Monday, September 2, 2013

Seamus and Me

This was my first exposure to Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize Laureate, and the man who restored my faith in contemporary poetry:

Digging was the first poem of Seamus Heaney's that I experienced.  My class notes, from my year at Trinity College in Dublin really make me wonder why I ever thought I could make a living analyzing poetry, but what they don't express is how much I loved Heaney.  How I saw myself in the speaker of this poem and how I identified with Heaney in many ways.  How I felt he expressed some part of me when he spoke of grandfathers, fathers, sons, legacies, and writing.  How I felt that our backgrounds were the same, as dissimilar as they were.  

Here I am, listening to that inner muse, right around the time I first read Heaney, in Wicklow, 1988-1989.
Like Heaney, I come from a working class background -- he from small farmers, factory workers, and servants, I from mechanics, laborers, electricians, servants, and merchant seamen.  Like him, I'm more at ease around words and ideas than wrenches and hammers and spades.  But, again like him, I have such a great admiration for those men and women whose hard work has made my life possible.  I admire my dad's ability to fix anything at all -- I remember once when I was a girl, our furnace stopped working in the middle of a cold winter.  The fan blowing hot air through the house didn't work.  Of course, we didn't have the money to buy a new furnace and our model was so old that parts were not available.  My dad's solution was to take the fan out, rewire it, and put it back into the furnace backwards so that it worked.  I still am not sure how he did it or why it worked, but our furnace lasted at least another 10 years.  I see my own dad when Heaney says, "By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man."

I look remarkably simian here....???
I've neglected Heaney, sure, leaving my signed copy of the Faber & Faber edition resting on the shelf, only peered into when I've moved or rearranged or needed some particular consolation.  I held my memories of him in a place separate from the workaday world I live in, like little precious gems:  Reading Digging  for the first time.  Meeting Heaney at a reading at University of Maryland, 1990.  Hearing that he'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.  Hearing Liam Neeson read from "The Cure at Troy", hearing that "the longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme."

Heaney is the only person I've ever heard who could leave an entire lecture hall dead silent with the power of poetry.

Every once in a while, I would take my copy of Seamus Heaney:  Poems 1965-1975 down from the shelf, almost furtively, in between making dinner and helping with homework, and read the mysterious and awful Punishment:  

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeuur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

This past Friday, August 30th, I woke up to crazy music in the morning.  My husband likes music to wake him up -- I prefer news.  I jumped out of bed, spun the dial to NPR, and caught the the tail end of a news story that seemed to mean that Heaney had died.  I made the bed, thinking -- surely that can't be -- maybe he's in hospital or maybe there's some tribute to him somewhere.  I came downstairs, turned the computer on, and found that he had indeed passed away from the complications of a stroke. I found a lovely poem I'd never seen before, A Dog Was Crying To-night in Wicklow Also and made my husband read it to the children on the way to school.  (His comment:  "Who's this Chuckwu?")

Seamus, I will miss you.  Thank you for your voice.


  1. Oh yes. All this. It sounds so much like my journey with Seamus. I love both of those poems and thank you for reminding me about A Dog Was Crying To-night in Wicklow Also. I just read it to the kids. And then finally looked up Chukwu.

  2. Melanie -- I will have to look up Chukwu too. I did investigate Donatus Nwoga -- it appears that he may have taught at Queens University in Belfast when Heaney was there. I just love his name: Donatus. My husband is getting prepared to read (in his best Scranton accent) "A Dog Was Crying To-Night in Wicklow Also" to my father who will arrive tomorrow. It should be 'interesting'.

    I didn't know you were reading -- thanks! I'm getting ready to go to Irving for my 25th (!!!!) reunion. It should be fun -- everyone is getting excited. :-)

  3. I saw your dress. The red one. I hope you have a great time. I've never been to a UD reunion. Missed my tenth and my fifteenth. I keep having babies. :)

    Now I kind of want to write a blog post on this poem.

    I saw a critique of Heaney the other day (from someone who obviously never heard that you aren't supposed to speak ill of the dead) who started off with a fair enough claim that no one he knew could recall off the top of their head a single line by Heaney. I have to confess much as I love his work, I don't find myself remembering many of his lines. When I went to write my own reflection after I heard the news of his death I had to page through books and books and books looking at poems I knew I'd read dozens of times and still couldn't find one I knew by heart. This though I spent a considerable amount of time reading him in grad school. He's powerful, but somehow not terribly quotable. He creates images but somehow his words don't stick in my head the way other poets' do. Unfortunately they proceeded from that insight to conclude that therefore Heaney is overrated and the esteem in which he has been held is all political in nature.

  4. Col - didn't know if you were aware..............There will be a Tribute to Seamus Heaney at the LIMERICK pub in wheaton on November 14th @ 7:30 pm. Here's the ad : "Join us for a special evening celebrating the life and work of the man who has been called "the most important Irish poet since Yeats"."