I have been thinking a lot about Seamus Heaney’s ‘Night Drive’ lately. Originally published in Door Into the Dark (1969), it is not especially famous or noteworthy, but I love it.
It reminds me of the holidays, and poetry should always be the holidays.
It explores in a resolutely low-key register those fertile and liminal spaces between wakefulness and sleep, light and dark, arrival and departure. As in so many of Heaney’s poems, there is a back-note of cautionary guilt and self-reproach running across the lines; the separation which causes the poem to be written is celebrated as it appears to be mourned.
A masterclass in how to write about nothing much at all, the poem is bookended in its first and final lines by the word ‘ordinariness’. Some years after he wrote it, Heaney used the word ‘gunslinger’ to describe the approach of his poem ‘Digging’. Below the tactful surface of ‘Night Drive’ it is possible to detect something of that same bravado, albeit a quieter one: in the suggestive and repetitive ‘l’ sounds of ‘smells’, ‘relentlessly’, ‘Montreuil’, ‘Abbéville’ and ‘fulfilment’ which deliberately and not-quite-discretely set up a chime with Italy laying its loin to France.
The poem is much more than an exercise in delayed gratification, however. It asks the question so central to Heaney’s work as a whole: how far is an artist ever fully present in their inhabited circumstances and therefore necessarily prey to the guile required to craft poetry from experience? Heaney would never resort to something so vulgar as an answer, but there is a hint in the poem’s penultimate word ‘renewed’ of the speaker’s belief in life as redemptive, even if it is qualified as ordinary and under the cover of darkness.
The smells of ordinariness
Were new on the night drive through France;
Rain and hay and woods on the air
Made warm draughts in the open car.
Signposts whitened relentlessly.
Montrueil, Abbéville, Beauvais
Were promised, promised, came and went,
Each place granting its name’s fulfilment.
A combine groaning its way late
Bled seeds across its work-light.
A forest fire smouldered out.
One by one small cafés shut.
I thought of you continuously
A thousand miles south where Italy
Laid its loin to France on the darkened sphere.
Your ordinariness was renewed there.
Seamus Heaney, from Door Into the Dark (Faber)