Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick
by Eugene O'Brien. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
When anyone is writing on the work of Seamus Heaney, it is by now a necessity to state the need for another work in this very crowded area. To date there are some sixty to seventy books on Heaney’s work, or containing sustained reference to that work, so another new text really needs to state its case and define the gap in the research which it hopes to fill. Ian Hickey’s book does precisely that by setting out from an early stage what it is going to do, why this is important within the field, the theoretical hermeneutic that will be used, and then the areas of Heaney’s work that will be addressed. The admirable clarity of this is mirrored in the logical sequencing of the argument, and in its careful and quite nuanced development, and the application of the theoretical lens. So, initially, does it justify its existence? I would say yes it does as it addresses areas that have not really seen a sustained focus of research in the Heaney canon.
At this stage I must state a certain partiality here as I directed the initial research from which this book developed, but it has gone through a rigorous peer review and has changed significantly since then, so I feel justified in reviewing it. From the outset, Hickey is very clear about where he is going, how he is getting there and why this is important:
The only way to start this book on Seamus Heaney’s poetry is to outline and point out how it can justify its place among the vast and wide-ranging attention that his work has attracted, to justify what it offers in illuminating new readings of the poetry.
A vital part of my approach and thinking is from a philosophical standpoint and is allied to hauntology, a term coined by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx. The sense of inheritance from the past that carries across Heaney’s many collections of poetry and the ability of those inheritances to power the present and shape the future of his writing is intrinsic to my angle in this book. In framing my reading of the poetry around Jacques Derrida’s thinking on the ghostly a nuanced interpretation of spectrality in the poetry can be found. (1-2)
If this level of clarity of intention were the norm in academia, we would all be a lot wiser, and Hickey’s structure enables his aims, setting out the argument in clearly defined chapters. The opening chapter sets out his theoretical framework, citing Derrida’s notion of the hauntological as a mode of reading that will allow spectral themes to be traced through Heaney’s work. Derrida’s notion of hauntology is a homophone of ontologie (ontology) in French, which at the level of sound makes ontology and hauntology similar, thereby complicating the seeming facts of presence with the haunting traces or differences, to use Derrida’s own terminology, that hover around it in the paradigmatic chain of meaning.
To find connections between this quite arcane level of metaphysical thinking and Heaney, conventionally seen as very much a poet of the concrete, would seem to be stretching credibility, but this is not the case. Hickey’s version of Heaney is nuanced, thoughtful, seeing him as quite a metaphysician in his own right, ranging across cultural and temporal borders to fill his contemporary present with ghosts, spectres, and memories of his own. Hickey is absolutely correct here, and his view of Heaney as such a thoughtful and nuanced writer is an accurate one. The contrasts with Derrida allow Hickey to probe this pluralisation of the present with traces of a complex past, reading “ghostliness in the poetry anew”, and recontextualising the spectrality at work within the “hauntedness in the canon” (4). Hickey suggests, citing Colin Davis, that spectrality “holds open the possibility of an unconditional encounter with otherness” (76), and given that notions of otherness are so often at the root of violence and conflict, a way of seeing otherness as less threatening and perhaps closer to us than we would like to admit, can only be of value.
Beginning with his own home place, both the garden in “Digging” and the pump in his “Mossbawn” prose essay, Heaney moves out in a spatial and temporal trajectory across his books, writing about Iron Age bog bodies, Buile Shuibhne, Ancient Greece, Virgil, and Dante. For Hickey these are less themes than spectral sites which allow him to look at aspects of selfhood from the imagined perspective of the other. He quotes Derrida’s point in Spectres of Marx that the present can be seen to be made up purely of traces whose return “comes to disjoin or dis-adjust the identity of itself” (Derrida xx). Hickey suggests that it is this power of the ghost to disrupt certainty by its return that is of such sustaining value for Heaney, whose own work he persuasively argues is a cosmopolitan, aesthetic force. In this sense, “the haunted nature of the poem does not suggest that Virgil’s work controls each movement and turn that Heaney makes, but rather Virgilian ghosts can be seen to raise their heads and have a place in this poem that deals with issues of the contemporary moment” (104).
Derrida has also clearly linked the nature of the spectre with the trace in terms of memory and hauntology, and Hickey again notes Derrida’s comments in Memoires for Paul de Man that everything that we relate to or see in the present always carries “the signature of memoirs-from-beyond-the-grave” (qtd. in Hickey 134). Hickey’s effective use of Derrida, a notoriously difficult thinker, engages with specific aspects of his thought which he then teases out before making the connections with Heaney’s work. It is not a simple didactic application of Derrida, nor is it Derrida dumbed down: in this reading, Derrida and Heaney can be seen to inform aspects of the other’s thought, and this is due to the careful sequencing of quotation and argumentation.
