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Field Work by Seamus Heaney

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Field Work by Seamus Heaney is a collection of poems that follow his removal from Belfast, Ireland, to the country south of Dublin in the County Wicklow.  It’s clear that even as his family has been away from the troubles in Northern Ireland, they are still foremost in his mind and poems.  Some of these poems are elegies to the friends and family he has lost along the way, but these poems are less focused on the political and more focused on his internal, emotional struggle with the issues in Ireland.  In “Oysters,” the narrator talks of himself as an estuary in which the oysters atop, and as he tastes the saltiness he recognizes that the oysters are “alive and violated.”  As the poem evolves, it is clear that the oysters are Ireland, split in two — ripped apart violently.  As the narrator eats, he recognizes that he must be deliberate in his actions or he will be forced into action, actions that could be reckless.

In “Casualty,” the narrator wants to supply a full picture of the Irish struggle — a man sits at a bar and continues to drink from the high shelf and he’s a “dole-breadwinner.”  But soon we see him through the eyes of the narrator, a man with a quick, observant eye.  His death is swift and among the other 12 in a Derry blast, in which “Everybody held/his breath and trembled.”  A man that questioned and raised concerns, simply swept away by a random decision to enter an bar that was not his usual.  How many times can we say we have deviated from our routines and how soon before we find ourselves the next casualty of a decision we had no idea was bad.

The downtrodden, the working class, and others are here between these pages.  “The gunwale’s lifting ear –/trusting the gift,/risking gift’s undertow–/is unmanned now//” (“In Memoriam Sean O’Riada”)  In a nod to Yeats, Heaney examines what the artist and musician means to him, but cautions that he is not the same as the fisherman that Yeats held in esteem.  There are several references and allusions to Yeats in this collection.

However, one of the best rendered sections may be the “Glanmore Sonnets” where Heaney turns his keen eye to the country around him.  Here he demonstrates his love for the people in the country and their welcoming nature, though his thoughts do turn to other times, especially during a “first night … in that hotel … ”

X

I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal
On turf banks under blankets, with our faces
Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle,
Pallid as the dripping sapling birches.
Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate.
Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.
Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out
Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.
And in that dream I dreamt -- how like you this? --
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss
To raise us towards the lovely and painful
Covenants of flesh; our separateness;
The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.

There is a dream-like quality to many of these poems, as Heaney meditates on the past and the present issues facing Ireland. The narrator says in “High Summer,” “On the last day, when I was clearing up,/on a warm ledge I found a bag of maggots/and opened it. A black/and throbbing swarm came riddling out/life newsreel of a police force run amok,/sunspotting flies in gauzy meaty flight,/the barristers and black berets of light.//” It’s clear that the struggles are ever-present, even in the country, and there is no escaping their dark shadows even in Field Work by Seamus Heaney.

About the Poet:

Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet, writer and lecturer from County Derry, Ireland. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 335 pgs.
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Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann provides a stark view of the life of draftees, like Philip Dosier (Flip), and he pulls no punches in his account of this young man’s life in war.  He’s too young at home to buy alcohol or to vote, but in Nam, he can kill, swear, smoke pot, drink, and die for his country all without explanation or understanding.  Troops are to follow orders, and not to question, but in Flip’s case, and those around him, ignoring, circumventing, or blatantly disregarding orders can be a sign of brotherhood or stupidity.  Close quarters is a fine-tuned look at soldiering, the interactions between grunts and officers, and the friendships fired in the kiln of war.

“I can never go home.  I just want to see it.  I won’t say a thing, cross my heart.  I just want to see it one more time.  I want to smell it, touch it ever so lightly, put my ear to it and hear it tap, tap, tap.” (pg. 279)

“When I first came into the platoon, that was what struck me about the tracks.  They were huge and lumbering, stunted animations of some slow and wild thing.  Noisy and fat, grunting cartoons, smelling of thirty-weight oil and gunpowder and beer piss, … And I am filthy all the time.  I feel that grit, that crawl of the skin, something itching all the time, and greasy.” (pg. 280)

As these men run on adrenaline and beer — one to get through the fear and the other to numb the horror — they are unaware that they have changed.  In the lulls between ambushes, missions, and unexpected firefights, these men are like friends who hang out drinking beers and becoming sounding boards.  To become a sounding board for someone else is far easier than dealing with the war’s affect on yourself in some cases, but there are some images that cannot be shaken.

Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann is claustrophobic in its graphic violence, its frank spoken dialogue between male soldiers, and the threat of war that surrounds them all — it’s that unexploded bomb in the next room.  It ranges from lull moments of camaraderie and R&R with a prostitute in Tokyo to the small round hole left in the head of the man next to you.  Heinemann expresses the complexities of war in one soldier’s account, and he examines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so that readers realize just how real the war still is even when veterans arrive home.

