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Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

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

 

I

“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.”

 

II

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Although I’m an Irish lass by genes and inclination, my idea of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration is soda bread, black tea and Yeats.  (If there’s an Irish version of “Bah humbug,” insert here.) Needless to say, I celebrate alone.  But I left some poems by Yeats at the local Irish pub for those whose celebrating takes a jollier turn.

poems are on lower left windows

poems are on lower left windows

 

Yeats’ “A Drinking Song” was a no-brainer for the occasion:

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And a more sobering poem of his:

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That one holds some of my favorite lines ever from any poem:

And under every dancer

A dead man in his grave

 

And because this particular pub is THE meeting place for old pals on St. Patrick’s Day, I left this:

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Finally, you can’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without a good toast and an Irish blessing, so I left both behind:

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This one is dear to me:

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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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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