We are currently reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in one of my classes and an image we discussed relates to this class so well. Super general plot – The story follows Sethe who escapes with her children from a plantation in Kentucky. In our class discussion we talked about how Sethe’s womb can be compared to the Atlantic Ocean. When Sethe’s water breaks in the story, the pool of water is compared directly to the ocean. We discussed how like the Atlantic, the womb delivers babies to a life in slavery. The novel likens the ocean – the womb – to a grave. I thought this was really interesting to think about in our discussions about the Atlantic world. Beloved considers that the Atlantic Ocean and its history is so deeply rooted in Sethe that she carries it when she is carrying her baby.

Seamus Heaney’s Punishment was a difficult read for me this week for multiple reasons. One is the question also addressed by Julian in his blog post about whether Heaney’s perspective about the continuity of suffering gives reason for the one inflicting suffering. Another reason was Heaney’s description of the female bog bodies – this was really difficult to read. He sexualized these tortured bodies, describing their nipples and naked front. He calls the bodies “My poor scapegoat” and say that he “almost love[d]” the woman. Heaney also shows understanding with the exact revenge wanted by the perpetrator of the act, showing his want for power and ownership over the bog body.

Heaney wrote poetry at a critical time in Ireland’s history. It is important to study and remember The Troubles and specifically the bog bodies. But in my opinion, Heaney’s narration and the way he wrote history in this poem is disgusting. Writing about the women who were tarred in feathered in a sexualizing way is problematic and abhorrent. What are other’s thoughts? Do you see value to Heaney’s poems in remembering and capturing the history of The Troubles and the bog bodies taking into account the way they are described? Did you find a similar difficulty in reading?

2 Replies to “Punishment”

  1. I am of a similar mind about the problematic nature of Heaney’s poetry for this week. There is something deeply unsettling about the gaze he turns on these women. My only thought is maybe they were supposed to be that unsettling, to make us think about violence and they way it persists and fascinates us like he persists and is fascinated by the bodies of these women who met violent ends. Or maybe there is some connection that can be made to the paternalistic nature of colonialism and how those violations set the foundations for the Troubles later in Ireland? I’m not sure. Perhaps as a temporal marker and literary figure thinking critically about the Troubles, there is value in his work. But that comes with the necessary caveat that his depiction of these women is troubling and discomforting as they become the objects of his gaze.

  2. I also find Heaney’s poems very troubling and hard to read. I really wonder why he chose to write about the women’s bodies in such an overtly sexual way. My discomfort with the poems was only amplified when it was mentioned that the vast majority of the Bog Bodies were men and that there were very few women. I still struggle to try and comprehend Heaney’s thought process when writing these poems and I wish that we had discussed his haunting imagery more in class. This is not my first time reading his poems and even now, I have so many questions. Could he have chosen to focus on something else in his poems and had the same effect?

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