Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Shiver

The way you had to stand to swing the sledge,
Your two knees locked, your lower back shock-fast
As shields in a testudo, spine and waist
A pivot for the tight-braced, tilting rib-cage;
The way its iron head planted the sledge
Unyieldingly as a club-footed last;
The way you had to heft and then half-rest
Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage
About to be let fly: does it do you good
To have known it in your bones, directable,
Withholdable at will,
A first blow that could make air of a wall,
A last one so unanswerably landed
The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?

(Seamus Heaney, District and Circle, Faber and Faber, 2006)

What to say about the sinewy, vital tongue of Seamus Heaney? I'm blown away by the grammar of “The Shiver,” a sonnet which contains no periods—and not because of stylistic deviance, but because there's no place for one. This is a single 14-line thought. Caught up in the cool confidence of the poem's opening eight lines, a reader could easily miss Heaney's sleight of hand. He only provides us with noun phrases—not full sentences—hammering it home by beginning each phrase with “The way you,” “The way you,” “The way you,” and ending each with a semi-colon.

Then, bam!, the one and only main clause – a question that begins the sestet: “does it do you good / to have known it in your bones .../ ?” Violence, power and beauty are summed up in the poem's finest line “A first blow that could make air of a wall” before the final couplet beats a hasty retreat. To end with a question is appropriate; it rings through us like the sledge's “shiver” so that we must “half-rest” after reading it.

Most sonnets rhyme, and this is no exception. But look at the internal consonance and assonance. Heaney's ear has caught something so tightly wound up, the whole poem practically rhymes with itself. Listen to “spine and waist / A pivot for the tight-braced, tilting rib-cage.” In addition to the internal rhyme (waist/braced), “waste” will echo with three slant rhymes (fast, rest, last). But it's the passage's repeating consonants and shifting, recombining vowels that really get the tongue working.

Heaney, who turns 69 this month, is still producing A-list material. While it's tempting to write off the subject as either physical labour or violence, “The Shiver” is essentially a poem of nostalgia. Its narrator is an older man talking to other old men. The poem's physical labour is a memory; Heaney carefully puts the sledgehammer's action into the past with the word “had” in lines one and seven. And so, he asks “Am I a better man because I used to do physical labour?” I read it rhetorically, with a tacit “yes” implied in the octet's loving description. But that's part of the beauty of the poem. An answer is implied, sure, but remains "withholdable" in the "unanswerably" crafted poem.

These days, I'm really stoked about poets who pay close attention to consonance and assonance, in particular who write lines heavy with guttural noises like "The Shiver." I'm talking about the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Les Murray—which finds its Canadian expression in Ken Babstock and Karen Solie, among others. Does this sinewy tongue have a name? Why haven't I learnt it?