I moved from Northern Ireland to north-east England in January 2005. With the exception of a two-year stint in Sydney, I have always lived ‘in the north’, and I was surprised to find that the concept of ‘north’ affected England as much as it did Ireland. Being from Northern Ireland entailed a host of cultural identity issues, such as being neither British nor Irish (though having both passports) whilst not having a clear sense of what constituted Northern Irish identity.
Once in England, the idea of being an adopted ‘northerner’, along with the peculiar set of distinctions between ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ here, was so strange as to be almost amusing. In many ways, these terms are used to highlight and perpetuate class differences and otherness, just as ‘northern’ Irishness is bound up with subjugation. I prefer instead to think about ‘north’ in terms of wildness and raw beauty, a place that is exquisitely untamed and perhaps slightly more authentic than most places. I’ll concede that this is possibly more wishful fantasy than reality.
Seamus Heaney’s collection North (Faber, 1975) speaks to me for precisely this reason. Heaney too was conflicted about the terms ‘Ulster’ and ‘Irish’ that pervade Northern Ireland, and while he had moved to Southern Ireland instead of England as I did, he conveys that same uneasiness with ‘jumping ship’, or being disloyal to a place already so fractured and colonized. The title poem ‘North’ meditates upon myth and creation, upon the impact of other voices on the poet’s voice and the construction of a narrative (for instance, the narrative of the violence in Northern Ireland) that is reductive and over-simplifying; to me, there is a sense also in this poem of the burden of loyalty, and that the poet must assuage loyalty to cultural myths in order to be true to her own voice and craft. In particular, these lines have always resonated with me:
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.
I was slightly worried that my poem ‘The Sky Beneath Our Feet’ deviated too far – at least, on a superficial level – from the theme of “North” to fit the bill. My poem is concerned with perception, and deals with Anaximander, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and the first known speculative astronomer, who died in 545 BC. What moved me to write a poem about Anaximander was precisely his formidable mind. Despite not seeing the earth from space or possessing a telescope, he calculated very firmly that the earth was round and suspended in the universe. Heaney’s line ‘compose in darkness’ puts me in mind of Anaximander; the art of poetry is the art of seeing, and understanding ‘north’ is more than geography or culture – it is about looking up.