Sunday, October 19, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 17, Number 10 (October 2006), p. 20.

Could I ever have imagined, when I first read Seamus Heaney’s “In Iowa” when it was published in The New Yorker in April of 2005, that someday that poem would speak directly to me—as if as a message sent from on high? Not likely. I have been reading Heaney for almost thirty years now, and one of the most striking aspects of his poetry involves its rootedness in what Heaney, in his volume Electric Light, refers to as the “known world”: primarily his boyhood world of rural south County Derry, with a few other Irish locales occasionally added to that richly layered landscape. For regular readers of Heaney, those places have become household names: Toome, Moyola, Broagh, Mossbawn, Derrygarve, Anahorish, even the intimately local Toner’s bog; and Gallarus, Clonmacnoise, Glanmore, Devenish.

Granted, Heaney does sometimes step outside of the Irish realm. France, Spain, California, and Denmark all figure in the poems of the well-traveled Nobel Laureate. So does Greece, as in “Sonnets from Hellas” he recounts his travels in the days immediately preceding the announcement of his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Describing the sensation of awakening to “Wave-clip and flirt, tide-slap and flop and flow” in the seaside town of Pylos, he writes: “I woke to the world there like Telemachos, / Young again in the whitewashed light of morning.” And his poem “Known World” itself recollects his visit to Macedonia for the Struga Poetry Festival in 1978—though, never far from his own Ireland and Northern Ireland divided and subdivided by territorial politics and sectarian discord, he finds the political turmoil of the Balkan states all-too-familiar: “That old sense of a tragedy going on / Uncomprehended, at the very edge / Of the usual, it never left me once . . .”

But Iowa?

My own familiarity with that part of the Midwest is primarily through Meredith Willson’s Broadway hit The Music Man which I took my daughters to see a local production of about ten years ago. As sung by the chorus of River City townsfolk, “You really ought to give Iowa a try” functions as a sort of mantra for the middle-American dream that the musical celebrates. And of course I love W. P. Kinsella’s whimsical wonder-filled novel Shoeless Joe, the basis for the popular film Field of Dreams. “This must be heaven,” Shoeless Joe Jackson surmises, emerging from the limbo (or the purgatory) of a seemingly boundless cornfield into the perfect geometry of a beautifully manicured baseball diamond. “No,” Ray Kinsella replies. “It’s Iowa.”

But Heaney?

Included in his latest volume of poems, District and Circle, “In Iowa” is a sonnet, a crafty fourteen-liner that recounts an experience he had during a long-ago visit to the Hawkeye State. As the opening lines reveal, he felt from the start lost, not very happy, and anything but at home: “In Iowa once, among the Mennonites / In a slathering blizzard, conveyed all afternoon / Through sleet-glit pelting hard against the windscreen / And a wiper’s strong absolving slumps and flits. . . .” Infused with what Heaney has referred to famously as “the music of what happens”—the slant-rhyming and consonant-heavy “noise” of the language here reflecting how even the weather conditions are disorientingly foreign—these lines yet give way to an object in the landscape that proves surprisingly familiar to the son of a County Derry farmer: “I saw, abandoned in the open gap / Of a field where wilted corn stalks flagged the snow, / A mowing machine.”

No doubt simply left sitting there after the hay been cut and baled the previous autumn, this common piece of equipment becomes a focal point for the stranger in a strange land: “Snow brimmed its iron seat, / Heaped each spoked wheel with a thick white brow, / And took the shine off oil in the black-toothed gears.” More than just a study in black and white, however, by its very familiarity the mowing machine actually activates in the poet what he himself has described as the Irish capacity “to live in two places at the one time and in two times at the one place.” Transporting Heaney in his mind back to his “known world,” it clearly works as a stabilizing agent for the disconcerted traveler, helping to restore, at least temporarily, the equilibrium—the spirit level, as it were (to borrow from the title of his volume of poems published in 1996)—disturbed by his harrowing trip along icy I-80. Waxing biblical, he recalls the sensation of relief that he felt: “Verily I came forth from that wilderness / As one unbaptized who had known darkness / At the third hour and the veil in tatters.” The poem then ends with a sort of bemused musing on how such a seemingly innocuous moment could be so resonant with implication: “In Iowa once. In the slush and rush and hiss / Not of parted but of rising waters.”

