Heaney’s Poetry and the Saturated Midst of Human Being: a commentary on ‘Had I Not Been Awake.’


Heaney’s poems often celebrate ‘equipment’ (to use Heidegger’s word) in ‘thing poems’ that have a certain elusive luminous quality that some critics categorize as ‘sacred.’ This critical move changes the discussion and charges it with religious significance. Nothing wrong with that procedurally but in practice it often loses the experience of the poem. A poem always has a temporal structure and it can be a challenge to remain faithful to that.

‘Had I Not Been Awake’ (Human Chain 2010)
is scrupulously attentive to the temporal conditions of the subject. A wind hits the house and drives the poet from his bed where he was NOT sleeping. It’s as if the energy that tore the leaves from the sycamore also affected him. Indeed, ‘the whole of me a-patter’ borrows the language of the initial event. The poet’s ‘Wholeness’ seems to be at issue. The balance of the poem further specifies the nature of this wind-event. It’s like an animal, also a ‘courier.’

The looseness of the unfolding description seems intentionally casual, even slap-dash, but the point is made. The wind-event both was and was not ‘out of the ordinary.’ The moment of impact ‘lapsed ordinary.’ The awkwardness of the phrase stands out in the poem’s idiomatic, indeed ordinary conversational style.

The event which so ‘electrified’ the poet passed without further consequence. As a point in time it justifies no further reflection. There’s an energy in the negatives of the final stanza that point to an apophatic framing of the event. The physical effect on the poet is clearly caused by the event, but what caused the event? Despite the fact that its happening almost seemed dangerous, the poet is not inspired to further reflection.

Is Heaney reframing a Romantic moment in ‘post-modern’ terms. Is he self-consciously denying the relevance of religious categories with which to deepen our hermeneutics beyond fact?

I don’t know. What I do know is that the poem manages to elaborate on the event as it literally struck the poet physically. Even ‘returning like an animal to the house’ suggests the return of its awake self to somatic conditions: the danger of the whole physical show collapsing, condensed into a supercharge of energy coursing through the body, seems worth commemorating. Heaney’s lifelong devotion to the sensuous inscape of things now opens on new thresholds in the body, in the senses, in what Desmond calls ‘the senses of being.’ The moment provides insights—-in the body as well as the mind— into the superplus dimension of life itself. Religious categories themselves point to extreme perspectives on our human lives, but those categories have become confused and confusing. This ‘windfall’ itself illustrates the excess that characterizes the human ordinary. The between does not depend on conceptual determinations of the extremes —- there are as many betweens as there are ‘states of mind/body’ (here Heaney prudently blocks the standby ‘dream’-Between as cause of the event). The seeking of meaning in the event of this event is quickly (in living flesh) terminated by reason. Those powerful negatives tell a bigger story that is of only philosophical interest.

Now return to the title. Had I NOT been awake. What? The apophatic logic of the ‘negative’ in the title is a stroke of genius.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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