Yes, your friendly neighbourhood BWS blogger is also a fiction writer — since 2011, I’ve published short fiction in more than 20 print and online magazines including Exile Literary Quarterly, The Dalhousie Review, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Little Fiction, Maple Tree Literary Supplement and the Stone Skin Press anthology The Lion and the Aardvark. I moved to Toronto for
my girlfriend graduate school in 2006, and my own blog feature is a reflection on the Ph. D. thesis I didn’t write.
I’d have met Seamus Heaney, probably
This Labour Day weekend, my one-year hiatus from graduate school entered its sixth year, and the familiar chill of what-might-have-been rushed in on the cool breeze. It blew colder yet with the news of Seamus Heaney’s passing.
I discovered Heaney’s long poem “Station Island” late in the 2006-07 academic year, my first at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, where I was pre-admitted to the Ph. D. program. And while my exact thesis topic was still hazy, I was extending some undergraduate work on the French writer Hervé Guibert and echoes of Dante’s Divine Comedy in his work.
A doctorate in Comparative Literature requires you to study works in at least three languages. My B.A. was a double-major in English and French, and I had taken — was still taking — courses in Italian; Guibert and Dante covered my second and third languages, but I was still looking for a text in my mother tongue.
After one read of “Station Island,” I quickly worked it into my project description.
Station Island is a real island, in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland, and legend has it that this is where God showed St. Patrick a cave that was the entrance to Hell and called it “Purgatory”; by showing converts the cave, St. Patrick was to convince them of the existence of Heaven and Hell.
(“Purgatory,” of course, is from the same root as “purge”: to empty, to cleanse. In the Catholic understanding from which Dante worked, a soul in Purgatory, with adequate support from the prayers of the living, could eventually be cleansed of sin and be saved from damnation.)
In “Station Island,” the speaker visits St. Patrick’s Purgatory and encounters 12 shades, including Simon Sweeney, the protagonist of a medieval poem; William Carleton, a 19th-century writer associated with the Irish peasantry; friends, lovers, priests and monks from Heaney’s own life; victims of sectarianism, and finally, James Joyce. In so doing, Heaney simultaneously portrays an entire, if personal, Ireland, while cathartically purging it of its tumultuous history.
But where Heaney’s poem fit into my thesis, I never found out. In addition to my courses, I worked full-time at a call centre to make ends meet, and in April, after several breakdowns and too many all-nighters, I limped across the finish line. I had earned my M.A., but I was exhausted. And when an email that summer asked me to phone the professor for whom I would be a T.A., my curt reply was, “I won’t be back in the fall. Let me know if I have to do any paperwork.”
The present model of scholarship could be called monastic; ask my girlfriend, who somehow didn’t move out despite countless nights where my corner desk, lamp, pile of 20-30 books and yet another term paper couldn’t tolerate a single interruption from our other 600 square feet. The quest to avoid plagiarism can take hours of reading — quiet devotionals in a different cloister, the library.
It wasn’t for me, but let’s say it had been… or let’s say I had at least taken (even more of) the self-destructive actions required to get me through. Let’s say I got Heaney into my thesis, and like the keen Ph. D. student I should have been, I bankrupted myself to travel to the many conferences at which he spoke, or even ambushed him at Toronto’s own International Festival of Authors. I don’t know yet what I’d have asked him, but this fall I felt the loss of the opportunity. The only just response seemed to be a re-reading of his masterwork, but all an internet search turned up was a blog featuring a typo-laden reproduction of the Joyce scene. I corrected it as best I could and posted it to my Facebook page:
His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s,
cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket
with his stick, saying ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own
so get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You have listened long enough. Now strike your note.’
It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
Yeah. Writing fiction instead of pursuing doctoral studies feels a lot like that.
We moved out of that tiny apartment this October, which meant finding all the boxes and under-furniture storage solutions and purging much of what was inside. Coincidentally, my girlfriend had been reading Joseph Campbell. She stumbled across this meditation and passed it on to me:
We must be willing to get rid of
the life we’ve planned, so as to have
the life that is waiting for us.
The old skin has to be shed
before the new one can come.
If we fix on the old, we get stuck.
When we hang on to any form,
we are in danger of putrefaction.
Hell is life drying up.
the one in us that wants to keep,
to hold on, must be killed.
If we are hanging onto the form now,
We’re not going to have the form next.
You can’t make an omelet
without breaking eggs.
Destruction before creation.
The relative lack of style notwithstanding, Campbell’s lines aren’t so different than Heaney’s “Let go, let fly, forget,” so out the door went almost everything in my file cabinet’s bottom drawer; six years of potentially useful course notes became two bundles of trash secured with string the cat insisted on chewing.
I threw out almost everything. The papers didn’t go without a final sorting, and sure enough, buried in them was my heavily annotated photocopy of the entire “Station Island,” in all its richness and beauty and power. Yes, I’ve let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes, and I’ve even gotten rid of the life I had planned, but I didn’t do it without the rueful thought: I’d have met Seamus Heaney, probably.
Daniel Perry visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Emily Pohl-Weary, Richard Scarsbrook and Josh Smith. Come early (6:30) for a talk by Michael Callaghan about Exile Editions and their publishing program, including the $15,000 Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition.
Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!