A sunny day in northern Michigan. A long walk past farmland and on to a wooded trail. Three Seamus Heaney poems to deliver, three poems full of the most beautiful nouns and verbs but also full of death. Three watchful deer who scared the bejeebers out of me and two wrong turns that added miles to my trek. But it was a happy couple of hours nonetheless.
Each of these poems deserves a much fuller examination than the cursory notes I put here. I encourage everyone to read and re-read them. There’s more to see at every pass.
Let’s start with the least disturbing death, “Blackberry picking.” Here is the death of innocence, of beauty, of lust, take your pick. I set the poem against an electric fence bordering an organic farm that to my knowledge does not produce blackberries.
There’s gluttony and Bluebeard-level “blood” in these blackberry fields. Over-indulging leaves its mark (stains and prickles) but it’s only death (fruit fungus in this case) that ends the feeding frenzy. Pleasures of the flesh can’t last forever:
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smell of rot
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
I stuck “Man and Boy” on a hilltop tree overlooking a lake. You can just see the poem in the lower-left portion of the photo.
Who is man and who is boy keeps switching in this poem. The two main characters, the boy and his father, experience age in a non-linear way. Time operates in a circle, moving forward and back at once, forming unheard concentric soundwaves like the salmon’s, a perfect ring like the mower’s.
The final image almost makes me dizzy. As the speaker imagines his father running home to hear of his own father’s death, he becomes a boy on his father’s back being carried as if he were an old man. Got it? Forget it, read it for yourself. I’ve re-printed it below because the picture is too hard to read.
Man and Boy
by Seamus Heaney
“Catch the old one first,”
(My father’s joke was also old, and heavy
And predictable). “Then the young ones
Will all follow, and Bob’s your uncle.”
On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time
Made him afraid we’d take too much for granted
And so our spirits must be lightly checked.
Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!
Blessed be the detachment of dumb love
In the broad-backed, low-set man
Who feared debt all his life, but now and then
Could make a splash like the salmon he said was
“As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it.”
In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped
Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves
A mower leans forever on his scythe.
He has mown himself to the centre of the field
And stands in a final perfect ring
Of sunlit stubble.
“Go and tell your father,” the mower says
(He said it to my father who told me)
“I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.”
My father is a barefoot boy with news,
Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks
On the afternoon of his own father’s death.
The open, black half of the half-door waits.
I feel much heat and hurry in the air.
I feel his legs and quick heels far away
And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me
At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,
Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.
Finally, I tucked “Strange Fruit” in the bark of a fallen tree. It was here that the deer startled me.
“Strange Fruit” is one of the bog poems Heaney wrote about the bodies of Iron Age men and women discovered in northern Europe. Their deaths were gruesome. It would be interesting to put this “Strange Fruit” up against Billie Holliday’s. The violent tribes may have lived thousands of years apart, but ritualized murder connects them indelibly.
Heaney notes that Greek historian Diodorus Siculus found his ease with the likes of this, but Heaney himself seems haunted by image of the young girl defying her executioners:
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a rock star of a poet, sometimes called “the greatest Irish poet since Yeats,” and one I had the pleasure of hearing live at a poetry reading long ago. I can’t say I understood much of what he said with his thick Irish accent, but I remember well his gentle charisma and his reading of the poem “Digging.”
Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, the oldest of nine children. He was raised on the family farm which figures in much of his poetry. He was also raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant world.
He studied at Queen’s College in Belfast and then taught at St. Joseph’s in the same city. Later he was a revered professor at Harvard, Oxford and University of California Berkley. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
He and his wife were married for forty-eight years and had three children together. He died unexpectedly at age 74.
This biography is much too short to capture his contributions. I’m feeling lazy, so link here to read more.