Hickey then looks at the different and quite cosmopolitan spectres used by Heaney, all the more interesting when the very first spectre in his work is the familial and patriarchal grandfather in “Digging”, a trope which located Heaney as a poet of the local in the minds of many readers. Hickey traces Norse and British spectres of a more cosmopolitan colonialism than has been the norm in Irish cultural history and looks at how Heaney has used hauntings to help to manage the difficult political relationship that has existed been Ireland and England. He sees Heaney’s ability to “engage with British poetry and the many ghostly traits of culture and language inherited from the past develop a more pluralised and heterogeneous identity which adds strength to that fluid identity” (56). Such fluidity provides the focus of this chapter, looking at both British and Norse spectres of colonisation, and seeing one as haunted by the other in different ways. It is interesting to see the way Heaney uses both spectres to bounce off each other, and never quite asking the question as to why two such colonial processes have had such violently different results but allowing that question to remain to haunt us.
Heaney’s “bog poems” have been extensively discussed, so saying something new about them can be challenging. Hickey sees these poems as blending the material and the spectral in a demonstration of how ontologically present objects have their haunting traces about them: “‘Bog Oak’ probes the cultural heritage of Ireland through the shared heritage symbolised by the bog oak itself; it has been buried in the bog until it returns to haunt Heaney’s imagination and brings with it the ghosts of the Elizabethan past. It is not solely a symbol of Irishness or Britishness but rather a symbol of both” (51). Again, at a crucial point of the argument, Derrida is enlisted to good effect to provide a conceptual parallel for this practice. In this regard, the bog operates in line with Derrida’s thinking on the spectre: “everything begins before it begins” (Derrida, Spectres 202), in that “both the bog and the spectre can lay beneath the surface of conscious awareness until they return to haunt and influence the present once more” (67). It is an interesting reading of the bog poems, typical of Hickey’s ability to refresh existing readings of canonical poems.
Moving on to Heaney’s turn to the classics, Hickey looks at the centrality of Dante and The Divine Comedy across Heaney’s work, and notes that there is a double haunting going on here, as, just as Heaney is haunted by Dante, so both are haunted by Virgil. This chapter is very satisfying, especially as it leads into the final chapter which looks at “Route 110.” In this poem, the genesis of Heaney’s hauntings by the classical world are set out as Venus’s doves have their local material equivalent in McNicholl’s pigeons. The reading is sensitive and even foundational as this poem has not yet been the topic of much critical attention. Hickey’s work will set some of the tone for future readings. Heaney has always, from “Personal Helicon” and “Blacksmith,” in Death of a Naturalist and in the first paragraph of his Selected Prose Preoccupations, where he speaks about the sound of the “omphalos,” been obsessed – haunted – by the energies, sounds and symbols of the classical world of the past through European culture and classical mythology in poems like “Bann Valley Eclogue” and “Virgil: Eclogue IX.” The treatment of the influence of Virgil and Dante, and of their haunting the imagination, as well as the sound and shape of the writing is captured here. The casual and easy way Heaney manages the connections is effectively evoked:
The spectre cannot be cast away and when Heaney imagines Bellaghy as being like the Elysian Fields then it puts the sequence in touch with the eternal, it places his world in touch with the classical. The spectres of Heaney’s world and past blend and fuse with those of canonical literature as Heaney is translating his experiences into certain aspects of Aeneid VI: we could say that he is also haunting Virgil’s text. (167)
Hickey is correct in that influences flow across time and space, and that to read Virgil or Dante in the wake of Heaney is to read them anew, while being haunted by the Heaney reading. Finally, of course, the classical world and classical literature established many of our notions about life after death and in a period when violent death has been the topic, or at least the backdrop, of so much of Heaney’s life and writing, then such a structure must be comforting: “much of the poetry is steeped in the violence and images of the dead and strives towards a way out of the violence, it is a journey towards transcendental peace” (157).
In summation, this is a book focused on specific thematic connections between Derrida and Heaney in terms of haunting. It is well-written, well-constructed and it is scholarly, as are all of the major figures in Heaney Studies consulted here, but Hickey’s own voice is not drowned out by them. He clearly has something to say as he joins that conversation, and we will be hearing that voice for quite some time.
Davis, Colin (2007). Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis and the Return of the Dead. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Derrida, Jacques (1989). Memoires for Paul de Man, Revised Edition. Trans Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf. New York: Columbia University Press.
______ (2006). Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, The Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London and New York: Routledge.