27 June 1969: It’s impossible to fault Seamus Heaney's clean language and sensuous delight

In 1969, the poet Anthony Thwaite reviewed Seamus Heaney's collection Door into the Dark, alongside other newly-published works, under the heading "Country Matters". He found Heaney's poems to be without peer, but also strangely exotic in their appeal.

Door into the Dark
Seamus Heaney
Faber 15s

Ingestion of Ice-Cream
Geoffrey Grigson
Macmillan 30s and 12s 6d

Sandgrains on a Tray
Alan Brownjohn
Macmillan 30s and 10s

Arias from a Love Opera
Robert Conquest
Macmillan 30s and 8s 6d

New Numbers
Christopher Logue
Cape 25s and 12s

It may be that in our now densely urban Britain we tend to romanticise and overvalue the almost lost world of thatchers and farriers and rat-catchers and wild predators. A foreigner reading some recent English verse might imagine that we spend most of our time behind the plough or tickling trout, and that the town is still alien to us. I’ve had this in mind while reading Door into the Dark. As in Seamus Heaney’s much praised first book, Death of a Naturalist, the setting is usually rural Ireland and the exercise one of acute natural perception. ‘The Forge’, the poem from which the book takes its title, packs a lot of nicely phrased detail into its 14 lines (‘Inside, the hammered anvil’s short pitched ring./The unpredictable fantail of sparks/Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water’); ‘Rite of Spring’ is a laconic little piece of symbolism about de-icing a water pump, and ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’ is an attractive group full of well-observed fishermen’s craft. It’s impossible to fault the clean language, sensuous delight, concise and modest statements; and I’m sure it’s all completely authentic. But I’m equally sure that the appeal of Heaney’s work is of an exotic sort, to people who can’t tell wheat from barley or a gudgeon from a pike. His poems are of a different, neater order from those of Ted Hughes, but I think he must be counted as one of what someone has called the Tribe of Ted; compare Heaney’s ‘The Outlaw’ with Hughes’s ‘The Bull Moses’, and see how both dwell lovingly on the animal as an image of massive power. In Heaney’s poem:

The door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall.
The illegal sire fumbled from his stall
Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.
He circled, snored and nosed. No hectic panting,
Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;
Then an awkward, unexpected jump, and
His knobbled foreign straddling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank...

Turbines and pylons for the 1930s: bulls for the 1960s. It’s an odd progression.

There’s a good deal of close looking at Nature, too, in Geoffrey Grigson’s new book, sometimes of a clinical sort, with qualifications with havering and hedging so that poems get lost in modifying brackets: quiddities become boring when too much insisted. Better are the asperities of the combative Grigson, dismissing MacDiarmid in a quatrain, tossing a squib at TV’s talking heads, observing a marriage in ‘Academic Affair’. Only once does he sound a more generous, poignant note, in ‘Old Man by a Lake in June’, which I find the best poem in the book. Here the details are restrained and economical: too often they become a dense clutter, as in ‘All Saints Occasion’:

But looking down out cliff, I see a house-spout
emitting steadily rain-water which curves, then
falls adding a stalactite crystal-grey
to now yellowed stalagmites beyond of Lombardy
poplars unbending, long in a river-bordering line dead straight

Heaney’s rural Derry, Grigson’s riverside France, are not only geographically but temperamentally remote from Alan Brownjohn’s territory, in which (in ‘A 202’) he goes.

Journeying between wired-off bombed lots glossy
                With parked Consuls, making diversions
Round bus depots and draggled estates
In circumlocutory One-Ways,
Netting aquaria in crammed pet store windows,
                Skirting multi-racial bingo queues...

To call it Larkin country is simply shorthand, drawing attention to the fact that both Larkin and Brownjohn write from the England that’s readily recognisable to most of us. What Brownjohn does with it is very different. Where Larkin is concerned with precise though resonant recording of moods (much more emotionally than he is generally given credit for), Brownjohn is intent on thinking in verse; there is a strong thread of prose argument. Thus ‘The Clouds’ begins:

The craftsmen in my line bred out.
I drive, but could I mend a fuse.
My father handled founts of words
My brain would catch and fingers lose.

I find fair excuse, to serve:
There has, in our society,
Been ‘social change’, which makes these skills
Much less of a necessity.

The poem delicately and skilfully goes on to develop the debate from there, but already the danger is apparent: that prose argument can easily slide into the prosaic. And Brownjohn, for all his sensitive and scrupulous intelligence, too often lets this happen.

It doesn’t matter – is, indeed, part of the dry humour – in such lighter poems as ‘Somehow’ (which ‘satirises not the provinces but a certain provincial habit of mind’) and the trouvailles of ‘Common Sense’; but it runs to tediousness in ‘Winter Appointment’ – yet another poem about going to the dentist, a theme which by now seems ready for some barrel-scraping editor to make an anthology of. But I’m grateful for the observant and fine-drawn insights throughout Sandgrains on a Tray, that power which Brownjohn (in a memorial poem on Verson Watkins) isolates as giving ‘all quirks and details a sort of odd wonder.’

It seems to me that in his poems Robert Conquest’s problem has always been to get his intelligence and his impulses to mesh. You can see it in his first and second books (Poems, 1955, and Between Mars and Venus, 1962): the successful pieces are those in which you recognise that a warm rush of feeling has suddenly suffused the bony intellectuality and the poet has stopped frigidly cogitating on ‘art’ and ‘verse’. This is true of the new book too, in which some sort of ratio could be worked out showing the more warmly ‘the thing seen’ in the foreground, the better the poem. Examples are ‘Existences: Zurich’, ‘Far West’, and ‘Then’ – this last a well-focused wartime memory, handled with greater relaxation than Conquest generally allows himself. I wish, too, he would give his sense of the ridiculous (particularly the sexually ridiculous) greater scope: it winks out from ‘Revue Bar Strip’, but the taste for imported abstractions too often seems to win.

Christopher Logue sometimes looks like the licensed jester of the spasmodically dying capitalist West, the decorative rebel tolerated for his amusement value by the corrupt and effete masters whom his performances ostensibly satirise. Yet his 1959 book, Poems, had some excellent things in it, ranging from the ‘after Neruda’ lyrics on which ‘Red Bird Dancing on Ivory’ was based (one of the very few successful poetry/jazz combinations) to the Brechtian ‘Story About the Road’. Later there came his free but eloquent Iliad fragment, ‘Patrocleia’ (disappointingly followed by ‘Pax’, in which he appeared half-hearted not only about Homer but about language too). New Numbers is a ragbag of what Logue has been up to since: parts which read like variations, on those Private Eye ‘True Stories’ he assembles (see last week’s NS for an example), cheeky bagatelles (‘Come over here and sit on my sofa./I want to kiss you and lick you all ofa’), a ballade ‘for four organised criminals’, several black comic turns. It’s an entertaining collection, but terribly thin and perfunctory too. The pop poetry movement has overtaken him, so that Adrian Henri and Co. are reaping where Logue sowed; inevitably the whole thing looks a bit tired, as if he felt that poetry was, after all, a pretty futile occupation.

The poet Seamus Heaney, in a portrait taken in 1995. Photo: Getty
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder