Death of a Naturalist – a tribute to Seamus Heaney

Only yesterday I was considering finding myself a complete copy of this anthology and reviewing it here as a tribute to my absolute favourite poet; Seamus Heaney. Now I find myself writing a tribute to his memory. Heaney was for me an inspirational man; as a literature student and self designated ‘eco-poet’ the poetry of nature has always been a medium in which I could lose myself.

It was back at the age of 15 when I first stumbled upon Heaney’s work as part of my GCSEs, and since then the Death of a Naturalist anthology has followed me as some of the most memorable poems I have ever read.

Mid Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Mid Term break was written for Heaney’s brother after the four year old child was tragically killed in a car accident. For me is a solumn reminder of mortality. And now its creator has died – seventy years older than his sibling – but for me the poem still rings true. If his father were alive now I can’t help but feel someone would meet him once again crying on the porch.

But for me Heaney is much more than just a writer of sad memories. This post is called Death of a Naturalist because Heaney himself was the naturalist in his eyes:

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

The poem reflects upon the plight of growing older – the young child fascinated by nature juxtaposed with the older; wiser but repulsed. In my eyes Heaney never lost this spark of nature, his poetry always held true to it.

I remember in my university book shop; Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy visited for a reading last year. The book seller advertised this to me and I replied to him; if you get Seamus Heaney in I’ll be the first in line. He said he’d look into it – I guess I have lost that chance now.

I’ll end with some of my own work. I wrote this (admittedly rather lengthly) poem last year after buying a copy of the Opened Ground anthology – a selection of his work from 1966 to 1996, Heaney was my main inspiration – the nature entwined into the poet. It may be that the Death of the Naturalist has come; but his poems live on.

Flora and Fauna

Water

The rising and diving minnow is tossed
up and out of the pool and ripple.
Scales like chromium, sunlight caught
and returned. Concentric re-entry;
the minnow propels a droplet into the air
which settles on a sun-scorched stone.
Microscopic. Vapour rises as vague
clouds turn above. Falling into mist
infected morning. Cool air rushes
past lily pads, past the bristle
of reeds which stand firm on the bank.
A dewdrop rests upon damp grass.

Dew

A worrisome mouse, tired
from the night’s hunt drags an acorn
back to its nest as the dew drop
drops. The mouse is startled
by sudden vibrations. Stops
still as a photograph. Left,
right. Clear. He drags his prize
underground. The bead of dew quivers
at its gargantuan company.
The drip sits on the yellowing veins
of a fallen oak leaf. A thousand lensed
eye watches his nourishment.

Insects

A drunken wasp, fatigued by autumn.
Wafts through the air to the trembling
droplet. It crouches, taking its fill of water.
Stretched out legs clutch the droplet.
Mandible tears, chews and swallows.
The droplet deflates like a punctured tyre.
The predator flees. Black laced with yellow
laced with poison. Blown off course.
The tired creature falls.
Displaced dust. Lace wings torn.
Its body convulses on the cold earth.
Obscurity pulls around it.

Wings

The early bird catches the
wasp. His beak slowly closes.
Crunched exoskeleton.
Takes off on wings of air, up and out
cruising the currents. Far below
the brook meanders like a lost child.
The river runs fast here. The bird rests
in a willow tree. Ragged feathers
among the broken nest egg.
He senses danger. Takes his leave.
The willow shudders.
The entire scene falls silent.

The Invader

A pristine petticoat skips
over the morning moistened
grasses. Each impact leaving
a faint green stain on the cotton.
Her mother will be furious.
She clutches a glass jar in her hand.
Kneels at the riverbank, reaches
and scoops. The jar fills. Green water
and glass. A shell containing
skittering minnow. Sporadic
circling in the slow rotation
as the water combats its container

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So the problem with review blogs…

It’s 10:55am on a Tuesday in August, and I had the sudden urge to blog something. I was wandering through freshly pressed reading things about genre and editing and thinking; well this blog is all about reviews; so I can’t really add much to it…

