The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died, only 74 years old. Obituaries characterize him as a rock star among poets, and that was my experience of him, long before I had even read his poems.
Years ago I went to hear him read at the University of Michigan with a dear friend. This was so long ago that I can’t remember if she was at the time a dear friend or if I just had a suspicion that she would be my dear friend and this outing cemented the relationship. That Heaney was Irish was what drew us to the theater that night and what drew us together, at least initially. Beth, Irish herself, was married to a native Irishman, and I was from a family Irish enough to go to ceilidhs and look down on anyone who didn’t.
That night I was struck how Heaney commanded the kind of respect from the audience that priests and bishops used to receive. He had a grand presence and a wily humor. I didn’t understand a single poem he read—they were too dense, too thick in language for me to take in without reading them slowly—but I fell in love with him that night. If only from the audience’s wild enthusiasm, I knew I had listened to a great poet. My friend and I marveled over him all the ride home. Yes, thinking back now, I believe the reading was at the beginning of our friendship. Irish dancing lessons would soon follow; years later, her illness and death.
Heaney will always be part of my memory of her. His death brings its own sadness, but hers along with it.
Heaney has too many poems I loved to include here. To me he always wrote movingly about the emotions of childhood, the deep pain and the deep love a child can feel. I’ll just post two in that vein. The first, a sonnet about an early memory of his mother that comes to him on her deathbed:
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
The second is about the death of his little brother, how Heaney came home from boarding school for the funeral. I tear up every time I read it, and I’ve read it dozens of times over the years.
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
R.I.P. Seamus Heaney, and Beth too.
You have a personal reminiscence of the man that many people don’t. This makes this tribute even more special.
I have read those poems for the first time. But I am sure I’ll read them again and have my heart in knots each time.
“All I know is a door into the dark.”
Rest in Peace, Seamus Heaney.