Obviously, Heaney survived his discombobulating visit to Iowa—and lived to write about it. Well, I too survived my first visit to the land of “Silos and Smokestacks” (as a roadside sign just inside the state border announces)—thanks in part to the affirmation of Heaney’s poem. By utter coincidence, sixteen months after reading “In Iowa” in The New Yorker, I read the poem for a second time, in the pages of District and Circle, in the lobby of a sketchy Day’s Inn just off I-80 . . . the night before the life-altering experience of leaving behind my beloved first-born daughter in that “unknown world” for her freshman year at Grinnell College—in Grinnell, Iowa.

I had been forewarned by friends and neighbors who had passed through Iowa: “Nothing but cornfields from horizon to horizon.” Still, the reality exceeded even my vivid imagining of what that could be like. In fact, to borrow from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!—a musical set even farther west than The Music Man—it was “corn as high as an elephant’s eye.” In August we were of course spared the wintry mess that Heaney encountered; oddly, we were also spared the debilitating heat that part of the country usually endures at that time of year. Instead, the area was fogbound at night and covered with a heavy dew in the morning—such atmospheric conditions only adding to the sense of Heaney-esque displacement that I experienced in my own way. I felt not just that I was nowhere but that I was abandoning my daughter in the middle of nowhere! Having tossed District and Circle into my suitcase almost as an afterthought, I thus took my happenstance reading of “In Iowa” in Iowa as some sort of sign that maybe, just maybe, my darling MairĂ©ad could find herself happy and at home . . . so far from home. So far from her “known world” of Newbury Street and Harvard Square and Duxbury Beach and the Ice Creamsmith in Dorchester-Lower Mills. So far from the true “field of dreams,” of dreams come true, Fenway Park.

Time will tell (and so far so good). But in the meantime, on the very morning that we were saying our goodbyes, I learned by way of an engaging article written by English Professor Michael Cavanagh for the Summer 2006 issue of The Grinnell Magazine that Heaney’s visit to Iowa recorded in his poem was, specifically, a visit to Grinnell College in March of 1979. A warm and witty reminiscence, Cavanagh’s essay also serves as a helpful illumination of two elements of the “back story” to the poem. One involves Heaney’s general nervousness about flying—understandably exacerbated by the weather conditions as Cavanagh drove him to the airport in Cedar Rapids: small wonder that the ice storm made an impression on him deep enough to provoke a poem more than a quarter-century later. The second involves Heaney’s reference to Mennonites in the first line of “In Iowa.” In Cavanagh’s version of events, this detail figures in the poem only incidentally—the result of a pit stop at the Amana Colonies, a local Mennonite community where Heaney bought as a souvenir for his wife “a pinkish and pale green glandular-looking ashtray that said ‘Welcome to the Amanas!’” (Discovering that the ashtray was made not in Iowa but in Korea, Heaney doubled back and picked up a jar a corn-relish as well.)

For Heaney, though, it is all of a piece. Asked by Cavanagh in 1999 what he remembered of his visit to Iowa twenty years earlier, Heaney wrote in reply: “I remember the snow journey and seeing a melancholy mowing machine or hay-tosser in a blizzard-pelted field: a kind of R. Frost ‘Desert Places’ epiphany.” He then added: “I had the Amana Colonies ashtray for years.”

All I brought back from Iowa was a t-shirt with “Grinnell College” printed across the front. That and all of the usual anxiety of a father leaving his daughter not just beyond the Pale and not just beyond the bog but truly what seemed like beyond the beyond! “In Iowa once,” indeed.

1 comment:

Khalid Hasan said...

I've hardly read any poetry since my school days ended almost fifty years ago, but "In Iowa" has somehow resonated in my mind ever since I read it in Grinnell's magazine some years ago (my son was there in the Class of 2009). I just came across your blog entry and thought I'd let you know.