What I’m not looking for is a general purpose blog with a few reviews on it, I want this to be a pretty solid review blog; what can I say, I have got it in my head that it’ll be helpful some day. Whether it will or not I have no idea, but at least I can have some fun whinging about books I don’t like and praising the ones I do. Right now I am reading Audrey Niffenegger’ The Time Traveller’s Wife and; it being as far a stretch from C as you can get, has drawn me in completely. It’s nice to have a change every once in a while; and look at what I’ve reviewed – I like my variety.
(Co-incidentally, this is also why I don’t want to read the Game of Thrones series, because how boring would it be to just have 7 consecutive reviews all about George R.R. Martin and how he can create a pretty damned excellent (and absorbing; according to my family) set of fantasy novels. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against fantasy. I’d just rather see this blog filled with all sorts of things rather than 7 of essentially the same thing.

But that’s what my problem is; ‘all sorts of things’ only comes when I finish the book I’m reading and The Time Traveller’s Wife is around 600 pages long; so it’s not exactly anorexic in book standards. But this got me thinking, would it be so bad to find myself some short stories and post my thoughts on them? I think I’d refrain from individual poems – but a poetry collection? Maybe a few plays will get a look in! (but for that I’d have to scrounge together some money to go and see the things first… or at least find a dramatisation on YouTube starring Kenneth Branagh, I’m pretty sure I’ll find one for most things.)

I think it may be time to expand; certainly. I doubt I’ll be branching into film and television, but the more literary side of things I can see happening. Ideally I’d like to post on here around once a week, a nice transition from once a book, I think.

C by Tom McCarthy

There are certain books where modernism is pushed too far (if you read my blog, you’ll know which), then there are some which in my opinion hit the proverbial nail right on the head. C is that. I’ll admit to liking McCarthy after reading his first novel Remainder; his style is unique, but interesting. He explores his readers’ psyches almost as much as his characters’ through a complex and evocative vocabulary. His words challenge your perception of what is and isn’t real or acceptable in ways that other writers never could.
9780141341934

C is McCarthy’s third novel and received generally mixed reviews upon release, but was nonetheless shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker award. The story follows the life of Serge Carrefax; an electric character ‘born to the sound of one of the very first experimental wireless stations.’ The novel mirrors this electricity, it’s short, intense and indeed “shocking.” Serge’s life however brief is extraordinarily complex: his father – a professor for deaf children and wireless radio enthusiast aligns his son with a motif of signals and static. There is a sense that there is a constant flowing energy following Serge through the pages. McCarthy explores an array of settings in which Serge flies through, leaving an impression but never staying in for too long. This of course gives the book some much needed variation – from his home life, through the first world war to the drug addled London of the roaring Twenties and finally to Egypt. Throughout, Serge’s fixations grow, he moves from his place as a curious child, experimenting with his sister’s chemistry set, to experimenting with drugs and eventually moving to his element as a ‘Pylon Man’ in Egypt.

C in essence is a book which is a character in itself. Serge carries the novel, it’s his personal development which the reader will follow. This counts towards the novel in many respects. A character driven novel is an excellent concept, and when well executed it becomes an excellent novel. C, or more specifically the character of Serge makes a discordant plot line, indeed, less of a plot ‘line’ than a plot ‘scribble,’ connect in ways you wouldn’t initially see. there is a communication between each of the sections – the hard ‘C’ and the soft ‘C’ seem to represent the two sides of Serge with the clicking and hissing static of a signal which is lost to the air.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

