Monday, July 11, 2005

Poem of the Week 7/11/2005: Punishment


I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:* *small cask

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adultress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,**
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Seamus Heaney 1975

* In 1951, the peat-stained body of a young girl who lived in the late first century was recovered from a bog in Windeby, Germany. As P.V. Glob describes her in "The Bog People" (a 1969 book), she "lat naked in the hole in the peat, a bandage over the eyes and a collar round the neck. The band across the eyes was drawn tight and had cut into the neck and the bast of the nose. We may feel sure that it had been used to close her eyees to this world. There was no mark of strangulation on the neck, so it had not been used for that purpose." Her hair "had been shaved off with a razor on the left side of the head.... When the brain was removed the convolutions and folds of the surface could be clearly seen [Glob reproduces a photograph of her brain].... This girl of only fourteen had had an inadequate winter diet.... To keep the young body under, some birch branches and a big stone were laid upon her." According to the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 56-ca.120), the Germanic peoples punished adulterous women by shaving off their hair and then scourging them out of the village or killing them. IN more recent times, her "betraying sisters" (line 38) have sometimes been shaved, stripped, tarred, and handcuffed by the Irish Republican Army to the railings of Belfast in punishment for keeping company with British soldiers.
**Wrapped or enclosed. A caul is the inner fetal membrane that at birth, when it is unruptured, sometimes covers the infant's head.

Well, I gave everyone a nice, bright poem for the middle of summer....haaaaa... I hope that is alright. However, this is one of my all-time favorite poems by a Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney. As the extremely long footnote indicates, this poem concerns one of the Bog People - thousand plus year old mummies excavated from (and often executed in) the bogs of Europe. My Longman Anthology of British Literature notes, of Heaney, that he found a metaphor for life and suffering in these people. Here are two websites about that - the second is admittedly more gruesome but a much clearer picture... I bet that whoever reads this will go to the site, unable to look away from the train wreck.

That written, I have a confession to make. Heaney is a repeat author, and my first. Until now, I have tried to provide a different poet every week, so this is my first slip-up. I was close to breaking it with Margaret Atwood today, but you all, at least, have not read my Heaney poem as of yet. He was the third Poem of the Week ever, so did not fly out over the internet. "The Otter" was a printed poem, cut out and pasted on black construction paper, then taped to my dorm room door. I highly recommend it... I may send out those old PotW's sometime soon, because they are also some of my all-time favorite poems. So anyway. Expect repeats also by Margaret Atwood and ee cummings.

I picked Heaney (again) today because I wanted to do something great and comfortable for me. That is not to say that there aren't great poets I haven't covered yet (i.e. Keats, Milton, Poe, Browning, Tennyson, Petrarch, Coleridge, Pope, Blake, Pound, Eliot, St. Vincent Millay, Shakespeare!!!), but I love this poem. Ahhh seeing that list is making me rethink picking Heaney, but hey. I typed all of this already. So now I am finished filling your minds with prattle about my own personal battle.

What I love about this poem the most is its empathy, the presence of the narrator, the guilt, the tenderness, and the imagery. Thinking about it now, tenderness is probably one of the two most important components of this poem. This is indeed surprising, as the title itself is Punishment, and the body includes several gruesome ideas. A starving fourteen-year girl killed for adultery is not exactly tender. So the question is, why does it leave one with a deep feeling of tenderness?

The imagery and diction have a huge part to do with this. Heaney uses unusual images that basically allay the violence. He calls her ribs a "frail rigging" rather than a "bony cage" or something gorier. We get the idea that this is a tiny body, something delicate that requires a delicate image, lest it might break. This occurs even in the first line, when he writes, "I can feel the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck." Everything here is not as severe as it could be - the rope is a halter instead of a noose and it tugs, not pulls, on the very intimate, soft nape of her neck. We then learn that she is naked on her front, which is a very vulnerable state. He goes on to include the frail rigging line, which, with the other parts, directly establishes this girl's fragility. It's not just fragility, though, but the delicacy of a sleeping child. For me, the feeling is exactly what I feel when I think of my parents' childhoods or my (full) younger sister's. It's a complicated emotion - love, grief, joy and sadness kind of jumbled up together. If that makes any sense at all, which it very well may not.

The narrator certainly encourages this compassionate view, calling the girl "little," "poor," "barked sapling," "undernourished," and "beautiful." He again allays the violence by saying that he can see "the weighing stone"; this gives us merely the idea of pressure rather than direct violence. Heaney eventually employs apostrophe, addressing the girl directly. After calling her "my poor scapegoat," he seamlessly transitions to the second major piece of this poem: guilt.

The narrator (who I am mixing with Heaney: see my usual explanation for this) recognizes the connection between this two thousand year old tarred adultress and the women tarred and handcuffed to railings. And the sweet way he sees the bog girl allows him to find empathy for the modern women and feel guilty for his silence. He speaks as if he himself tortured these women, casting "stones of silence" and being an "artful voyeur." Then the question arises about whether part of his tender portrait of the girl is to assuage his guilt, or whether his almost-love for her comes from her fragility. Probably a little of both.

At any rate, I think that this poem is a step away from the artful voyeurism, because, in writing it, Heaney is literally no longer a voyeur. A voyeur simply watches, but this man *tells* the story. This point is important, as it reedems the narrator a bit. I recognise his courage in addressing the bog girl and in writing of his own silence. That is what I was talking about far above when I wrote that I like the presence of the narrator. This is a complex, flawed human being admitting something sad about himself and yet trying to reedem it. Perhaps another reason that he writes so sympathetically of this girl is that he feels a connection with her. That is, maybe he wants to treat her the way he wants to be treated. That statement could be a stretch, but maybe not as well. It's up to you.

Then of course there is the idea of revenge and how our society is simply repeating the primitve impulses to throw people into bogs (though we have apparently progressed to throwing bits of bog onto people). In other words, to punish. Perhaps writing the poem is a bit of a punishment for the narrator (or at least a penance) for staying silent about the girl's "betraying sisters." Anyway - we are rapidly approaching midnight in Boulder, CO, so I had better send this off! I hope that you enjoyed this poem as much as I did, and, of course, I welcome any responses. Have a wonderful night!


1 comment:

Anita said...

I just stumbled on your blog through google -- great stuff, and great poems. :) Keep up the important work!