About the Author:

Larry Heinemann (born 1944) is an American novelist born and raised in Chicago. His body of work is primarily concerned with the Vietnam War. Mr. Heinemann served a combat tour in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the 25th Infantry Division, and has described himself as the most ordinary of soldiers. Mr. Heinemann’s military experience is documented in his most recent work, Black Virgin Mountain (2005), his only nonfiction piece. Black Virgin Mountain also chronicles his return trips to Vietnam and his blunt personal and political views concerning the country and the war. He has often referred to his books about Vietnam as an accidental trilogy.

While serving in Vietnam, Mr. Heinemann fought in a battle near the Cambodian border in which filmmaker Oliver Stone also participated. Mr. Heinemann writes of the battle in his first novel, Close Quarters (1977), and in Black Virgin Mountain, and it also forms the basis for the climactic battle scene in Stone’s Platoon.

His fictional prose style is uncompromisingly harsh and honest, and reflects his working class background. His second and critically acclaimed novel is Paco’s Story (1986), which won the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction, topping Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a decision that some thought controversial.[1] At the time, Mr. Heinemann’s only response to the controversy was that the prize, a check for $10,000, was already cashed, and that the Louise Nevelson sculpture, a gift from the National Book Foundation, was not likely to be returned. Paco’s Story relates the quasi-picaresque postwar experiences of its titular protagonist, who is haunted by the ghosts of his dead comrades from the war. These ghosts provide the novel’s narrative voice. The story deals with the role of the American GI as both victim and victimizer. It is interesting to note that ghost stories are common in both American and Vietnamese literature about the war.

His third novel, Cooler by the Lake (1992), departed from the topic of Vietnam and was not very successful, either critically and commercially.

The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa — broken into three sections — challenges the mind and the internal rhythm of our souls.  It challenges our preconceptions about everything from music to what it means to be an African American.  In the form of aubades and odes, Komunyakaa evokes song throughout the collection, which have readers very focused on how the rhythms of the poems impact them beyond the words spoken.  The poet is striving to reach not only the logical mind here, but something deeper, ethereal, like a soul.

There are allusions in this volume that are religious, musical, and mythological, but these do not detract from the poems’ power.  “Kindness” (page 28), is one of the most dense poems in the collection, filled with a number of allusions including the consumption of salt as a sign of friendship.  However, even if not all the references are clear at first glance, it is clear that kindness is often recognized even in the bleakest of moments and in the darkest of places even if someone has been a “stranger” to it.

There are a range of emotions and thoughts in this collection, the narrator of these poems changes like the lizard, adapting to the moment and blending into the environment he finds himself in. The cover is reminiscent of the dark jungle of our lives as we try to navigate our way sometimes in the shadows for the silence of observation, but oftentimes to hide from the actions and decisions we have made or are frightened of making.  Meanwhile, other decisions seem inevitable and natural.

Excerpt from:  Conceived in a Time of War (page 37)

Because your mother & father kissed
beneath a hail of Roman candles,
you crawled out of one thousand
tiny deaths, stubborn as aster
in stony clay.  A goddess of dawn
scooted under a zing of barbed wire
to witness your birth. . . .

Komunyakaa’s poems have a musicality equivalent to Jazz.  “Jazz has space, and space equals freedom, a place where the wheels of imagination can turn and a certain kind of meditation can take place.  It offers a meditational opportunity,” he once said.  His poems are just like this, providing moments of pause, allowing readers to interact with the lines and images.  “How many ghosts followed us/into the basement to Muniak’s bepop gig/to hear the saxophone argue with the piano?/” from “Aubade at Hotel Copernicus” (page 33-4).

Komunyakaa is paying homage to all forms of the human spirit — good or bad — in The Chameleon Couch, but the poems are never indifferent. In “A Translation of Silk” (page 17), “One can shove his face against silk/& breathe in centuries of perfume/on the edge of a war-torn morning/where men fell so hard for iron/they could taste it. Now, today,/a breeze disturbs a leafy pagoda/printed on slow cloth. A creek/begins to move. His brain trails,/lagging behind his fingers to learn/suggestion is more than radiance/” Some poems are about the legacy we leave behind, the anger about historical events like the Holocaust, and the quieter moments each of us shares with our lover or family. Another extraordinary candidate for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards and the “best of” list.

Also please check out the poem from this collection that I featured in the 117th Virtual Poetry Circle.

About the Poet:

Yusef Komunyakaa is an American poet who currently teaches at New York University and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Komunyakaa is a recipient of the 1994 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, for Neon Vernaculaand the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Komunyakaa received the 2007 Louisiana Writer Award for his enduring contribution to the poetry world.

His subject matter ranges from the black general experience through rural Southern life before the Civil Rights time period and his experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War.

This is my 26th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.