“Chekhov on Sakhalin.”
So, he would pay his ‘debt to medicine’.
But first he drank cognac by the ocean
With his back to all he travelled north to face.
His head was swimming free as the troikas
Maybe every artist has been there: when the world is full of suffering and violence, isn’t the leisurely activity of producing art an insult to the butchery most of humanity faces, what has afflicted most of humanity for most of history? Fiddling while Rome burns, as they say? Heaney in an essay posed the problem as Song versus Suffering, where the poet is a child of both.
Maybe it’s even harder for Chekhov, age 30, travelling now by steamboat to the far east of Russia, to the Sakhalin penal colony. “His debt to medicine,” doctors are supposed to be healers. This bit of reporting he wants to do is like a debt owed for writing frivolous stories and plays, or a down payment to justify more creative writing down the line.
And Heaney has his own fair share of violence. Not only the world wars and what they did to English verse, but of course the Irish troubles, the bombings, the repression, the hunger strikes, and the decisions he had to make for himself and his family. But much of his work in this collection does not face these events directly, but like Chekhov, his back is turned “to all he traveled north to face.” Chekhov enjoys a glass of cognac, Heaney writes a great little poem about sloe gin.
That far north, Siberia was south.
Should it have been an ulcer in the mouth,
The cognac that the Moscow literati
Packed off with him to a penal colony —
Him, born, you may say, under the counter?
At least that meant he knew its worth. No cantor
In full throat by the iconostasis
Got holier joy than he got from that glass
A little more guilt. The rhyming couplets help the make the connection. His guilt and hypocrisy manifests itself for him as an “ulcer in the mouth.” And there are sound echoes on the front and end of the middle two lines of the first quatrain, “cognac” and “pack,” “mouth” and “Moscow.” But at least he knows its worth, because he was born “under the counter,” a shopkeeper’s son.
Some sexy visions: the glass sparkling like diamonds on a lady’s bosom, but the coldness of the place he has come to brings him back. He chucks the glass onto the rocks (how decadent!) and the sound “rang as clearly as the convicts’ chains.” “It rang on like the burden of his freedom.”
The poem tracks him on the cusp of turning from the Moscow high life to the solemn duty of the writer as a witness. Leftist writers know the feeling too: are you really living your principles if you’re here honing your craft when you could be participating in an armed struggle movement, be it Spain or Rojava?
The last two sentences:
In the months to come
It rang on like the burden of his freedom
To try for the right tone — not tract, not thesis —
And walk away from floggings. He who thought to squeeze
His slave’s blood out and waken the free man
Shadowed a convict guide through Sakhalin.
“To try for the right tone — not tract, not thesis –” SAKHALIN OBLAST isn’t completely a sociological tract, it’s a literary artifact too. Which speaks to the larger issue, which is that Song vs. Suffering, or Poetry vs. Protest, is beside the point. The debate assumes that poetry is somehow outside of history. No need, then, to put every poem on trial to gauge its usefulness to historical development. It’s Chekhov’s and Heaney’s freedom to try for the right tone, and (continuing the medical imagery in the poem) to squeeze their slave’s blood out. Chekhov came from a family of serfs, but in Heaney’s case I take it to mean the writer’s first responsibility is to her body, her body as a circuit of the common property of language, to shape that language in the ways her body will permit.
And it happens that in the case of Heaney’s body it was a refusal, but never a full retreat, from acknowledging the political violence in Ireland head on. History is there, but like the music of his language, the artful assonance chains in his 10-syllable lines, it isn’t quite manifest. He’s content to look at quiet objects. Restraint. Taste. Language makes ugly things beautiful. That’s art, boy, William H. Gass would say.