a trench coat that is far too big for her emerges from a shop with a pint of milk; a man stands on the back of his coal lorry in the evening.

     If Wylie’s photographs conform to Sontag’s twilight analysis, it is partly because we can only look back at them, and in so doing we risk overlooking the rebellious currency he was trying to capture and convey in his early work. Speaking in Dún Laoghaire in 2010, he said: “everything I’d seen in the newspaper or on the television I just didn’t want to photograph. I think I was – maybe unconsciously – rebelling against it. I wanted to photograph people with shopping bags, I wanted to photograph people walking [. . .] I found more life in that, I found more stimulation in that – those sort of pictures really excited me [. . .] the instinct was to make pictures that I enjoyed looking at, and those pictures really came out of normality.” Normality is a relative value, and it is not immune to nostalgia – often the recovery of the unremarkable is more wounding, to borrow from Roland Barthes’s language of photographic affect, than anything else. Of course between the lines Wylie is recalling his resistance to photographing the predicted and expected Troubles scenes and subjects, seeking a release or an alternative, and offering a reproach to conventional representations of the place at that time. This shared ambition was differently pursued by many during the conflict. It was the express aim of the Derry Camerawork group of young photographers to challenge the expected imagery. As one member of the collective said in the documentary Picturing Derry (Faction Films, 1984), “Any image that was being taken out of Derry was of riots, of some form of violence, and it was always the youth of the Bog or somewhere . . . it seemed to me that they were being taken down all the time.” At an event in Galway in April 2016, Margo Harkin and Anne Crilly, filmmakers and co-founders of the Derry Film and Video Workshop, spoke about their conscious decision to work in documentary in the mid-1980s in order to convey direct experiences which were being occluded in news coverage, until the introduction of the British broadcasting ban in 1988 made fiction – ironically – a less vulnerable vehicle for true stories. At the same event, the Dublin-born director Pat Murphy said she made a conscious desire not to work in documentary when she began as a filmmaker, precisely because of its tendency to project a particular image of the North.

     These hopes of the photographers and filmmakers are closely linked to questions about reception – about who is looking at the image, and how they read it. Heaney’s analogous preoccupation with representation and interpretation was a driving concern of ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’, a poem of contemporary directness which is often dismissed, if not regretted, by critics. Jahan Ramazani’s recent discussion of it, in which he asserted that the poem’s achievement lies in its deliberate and ironic incorporation of the journalistic diction it seeks to condemn, has offered a refreshing alternative reading. The third of the five Derry glosses in Wylie’s book addresses, with greater delicacy and complexity, related issues – once again it is concerned with how the place is represented, and the conclusions which can be drawn in consequence. That place is implicitly Derry: we know that through the circumstances of the poem’s publication, but it is also worth remarking that in revising the three glosses which would appear in Seeing Things, Heaney consistently wrote out the specific references to County Derry places which he had included in the versions for 32 Counties. Like the poems in ‘Squarings’, none of the glosses are titled. The third begins “Memory as a building or a city”, and it is an early version of ‘Squarings’ xix in Seeing Things. As Heaney acknowledged, and as his bibliographer Rand Brandes later explored in an article in 1998, the poem is indebted to Frances Yates’s popular study of classical and renaissance memory techniques, The Art of Memory, first published in 1966. It is cited here as it appears in 32 Counties:

          Memory as a building or a city,

          Well lighted, well laid out, appointed with

          Tableaux vivants and costumed effigies:


          Statues in purple cloaks, or painted red,

          Ones wearing crowns, ones smeared with mud or blood.

          Ancient memory primers approved such


          Loci et imagines, images

          Impressed on sites, like seals impressed on wax,

          So that mind’s eye retained the heightened meaning.


          And who is this in our haunted townscape staring

          But the student of mnemonics and fresh murders,

          Incredulous, abstracted, totting, sealing?

In its later version, as ‘Squarings’ ‘xix’, the first five lines are virtually intact, but Heaney modifies the punctuation: in the gloss, a colon at the end of the first stanza and full stop after “blood” presents the weird effigies as the objects of special note in the climax of the sentence. In ‘Squarings’, the colon after “effigies” becomes a hyphen, and the full stop after “blood” a colon, which gestures forward to the rest of the sentence. In functional grammatical terms, the difference between a hyphen and a colon is negligible, but the different effect in the two versions of this poem is significant: in the gloss, an equation will be made between the effigies which inhabit memory’s city and the figures who populate Derry and are scrutinised as victims of the Troubles. In ‘Squarings’, the hyphen introduces the same idea which is explained over the next eleven lines, but the closing sentence, which has been an important hook for critical discussions of Seeing Things, centres the focus of the poem solely on the remembering poet: “You knew the portent / In each setting, you blinked and concentrated”.

