Seamus Heaney writes a traditionally structured and valenced sort of poem--he's never deviated very far from his habitual forms--2 or 3 or 4 line stanzas, or outright sonnets--but his inventiveness and light wit have intrigued me since the 1960's, when I first read his poems in The New Yorker.
Monday, July 27, 2009
On a Poem by Seamus Heaney - 'The Rain Stick'
One of my favorite Heaney poems is 'The Rain Stick.' For those who may not be familiar, the Saguaro cactus, which is native to the American Southwest, strikes an impressive profile-figure on the desert landscape, shooting up 30 or 40 feet into the air, their raised blunt curved arms, striated with rows of giant spikes (thorns).
When these giant cacti die, the waxy green pulp dries and fades, revealing the bony vertical rods of cellulose which form the "skeleton" of the plant. The hollow "tubes" are hacked down by native Americans, filled with seeds or small pebbles and their ends sealed off, producing a kind of huge rattle. The sound that is produced by tipping these tubes upsidedown and back again, sounds exactly like raindrops hitting dusty earth, a gentle "shhhh" or whirring noise familar to anyone whose been in a desert rainstorm. The sound thus produced evokes all the associations--the coolness, the sudden ionization of ozone in the atmosphere, the contrast of the large discrete drops--one experiences in a desert rain. A very vivid evocation.
Heaney's poem is an innocently offered description of the experience of handling one of these rainsticks, the originality of a child's delight in an ingenious toy. Nothing like it in Ireland--Heaney's native land--so it's an entirely novel encounter, likely to be treated as such. A mental souvenir vouchsafed from the exotic drylands of Arizona or New Mexico.
The Rain Stick
Up-end the stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly
And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,
Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
The glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, and thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.
This is a straightforward poem in almost every sense. The use of classic onomatapoeia to imitate the sense, if not the actual physical sound-sensation, of the rain-stick's patter--"the glitter drizzle"; "the subtle little wets off grass"--"like a pipe being played by water."
The pleasure which is perceived at the primitive level--"is undiminished" through repetition, and you are "like a rich man entering heaven / Through the ear of a raindrop" (a delightful play upon the old phrase "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God"). A raindrop thus acquires the symbolic quality of an instrument of divine transmission.
What I admire about the poem is its transparent guilelessness. It isn't trying to convince you of something which the poet feels you need to know for your own good. It's a gift outright, a piece of the wondrous fabric of direct experience, ethically neutral, without any baggage.
Do we "exploit" the Indian culture by writing about it? Do we "possess" it for aesthetic exploitation? Or does it exist right at the level of juvenile apprehension, where wonder and intrigue light up our sensibilities with curiosity and delight? The Rain Stick--a totem object, a sacred tool to summon life-giving water.