Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Heaney's "May"

In his collection Wintering Out, Seamus Heaney has a poem of five stanzas titled May. It is a poem of implied action that ends in definite action. The poem’s title refers to the month of May, the seasons that are associated with it, late spring going into early summer, and finally, the implied action of intention, as when someone says “I may do this or do that.” Read the poem.

When I looked down from the bridge
Trout were flipping the sky
Into smithereens, the stones
Of the wall warmed me.

Wading green stems, lugs of leaf
That untangle and bruise
(Their tiny gushers of juice)
My toecaps sparkle now

Over the soft fontanel
Of Ireland. I should wear
Hide shoes, the hair next my skin,
For walking this ground:

Wasn’t there a spa-well,
Its coping grassy, pendent?
And then the spring issuing
Right across the tarmac.

I’m out to find that village,
Its low sills fragrant
With ladysmock and celandine,
Marshlights in the summer dark.

The poem begins with the author being physically passive, yet intellectually and imaginatively keen about his surroundings. He is pensive, contemplative, observing. The only action happening is that of fish splitting the reflection of the sky into smithereens, an elegant description, just enough of explosion included. Other particles of his environment are doing something, however subtle, such as the wall of the bridge that is giving off a certain warmth, probably with the warming weather of the season, or a specific warmth in terms of imaginative recollection, memory, personal attachment.
Physical motion begins in the second stanza with the poet wading through the vegetation of green stumps and lugs of leaf (such a heavy sounding phrase that implies hard walking). The first real imagery of spring is given here as it untangles and grows and may bruise. He has a keen eye, noticing the tiny gushers of juice.
He is walking, as he calls it, over the soft fontanel/Of Ireland. Fontanel is a word that means a space between the bones of the skull in an infant or fetus, where ossification is not complete and the sutures are not fully formed. At the end of this line, it is a charged word to keep, while simultaneously carrying on the soft sound of the line with the o’s and f’s. It also implied his mind at work, the lines of the poem being formed together while he is out there, and it also leads us to recognize and acknowledge the space between the end of one line and the beginning of the next.
A proactive decision occurs in the second line of this same stanzas, I should wear. The should states that a decision has been made, and it was made somewhere in the space between the two previous lines, and more precisely, in the space that divides fontanel and Of in the next line that is the beginning of the first half of this line in which he states the proof of a decision made. But then, at the beginning of the next stanza, we have another moment of contemplation (hesitation?) like that in the first stanza. He questions the accuracy of his memory and its recollection of where he is, asking if there might have been a relic there once, or not - Wasn’t there a spa-well/Its coping grassy, pendent? And the completing two lines of the stanza change abruptly to action, horizontal, blooming action, And then the spring issuing/Right across the tarmac. Wow, directive at its best, spring blooming its active forces.
In the last stanza, this directive we just came upon in the last two lines of the previous stanza continues. The poet continues the horizontal direction to go across the tarmac and the I should of stanza three is now I will, stated as I’m out to find that village. Definitive, willful, confident in his setting out to find that village with its grassy coping, its fragrant low sills full of spring blossoming in ladysmock and celandine and (this is a fantastic last line) Marshlights in the summer dark. Conclusive, nothing follows that line and image. That last line is one of contradiction, or tension, marshlight shining in a summer’s dark. Accurate.
We could, in a line constructed of some of the words in the poem, summarize the seasonal action - spring untangles, issuing tiny gushers of juice. It is a poem about taking a walk, that is all, but how much this poet can turn that taken-for-granted action and consecrate it.
The direction of the poem, a different idea from the directive will of the action implied, travels downward, and he mentions his toecaps, hide shoes, tarmac, low sills and marshlights. He is constantly looking down, hence the keen eye to see tiny gushers, and we look down with him, and the poem travels down from the bridge to marshlights, this journey echoed by the vowel sounds that can be heard in the words themselves. The last two lines of the fourth stanza and the first of the last one, however, give a successful and deliberate break in this journey, pointing out, going out, of one’s private area and aiming horizontally, across the field, before continuing and ending in the marshlights.
There is a good line of colloquial speech in the third line of the third stanza, the hair next my skin. It is a poem of close observation, formulation of will, a decision, a poem after contemplation, after passivity.

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