     The statues of the second stanza are lifted from a passage Frances Yates quotes from Ad Herennium, a text for rhetoric students compiled between c.86 and 82 BC, sometimes attributed to Cicero but of uncertain authorship. Following the mnemotechnic system in which the interior of a room or building is memorised and the objects within it stand for the things to be remembered in a specific order, the author of Ad Herennium advocates that students visualise imagines agentes, active images, which may be remembered more easily “if we ornament some of them, as with crowns or purple cloaks, so that the similitude may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking”. The writer working from memory, as opposed to the student of rhetoric training memory, is engaged in a two-part, paradoxical process. Unlike the set material of the rhetorician or the bard, what we remember of our own experience is, to some extent, beyond our control: memories are not “set up” but suggest themselves. But, at the same time, the writer or the artist does “set up” memories for external eyes to encounter and re-imagine, or re-image, in their own minds. Thus Heaney’s images are active, capable of provoking images in the mind of the reader. Wylie’s photographs are actual active images: their plural references – architectural, cultural, geographical, historical, political, social, and, for some people, including Heaney, personal – are compressed on to the photographic surface, and released to new associations and “heightened meaning” in the mind’s eye of the onlooker. The separate but linked projects of Wylie and Heaney are at odds with the teaching of the Ad Herennium. The rhetorician argues that: “ordinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and the novel stay longer in the mind”. For Heaney, particularly in his writing of the 1980s and 1990s, the ordinary became the domain of the marvellous, as critics including John Wilson Foster have asserted. Wylie’s photographs are striking not because they represent things which seldom occurred in Derry in 1989, but because, stopped in his images as subjects, these things and people are made players in ordinary scenes which will be repeated not seldom, but never again.

     The assertive possessive of the last stanza in this gloss – “our haunted townscape” echoes that of ‘The Toome Road’ in Field Work, as the poem’s speaker stands in contemplation of British soldiers: “How long were they approaching down my roads [. . .]?” In the gloss, the poetic utterance is made from within Derry by one who shares the sensitivities of its people. The student of mnemonics becomes as much an intruder as the journalists of ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’ who take Heaney’s place as the subject for their stories. The “fresh murders” are lifted from this place for the use they can serve in the student’s technical reckoning. At the same time, there is a tension for the poet to resolve: as a user of symbols, he is alive to the potency of these utterly real bodies as images of things other than themselves. Identifying symbols adequate to the predicament raises a further predicament about the ethics of representation. The rhetoric student looks not for the figures in or as themselves, but for what they could be set up to represent. Heaney reverses the loan. The resonance of classical drama in “Tableaux vivants and costumed effigies” suggests his own engagement with Greek tragedy, where he sought and proposed correlatives for events in Ireland: The Cure at Troy, The Burial at Thebes and ‘Mycenae Lookout’ in The Spirit Level are the major examples. The “totting” up of murdered bodies is a denial of their significance, and while “sealing”, the final word, looks back to the “seals impressed on wax”, it is also a participle of fate. As the student commits the place to memory they are also committing it to a fixed identity, making the Derry to be remembered a “weirdly populated” city of violently hurt bodies, to paraphrase Yates, the images of which are unforgettable.

     Heaney literalises the loci and imagines technique: the likening “as” of the first line of the gloss could be revised to an affirmative “is”. Memory is a city – Derry – and Heaney is haunting it, seeking the images of the things he remembers. The memory for images in rhetoric comprised two parts: memoria verborum and memoria rerum – a memory for words, and a memory for things, with different techniques applied to the recall of specific words in a speech to those for its arguments or notions. Verbum and res would, Yates notes, have had an “absolutely precise meaning” for rhetoricians, according to the five parts of Rhetoric. Cicero defined memory, the fourth of the five divisions, as “the firm perception in the soul of things and words” (24). Recall depends on things and their power to move. It is such things remembered and re-presented, in art, which prompt Aeneas’s lacrimae rerum,the tears of things or deeds or adversities, when he regards the images of the Trojan War which adorn the walls of Dido’s temple. Line 462 of Aeneid I in Latin – Sunt hic etiam lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt – is one to which scholars have consistently returned for its obscurity and poetic evocativeness. Frederick Ahl’s recent translation gives it as: “Even here great deeds win due recognition, / Human events stir tears; what dies has the power to move minds”. Arthur L. Keith wondered in an essay of 1922: “Is the beauty of the line to be found in some clear and definite thought or is it due to some elusive quality, some vague and mystic element which but half-reveals some deep and important thought of the poet?” Things like this, preserved in art, share the object force of Heaney’s seen things. The portents are “clear and definite”, in Keith’s words; the “vague and mystic element” to which generations of readers and scholars have been drawn is the fugitive evidence of the “deep and important thought” beneath, which, remembered only by the poet, can only be expressed with ambiguity. For Heaney, seeing things, as plural as Virgil’s res, is seeing clearly all that is not there to be seen: he sees the visible thing, and knows the invisible portent.

     In the late sequence ‘Route 110’ in Human Chain,which follows exactly the twelve-line, four tercet form developed in the Derry glosses and ‘Squarings’, Heaney offered a more tender recollection of pre-conflict Belfast, going to Smithfield market for a “used copy of Aeneid VI”. But, as the posthumous publication earlier this year of his translation of that book of Virgil’s poem reminds us, Heaney’s Aeneid belongs, in a very real sense, to Derry. His translation, he wrote in the prefatory note, was “more like classics homework” than anything else, “the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey [. . .] The set text for our A level exam in 1957 was Aeneid IX but McGlinchey was forever sighing, ‘Och boys, I wish it were Book VI.’” What seems like a departure, via allusion and translation, is also – perhaps always, for Heaney – a return.