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Archive for the ‘Seamus Heaney’ Category

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:

 

Clearances III

 

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.

 

Mid-Term Break

 

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.

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Mother of the Groom

by Seamus Heaney

What she remembers

Is his glistening back

In the bath, his small boots

in the ring of boots at her feet.

Hands in her voided lap,

she hears a daughter welcomed.

It’s as if he kicked when lifted

and slipped her soapy hold.

Once soap would ease off

the wedding ring

that’s bedded forever now

in her clapping hand.

so rushed to avoid being seen, I took a rotten picture

The weekend of my oldest daughter’s college graduation, I was at a beautiful old hotel in Milwaukee (with a ceiling in the lobby like a Victorian Sistine Chapel) on the same night a friend from home was there for a wedding.   Seamus Heaney’s “Mother of the Groom” seemed the right fit for both occasions.  For most parents, forward-looking events like graduations and weddings carry the same whiff of loss and sorrow that the mother in the poem experiences.  So I taped the poem to a planter in the ladies lounge.  Within the hour it was gone. Among other wonders of the hotel, it had a very efficient cleaning crew.

How efficient this poem is too, how much it says in so few words.  With a deft use of homonyms (flashback to 5th grade: words with multiple meanings), Heaney brings past, present and future together.  The ring of boots at the mother’s feet connects to the wedding ring on her finger (which she used to take off from time to time for reasons Freudian or practical) and the unmentioned ring her son will give to the woman who supplants the mother.  The ring is now “bedded” in her hand, which calls to mind the wedding bed.  In fact there’s a series of words with sexual overtones—glistening, slipped, lap, bedded, ease off–which suggests that the mother knows that intimacy is behind her.  She looks with some jealousy at her son’s wife, who will now enjoy all the pleasures of young married life that she once did—sex, babies, being at the center of the ring.

What strikes me most is what an outsider the mother is at the wedding.  Of the four principle figures at a wedding—the bride, the groom, the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom—the last is the least important, the most invisible. She claps as a spectator and retreats into her thoughts. Her role is entirely passive.  She doesn’t welcome her new daughter herself; she hears the daughter welcomed. She has not voided her lap; her lap is voided.  The passive voice reinforces her feeling that something has been done to her which she did not desire.  Her past is gone.  Her life as a mother has slipped away.

“The wedding ring/that’s bedded forever now” is a phrase that haunts me.  “Forever now” sounds so sad, so resigned.  With just two words, Heaney ushers death into the wedding, so quietly that we don’t notice right away that the celebration has changed utterly.

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