The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney

Heaney, Seamus - Spirit Level, The

My father hated DIY whatever its shape and size.  He had an old, brown canvas bag of tools that lived on the floor of the shed and only he was allowed to open.  It hardly ever saw the light of day.  Occasionally, though, there’d be something needing doing that mum didn’t want to tackle, putting up a shelf, say, or changing a fuse, and then dad would fetch the bag and set it down carefully, like he was afraid of waking it up.

I remember the spirit level.  It was made of wood and when I was a child dad sometimes let me hold it when I was ‘helping’ him.  I’d tilt it this way and that for the pleasure of seeing the single, perfect bubble move from end to end, then hold it horizontal so that the bubble was framed between two central, parallel lines.

And that’s how it is reading The Spirit Level, Whitbread Book of the Year in 1996: there’s pleasure in the poems that move between two seemingly unrelated events, two seemingly unrelated thoughts; then find the one, perfect angle so as to hold and frame them both.

Take Ireland: peaceful and rural; violent and troubled.  Keeping Going brings together Heaney’s brother playing at being a piper as a child “with a whitewash brush for a sporran…a kitchen chair upside down upon your shoulder…pop eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting/With laughter” and  a part-time reservist gunned down on the street “Grey matter like gruel fleck with blood/In spatters on the whitewash.”  Similarly Two Lorries references the lorry driven by Heaney’s childhood coalman, who chats up his mother – “Would she ever go to a film in Magherafelt?” – and “that other,/Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode” at Magherafelt bus station many years later.

Or take a metaphysical opposition: good and bad, say. Weighing In brings the heavenly ideal of “good tidings” of “peace on earth” down to earth with a bump by repositioning it as “just having to/Balance the intolerable in others/Against our own”.  The Swing recasts that playground staple as “a lure let down to tempt the soul to rise”, and aligns playing on a swing as a child with dropping bombs on Hiroshima in the repeated line “we all learned one by one to go sky high.”

But the poems I enjoyed the most were those grounded in the natural world.  Gravel Walks, for example, is a celebration of a rural landscape where “flints and sandstone-bits/Worked themselves smooth and smaller in a sparkle/Of shallow, hurrying barley-sugar water/Where minnow schooled”, and also an elegy to its destruction when “a tractor/Dropped its link-box in the gravel bed/And cement mixers began to come to life”; it’s a hymn in praise of the gravel itself “Beautiful in or out of the water”, and also a homage to Heaney’s father “The kingdom of gravel was inside you too”.

My absolute favourite, though, is the first poem in the collection, The Rain Stick.  It celebrates the “music you would have never known/To listen for” made by shaking a cactus stalk.  That the sound can be explained as “the fall of grit or dry seed” is recognised, and at the same time dismissed with a “who cares”?  The whys and wherefores don’t matter; what matters is Nature’s power to effect a spiritual transformation, because in the listening “You are like a rich man entering heaven/Through the ear of a raindrop”. (It also reminds me of myself as a child, captivated by the bubble in my dad’s spirit level, which is where I came in.) And the ending: “Listen now again” – a turn of phrase, a lyrical colloquialism, an injunction to reread the poem, an invitation into the rest of the collection.   Who knew those three little words could pack such a big punch?

I could go on….That’s not to say I took to the whole collection. Some of the poems dedicated to family and friends were a struggle to find a way into; even so the rest more than made up for it.  So even if poetry isn’t really your thing, give it a go.

*** Highly recommended

Seamus Heaney also won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1999 with his translation of Beowulf, also highly recommended, and you might be interested to read my review from December 2013.

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