9780141341934Okay. Jonathan Safran Foer: critically acclaimed for his 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated is, and rightly so a very successful writer. Style sells. It’s edgy and post-modern and suitable for cinema. All in all he’s a people’s writer, and the people he’s writing for are those pining for this post-modern ideology. It’s perhaps true that he is a skilled writer with imagination and unique and interesting ideas. However, this unfortunately doesn’t save him from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Extremely Loud has a problem in my eyes and that is that pure and simply it has been over thought. We follow nine year old protagonist Oskar Schell; he is easily the most interesting character in the book. This child takes it upon himself to find a lock which fits a key, which he found in a vase on on the top shelf of a wardrobe in his parents’ bedroom, a year or so after his father died in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre. An interesting concept and one which certainly makes for a good story. If only this novel was a story. There is a story in there… somewhere… and it seems to be banging on the door to be let out, the only problem is that every few pages you get a scribble, or a picture of a doorknob, or a page which only had four words written on it, or a page from a pen testing notepad in an art shop – to name a few examples. The fact of the matter is that regardless how relevant these things are to the story; they get in the way of it. Yes, it does the job nicely of putting you behind Oskar’s eyes, seeing everything beyond a typical first person narrative by making the book seem more tactile. It also pulls you out of the flow of the story, as you meander over four pages of felt tip scrawled names, you get back into it having immediately forgotten what happened before.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I can deal with a book which jumps around on its own timeline. What I don’t like is when its timeline gets distorted by the text itself. The pictures confused me. Not because I didn’t understand them, some where vaguely relevant, some were extremely relevant, but a lot were gratuitous. The point the pictures made was lost on me relatively early on. It smacks of arrogance. the same problem can be seen with the title. I am fond of when an author uses a title which is taken from the text itself. Safran Foer takes it upon himself to allude to the title at least once per chapter, spurring many reviewers to copy his ‘extremely’ -adjective- and ‘incredibly’ -adjective- format. It seems almost impossible not to. The title is alluded to constantly; sometimes something is described as extremely loud, sometimes as incredibly close, sometimes as extremely sad and incredibly alone. It’s overdone. It’s so overdone it’s turned from the nice plump sausagey metaphor it could have been to a lump of charcoal you could write your name with (and believe me, I wouldn’t have put it past Safran Foer to put a sausage-charcoal written name on any page in this book).

Defying convention is fine, but this is scrunching convention into a ball, spitting on it and kicking it into the neighbour’s garden. This book is overrated, but what irks me more is that the reason it’s overrated is because the story is overshadowed by extremely overdone and incredibly unnecessary (oh come on I couldn’t resist!) attempts to be different. Call me a traditionalist if you want, but there is tradition and then there is pure sense verses nonsense. Guess which side this book falls on?

Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

Second_Glance_145982409Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance is a stalwart addition to Picoult’s ever expanding collection of bestselling novels, and from reading it isn’t difficult to see exactly how Picoult has earned such accolades. Picoult writes from a question, a ‘what would you do?’ a simple formula, but an effective one. The novel is far from simple, however.

Set in the sleepy town of Comtosook, Vermont, former ghost hunter (or so he would like to believe) Ross Wakeman moves in with his sister, Shelby and her son Ethan. Ethan is a long sufferer from Xeroderma pigmentosum, a disorder which creates an increased sensitivity to UV light. However, when ghostly occurrences strike the town, Ross finds himself roped into investigating. The plot takes paths you would not necessarily expect, jumping in and out of the history of the town and its people. What originally sets itself out as an emotional but romantic novel turns into something of great depth.

What I find interesting about Second Glance is the sheer amount of detail Picoult goes into with her research – the book encompasses a phenomenal mixture of complicated details, from police procedure when dealing with forensic analysis, an antiquated programme of eugenics in fifties Vermont, the technical side of ghost hunting and as I previously mentioned, Ethan’s XP. This fantastic level of detail really makes the book shine, and gives it a quality which fits so well into Picoult’s well-established voice. Picoult’s extensive detail in her plotline and settings also align with the intense emotional detail her characters. Picoult’s characters often have gone through, or will go through intense emotional trauma thought her novels. Ross’s late girlfriend Aimee died in a car accident while Ross was attempting to rescue the victim in the other car. There are significant moments which seem at first insignificant, and each character appears to be intertwined in a web which connects every detail of their lives, and this is carefully revealed though Picoult’s calculated style of writing. Jodi Picoult has been writing for years, and has developed her style. Second Glance is the absolute prime of this style, and is a truly fantastic read.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

ImageThe problem with George Orwell’s Animal Farm is simple enough to explain.

