Mental Floss

Poems from Beneath the Mire

Ransom Riggs
facebooktwitterreddit

We don't write much about poetry here at the floss, which is something I'm considering changing, since it's so easy to post, talk about and enjoy. (Is that something you guys would be interested in?)

Using my post from last week on strange things found in bogs as a segue, I wanted to focus in this post on the Nobel prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, much of whose early work is also concerned with strange things found in bogs. "Some critics regard these early bog poems as Heaney's chief legacy," the BBC writes, "eloquently examining the collective historical conscience, going below the more recent Protestant and Catholic hatreds into primeval Celtic behavior, "domains of the cold-blooded," where stark evidence of a murderous past has been preserved in the timeless vegetal world of the bogs." (Couldn't have said it better myself.)

I love Heaney's bog poems, and though they span several books of his early poetry written in the late 60s and early 70s, I think they read wonderfully when taken together. I'll post them here, in chronological order, along with some photographs of some of the bog-things he describes.

Bogland for T.P. Flanagan We have no prairies To slice a big sun at evening-- Everywhere the eye concedes to Encrouching horizon, Is wooed into the cyclops' eye Of a tarn. Our unfenced country Is bog that keeps crusting Between the sights of the sun. They've taken the skeleton Of the Great Irish Elk Out of the peat, set it up An astounding crate full of air. Butter sunk under More than a hundred years Was recovered salty and white. The ground itself is kind, black butter Melting and opening underfoot, Missing its last definition By millions of years. They'll never dig coal here, Only the waterlogged trunks Of great firs, soft as pulp. Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards, Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless.

boglands_for_seamus_heaney_1967.jpg
boglands_for_seamus_heaney_1967.jpg /

Bog Oak A carter's trophy split for rafters, a cobwebbed, black, long-seasoned rib under the first thatch, I might tarry with the moustached dead, the creel-fillers, or eavesdrop on their hopeless wisdom as a blow-down of smoke struggles over the half-door and mizzling rain blurs the far end of the cart track. The softening ruts lead back to no 'oak groves', no cutters of mistletoe in the green clearings. Perhaps I just make out Edmund Spenser, dreaming sunlight, encroached upon by geniuses who creep 'out of every corner of the woodes and glennes' towards watercress and carrion.

From wikipedia: "Bog-wood is wood from trees that have been buried in peat bogs and preserved from decay by the acidic and anaerobic bog conditions, sometimes for hundreds or even thousands of years. Because bog-wood can remain undecayed for thousands of years it is of use in dendrochronology, often providing records much older than living trees. Wooden artifacts lost or buried in bogs become preserved as bog-wood, and are important in archaeology. Bog-wood may be used in joinery to make furniture or wood carving. Bog-wood sometimes has aesthetically interesting shapes (similar to driftwood) and as such may be use as ornaments.

The Tollund Man I Some day I will go to Aarhus To see his peat-brown head, The mild pods of his eye-lids, His pointed skin cap. In the flat country near by Where they dug him out, His last gruel of winter seeds Caked in his stomach, Naked except for The cap, noose and girdle, I will stand a long time. Bridegroom to the goddess, She tightened her torc on him And opened her fen, Those dark juices working Him to a saint's kept body, Trove of the turfcutters' Honeycombed workings. Now his stained face Reposes at Aarhus. II I could risk blasphemy, Consecrate the cauldron bog Our holy ground and pray Him to make germinate The scattered, ambushed Flesh of labourers, Stockinged corpses Laid out in the farmyards, Tell-tale skin and teeth Flecking the sleepers Of four young brothers, trailed For miles along the lines. III Something of his sad freedom As he rode the tumbril Should come to me, driving, Saying the names Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard, Watching the pointing hands Of country people, Not knowing their tongue. Out here in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home.

The Tollund Man is one of the best-preserved bog bodies ever recovered. He was a victim -- perhaps a willing one -- of some unknown sacrificial ritual in the 4th century BC in what is today the Jutland peninsula of Denmark.

