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I remembered her head bent towards my head

Tuesday, 30 August, 2016

The poet Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 in a “one-storey, longish, lowish, thatched and whitewashed farmhouse” in Mossbawn, Co. Derry. He was the eldest of nine children and he grew up in a culture that was “Catholic, folk, rural, Irish”. He died on 30 August 2013 in Dublin, after a short illness.

Seamus Heaney shows us a sepia snapshot here of a mother and her son preparing dinner. It is a simple, almost hum-drum scene, with the silence being broken by “pleasant splashes” of water as their peeled potatoes drop into a bucket. The next sounds we hear are of sobbing and of murmured prayers: “some were responding and some crying”. As his mother dies, Seamus Heaney recalls the peeling of those potatoes “when all the others were away at Mass,” and the beauty of that moment is heartbreaking.

In memoriam M.K.H., 1911 – 1984

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.

Picking the potatoes


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