(1991) is a collection of poetry written by Nobel Prize-winning Irish writer Seamus Heaney. The overarching theme uniting these poems is the movement between the physical world and the world of the imagination, between the tangible reality we see before us and the haunting, illusion-riddled domain of the creative mind. Many of the poems deal, either directly or indirectly, with Heaney's attempts to make sense of the death of his father five years earlier.
The collection opens with Heaney's translation of "Golden Bough," taken from the epic poem The Aeneid
by the Ancient Roman poet Virgil. Serving as a prologue to the pieces that follow, the poem chronicles picking fruit from a bough in order to gain entry to the underworld, thereby granting the speaker the authority to pass between worlds.
In this first section of the book, Heaney delves into the details of entering this shadowy side of the human spirit. The poem "The Journey Back" centers on Heaney's fellow poet, Philip Larkin, a renowned wordsmith who frequently ventured into the densest forests of creativity, only to return consistently to the workaday world.
The piece entitled "Markings" is a series of smaller poems in which Heaney mentally checks off a list of specific events, which go from the mundane to the dreamlike as the poems progress. They are Heaney's attempts to find the magic in the mundane, to touch the unseen via the seen. These attempts continue in "Three Drawings," again documenting everyday activities, but as the verses unfold, the doer—the person performing the activities—starts to mesh with the activities themselves, suggesting a oneness between commonplace tasks and greater, perhaps cosmic, forces.
One of the first poems to address the complex father-son relationship is "Man and Boy." In telling the story of a father and son, we see the boy experience his father's death, then become a father himself to the poet narrating the piece. The poet goes from narrator to character, and these shifting roles allow him to sympathize with both of the father characters as he navigates the worlds of the poem as documentarian and participant.
"Seeing Things," the title poem, examines movement through the transience of the human experience. The first part of the triptych speaks to a lesson in impermanence; the second part talks about a stone chiseled with images forever embedded in its surface; the third part is a conversation with a deceased father.
Many of the poems in Seeing Things
, such as "Pitchfork" and "The Skylight," address the magic of ordinary objects and events.
The book's second part, "Squarings," is a sequence of 48 poems, separated into four parts. The first begins with an exploration of light. An assessment of the movement of light, its flash of spirit and life, leads to a description of Christ on the cross, waiting for transubstantiation. As light becomes dark, and dark becomes light, as thoughts become words, and words become thoughts in the mind of the reader, Christ—like all of us—waits to be transformed from one state into another. It is another movement, another venturing among separate worlds.
The next part, "Settings," also has several parts. Each documents a particular backdrop in Heaney's life in which significant events once played out. These settings are keys that unlock his memories, portals to the world of the past and the world that made him who he is. They take on an almost mythical grandeur as the poet ushers the reader into the furthest reaches of his memory, and all the wonder, pain, and promise that still move with breath within these hallowed halls.
The third part, "Crossings," traverses into the settings previously described. Heaney uses doors, windows, gates, and, most prominently, water to better access this distant domain where the past resides, where the future awaits, and where the fertile ground of the creative imagination thrives. Heaney notes that once he starts to sense these things, they convert into recognizable concepts, objects, and ideas, hinting that perhaps the unknown isn't so innately unknowable after all.
In the last part of the poem, "Squarings," Heaney processes his journey. He aims to make real the sensory encounters he has had, discussing tangible things like smells and textures. But these moments always unspool into a sense of the infinite, breaking the boundaries of time and space and moving freely between worlds. Perhaps, Heaney seems to suggest, this is just the nature of life, a constant shuttling between the known and unknown, an eternal shifting between the mundanity of the everyday and the magic of whole universes just beyond our reach. These places are not entirely understandable by human measures of logic. They are only fully explored with creative leaps of thought and imagination. When we do that, we open ourselves to reconciling the pain of the past, to tapping into the power of the present, and to opening to the possibilities of the future.