Bog Queen I lay waiting Between turf-face and demesne wall, Between Heathery levels And glass-toothed stone. My body was Braille For the creeping influences: Dawn suns groped over my head And cooled at my feet, Through my fabrics and skins The seeps of winter Digested me, The illiterate roots Pondered and died In the cavings Of stomack and socket. I lay waiting On the gravel bottom, My brain darkening, A jar of spawn Fermenting underground Dreams of Baltic amber. Bruised berries under my nails, The vital hoard reducing In the crock of the pelvis. My diadem grew carious, Gemstones dropped In the peat floe Like the bearings of history. My sash was a black glacier Wrinkling, dyed weaves And phoenician stichwork Retted on my brests' Soft moraines. I knew winter cold Like the nuzzle of fjords At my thighs - The soaked fledge, the heavy Swaddle of hides. my skull hibernated in the wet nest of my hair. Which they robbed. I was barbered And stripped By a turfcutter's spade Who veiled me again And packed coomb softly Between the stone jambs At my head and my feet. Till a peer's wife bribed him. The plait of my hair, A slimy birth-cord Of bog had been cut And I rose from the dark, Hacked bone, skull-ware, Frayed stitches, tufts, Small gleams on the bank.

800px-Grauballemanden3.jpg
800px-Grauballemanden3.jpg /

The Grauballe Man As if he had been poured in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep the black river of himself. The grain of his wrists is like bog oak, the ball of his heel like a basalt egg. His instep has shrunk cold as a swan's foot or a wet swamp root. His hips are the ridge and purse of a mussel, his spine an eel arrested under a glisten of mud. The head lifts, the chin is a visor raised above the vent of his slashed throat that has tanned and toughened. The cured wound opens inwards to a dark elderberry place. Who will say "˜corpse' to his vivid cast? Who will say "˜body' to his opaque repose? And his rusted hair, a mat unlikely as a foetus's. I first saw his twisted face in a photograph, a head and shoulder out of the peat, bruised like a forceps baby, but now he lies perfected in my memory, down to the red horn of his nails, hung in the scales with beauty and atrocity: with the Dying Gaul too strictly compassed on his shield, with the actual weight of each hooded victim, slashed and dumped.

Another Danish bog body, Grauballe Man died around 290 BC. His body was so well preserved that fingerprints could be made from his fingers. His throat was cut and his skull fractured.

Grauballemanden_stor.jpg
Grauballemanden_stor.jpg /

Punishment I can feel the tug of the halter at the nape of her neck, the wind on her naked front. It blows her nipples to amber beads, it shakes the frail rigging of her ribs. I can see her drowned body in the bog, the weighing stone, the floating rods and boughs. Under which at first she was a barked sapling that is dug up oak-bone, brain-firkin: her shaved head like a stubble of black corn, her blindfold a soiled bandage, her noose a ring to store the memories of love. Little adultress, before they punished you you were flaxen-haired, undernourished, and your tar-black face was beautiful. My poor scapegoat, I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence. I am the artful voyeur of your brain's exposed and darkened combs, your muscles' webbing and all your numbered bones: I who have stood dumb when your betraying sisters, cauled in tar, wept by the railings, who would connive in civilized outrage yet understand the exact and tribal, intimate revenge.

Strange Fruit Here is the girl's head like an exhumed gourd. Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth. They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair And made an exhibition of its coil, Let the air at her leathery beauty. Pash of tallow, perishable treasure: Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod, Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings. Diodorus Siculus confessed His gradual ease with the likes of this: Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible Beheaded girl, outstaring axe And beatification, outstaring What had begun to feel like reverence.

The parallels between the murders of ancient Ireland which were being excavated from the bogs and the political killings in the modern-day Ireland of the 1970s, when Heaney was writing, are undeniable. Watching Heaney try and make sense of his homeland's bloody legacy of violence through poetry is entrancing.

facebooktwitterreddit