Guest poem submitted by Janice:
(Poem #1793) An Ulster Twilight
The bare bulb, a scatter of nails, Shelved timber, glinting chisels: In a shed of corrugated iron Eric Dawson stoops to his plane At five o'clock on a Christmas Eve. Carpenter's pencil next, the spoke-shave, Fretsaw, auger, rasp and awl, A rub with a rag of linseed oil. A mile away it was taking shape, The hulk of a toy battleship, As waterbuckets iced and frost Hardened the quiet on roof and post. Where is he now? There were fifteen years between us two That night I strained to hear the bells Of a sleigh of the mind and heard him pedal Into our lane, get off at the gable, Steady his Raleigh bicycle Against the whitewash, stand to make sure The house was quiet, knock at the door And hand his parcel to a peering woman: `I suppose you thought I was never coming.' Eric, tonight I saw it all Like shadows on your workshop wall, Smelled wood shavings under the bench, Weighed the cold steel monkey-wrench In my soft hand, then stood at the road To watch your wavering tail-light fade And knew that if we met again In an Ulster twilight we would begin And end whatever we might say In a speech all toys and carpentry, A doorstep courtesy to shun Your father's uniform and gun, But -- now that I have said it out -- Maybe none the worse for that.
This is one of my favourite Heaney poems -- simple, beautiful, so atmospheric. Okay, a little background on Ulster. Ulster is one of the provinces of Ireland and makes up Northern Ireland which is part of The United Kingdom (except for three counties which are part of The Republic of Ireland). The majority of the population, the Unionists, wish to remain under The United Kingdom stamp while a minority, the Nationalists, long for a United Ireland. The conflict of course, arises from the fact that the former are predominantly Protestant and the latter are mainly Catholics. Political unrest was at its worst during 1968-1994, violence stemming from the wish to end British presence in the area launched by the Provisional IRA, resisted by the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. (For a far more detailed account check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulster) This state of being neither here nor there, of an uneasy silence, of brooding heaviness is beautifully captured in Ulster Twilight, the title encompassing the situation and feelings of a people who fight for freedom and identity. Heaney begins with fragmented images, small images, like little pictures that flash through a window. A work-shop where anything could be in the process of being made -- a bomb? a weapon? But it is Christmas Eve and Eric Dawson is making a toy battleship -- but a battleship all the same. The frosty evening images reflect the sombre, cold relationships. Then we realise that it is a flashback. It is a Christmas Eve of fifteen years ago, a surreptious evening unmarked by the season's cheer and brightness. It is steeped in an atmosphere of surveillance, the cautiously peering woman, the little boy watching with a monkey wrench in hand ... while the man does something as simple as deliver a present. The dim hope held at the end is that perhaps if they ever met again, there could be some sort of dialogue (note: a 'speech', not even a conversation) and not a mere doorstep courtesy. I love the fact that the movement of the poem spirals as we reach the end. Beginning with sharp, small images the feeling at the end is of something larger, looming, something that envelopes and permeates. The underlying violence, tension is like a gun that's trained on you, waiting to go off. Hope you enjoy the poem! Regards Janice.