The Haw Lantern
By Seamus Heaney
New York: The Noonday Press, 1987
First, let us look at a simple, web-based definition of clearance, from
The act or process of clearing.
A space cleared; a clearing.
The amount of space or distance by which a moving object clears something.
The height or width of a passage: an underpass with a 13-foot clearance.
An intervening space or distance allowing free play, as between machine parts.
Permission for an aircraft, ship, or other vehicle to proceed, as after an inspection of equipment or cargo or during certain traffic conditions.
Official certification of blamelessness, trustworthiness, or suitability.
A sale, generally at reduced prices, to dispose of old merchandise.
The passage of checks and other bills of exchange through a clearing-house.
The removal by the kidneys of a substance from blood plasma.
Since poets tend to be in love with words in and of themselves, the very sound and metaphor as well as their explicit meanings, my first thought on "Clearances," an eight-poem group in The Haw Lantern, was a
clearing - what you come across sometimes after wandering through woods. The volume's blurb tells us that the series is "a sonnte sequence concerning the death of the poet's mother." My first thoughts upon reading these poems was that the poet had spent some time wandering through other subjects - the woods - before arriving at stories about his mother. But clearance is not written until section 7, and it refers to emptiness felt immediately after the death of Mary Heaney: "Clearances that suddenly stood open./ High cries were felled and a pure change happened." Nothing seems right after her death, we read in section 8: "the decked chestnut tree had lost its place .../ my coeval/ Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,/ Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,/ A soul ramifying forever/ Silent, beyond silence listened for."
Loss and remembrance are thematic throughout The Haw Lantern, beginning with the first poem, "Alphabets," in which Heaney looks back on the days he learned to write, read, and his progression in both
through his early youth. He learns about letters with "A shadow his father makes with joined hands/ ... Like a rabbit's head. He understands/ He will understand more when he goes to school." His teacher shows him a trick for writing numbers - two is "A swan's neck and a swan's back/ Make the 2 he can see now as well as say." He associates the forms of objects with the alphabet: "A globe in the window tilts like a colored O [a letter mentioned four times in the poem]" and in its penultimate form reminds him of Roman Emperor Constantine's "You will conquer" - letters will never abandon him, though his youthful days it school are temporally irretrievable. Constantine's vision related to martial victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312 ("In hoc
signo vinces"); Heaney's is of a future as a man of letters. "O" would remain with him, allowing his fascination with language to come, literally, as in the shape of an "O," full circle with the "shadow."
In the second poem, "Terminus," the speaker becomes "the last earl on horseback in midstream." "Terminus" is less accessible to the general reader than "Alphabets." One has to have a keen awareness to its
allusions (are there still Earls in Northern Ireland, for example, and how does this subject, or symbol, relate to the poem?). If the poem is about poetry, the decision to become a writer, "Terminus" may be read as that liminal space right before a choice is made. "Baronies, parishes met where I was born./ When I stood on the central stepping stone/ ... I was the last earl on horseback in midstream/ Still parleying, in earshot of his peers." It is not the words but the themes which are dense and harder to tease out. Still, the narrator is "in midstream," neither here, nor there, but he has left the school-houses of "Alphabets."
As it is explained to reader before opening the volume that a good deal of its poems are about Mary
Heaney (almost 25 percent of the 31 poems), "The Haw Lantern" seems lush with themes, from nature to Diogenes of Sinope (the one who went around Athens with his lamp, looking for an honest man), to life that
touches - then leaves - you. It may be useful to look at what a haw is, the hawthorn bush, with its "lantern" being the bulbous red fruit. The crataegus is indeed found in Europe, along with much of the rest of the world. Its seeds are in its fruit, and it commonly puts out small white flowers. It is also, although not always, can be a thorn
bush. (Please note that I am basing this on my own knowledge of the hawthorn from cultivating it over the years. Others' results may vary.) But in Heaney's hawthorn, one perceives something of wonder, that could be healing - or dangerous:
The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
the wick of self-respect from dying out.
not having to blind them with illumination.
"The wintry haw" may refer to the flowers, yet this is a bush "burning out of season" in the line's counterpoint. The plant is a guide to self-realization, but, in strophe two, it is also something which briefly affects you, before it "moves on." "It's blood prick that you wish would test and clear you,/ its pecked-at-ripeness that scans you, then moves on." As we enter into a topographical historo-political metaphor in "Parable Island" and the fate of an ancestral king in "A Ship of Death" before moving to "Clearances," the thing that "scans" will become, on subsequent readings, a life, a person, who has passed away -but not before leaving his or her mark.
The second stanza of "The Milk Factory" is almost cathartic in contrast to the poems that came before it. "There we go, soft-eyed calves of the dew,/ Astounded and assumed into fluorescence." It is a kindly image,
but their life "of the dew" is not to be as they grow and take their
place into the world of the eponymous title, but
the couplet at the end gentles the reader after all the emotional deprivation of the earlier poems.
Yet misplacement returns, strongly, in "The Wishing Tree." Reminiscent of Shel Silverstein's book, The
Giving Tree (1994), the tree that is helpful even in its human-based ruin, we are back in a land of
anthropomorphized nature, a tree as a beloved who has passed on:
I thought I saw her as the wishing tree that died
And saw it lifted, root and branch, to heaven,
Trailing a shower of all that had been driven
Need by need by need into its hale
Sap-wood and bark: coin and pin and nail
Came streaming from it like a comet-tail
Newly-minted and dissolved, I had a vision
Of an airy branch-head rising through damp cloud.
Of turned-up faces where the tree had stood.
Still, all is not corrupt in The Haw Lantern. One of my favorite Heaney poems is about life, birth, and reconciliation. "A Peacock's Feather," concerns the birth "Daisy, Daisy, English niece." Heaney says upfront, without the asking the reader to understand, that the poem is a love-song, "a billet-doux" to a newborn "Darkened with Celts' and Saxon's blood," and says "Let us pray. May tilth and loam,/ ... Breastfeed your love of house and wood." His Christening gift is the poem on her land, her spirit, 'Where this I drop for you, as I pass,/ Like the peacock's feather on the grass." Although not the last poem in the volume, it is the most hopeful piece in a book that is concerned mainly with decay and the bittersweet.