In my mind is that Orwell sat, scribbling at his desk and chuckling at how remarkably clever he thought he was being. Now, this is the second time I have read Animal Farm since the spritely age of fourteen, and I recall that back then I thought it was ‘okay.’ Looking back at it I am pretty certain it is terrible. Now, rather than mindlessly berating Orwell for the next four hundred words, I am going to see if I can explain exactly what it is I dislike here. Orwell has evidently aimed to write a satire, an allegory of the rise of the Soviet State. However, through the child like setting and colourful talking animal characters the book is filled with Orwell manages to turn communism farcical. This presumably was his objective. It doesn’t make it a good book though. Orwell’s narrative is naïve and basic, and although he is clearly aiming to mock with the book, it comes across as mocking itself – which is a real pull on credibility. Yes I know, talking animals, who can somehow write and build windmills is hardly the events one would expect at a regular farm – but by no means should this manifest as a lack of credibility. The Wind in the Willows is a perfect example – The three primary characters are essentially country gentlemen as much as they are talking animals, and yet the writing somehow makes everything plausible. Orwell it seems was too busy mocking to take any care over his characters, who end up as lifeless as the bacon they should become if the nondescript ‘Mr Jones’ had actually managed to keep hold of his farm.

I suppose the book does have some good points though. Though I wouldn’t readily give it to a child, it is worth reading for a younger teenager, purely as the allegory would likely play to their sense of humour – whereas to an adult it seems puerile. Also there is a clever subversion of the animals from the pigs, who play on the animals’ naivety to create the oft quoted paradox ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ But where this may be clever in terms of superiority of certain characters – the obvious dramatic irony is lost at the realistic dramatic irony the reader feels when reading it. Throughout the novella I couldn’t side with the animals as they were portrayed not as animals but rather as mentally challenged humans – this unhealthy comparison lowers the tone of what would be a clever allegory – reducing it to no more than a cheap joke.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

9780141341934Watership Down was originally told during car journeys to Stratford-upon-Avon, his audience were his wife and two daughters. Of course, Watership Down automatically triggers certain reactions in people, but I am hoping that these should be dispelled by reading the novel itself. Art Garfunkel ringing in my ears I began on a for hundred and seventy five page journey with Hazel-rah: the lapine protagonist and chief rabbit of what will become the Watership Down warren. It is difficult to critique a character of a rabbit, but Adam’s immersive writing sometimes leaves you forgetting you are actually reading about rabbits. Silflay, hraka, inlé are among some of the rabbit language words (and are some of the easiest to pronounce, in opposition to El-ahrairah and Thethunninang). The inclusion of this insight into the rabbit tongue draws you in fantastically. The rabbits develop their own words for their own use and our human perspective needs to understand these words to feel included in their society. The characters seem almost human in quality, and ironically, the humans in the novel are portrayed as uncouth and clumsy.

This is where Adams’ skill shines through. The story is wonderfully crafted, involving the extremely complex systems of rabbit politics, the thrill of the constant danger the rabbits find themselves in all add to the immersion in the rabbit universe. The book is of course the sort of book which forces you to hate humanity. Yes, we can imagine people we know as the builders who at the offset destroy an entire warren with gas. No, it doesn’t feel great. But in terms of its eco-centric writing, it is a real eye opener with a clean moral compass and a good message to tell. The rabbit is a creature with a thousand enemies – man is portrayed as one, killing because he can rather than for survival.

Watership Down is published by Puffin, the children’s literature sector of Penguin. But I have to ask, is the book which is full of graphic and gory descriptions of violence, complicated political situations including shapshots of communism and fascism, difficult and very advanced language (both in style and vocabulary) and each chapter being headed with quotations from works of literature, including some  from Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning and Thomas Hardy, really a children’s book? It is difficult to place it, but is the fact that it is a classic animal story so much that these situations count for the stuff we give to children? If Hazel was an eight year old girl and was shot and wounded, attacked by a cat, almost drowned in multiple rivers and forced to go to war with her neighbouring community would it be okay? Certainly not, but somehow animal stories can get away with this. Truth be told, Watership Down is terrifying. The film is even more so. But I would regardless recommend it. However, to be brutally honest, I would have to recommend it to an adult reader, or at least a child with a very strong stomach. Watership down is far from the cute animal story which is probably expected from it, and in my opinion, this is the greatest strength of the book.