Tag: Seamus Heaney

I remembered her head bent towards my head

Tuesday, 30 August, 2016 0 Comments

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


Remembering those who built for us

Saturday, 18 June, 2016 0 Comments

On 18 June 1952, Michael Fitzgerald and Catherine O’Donnell were married in the village of Lisvernane, County Tipperary. The ceremony was followed by a meal at Riversdale House Hotel in the Glen of Aherlow. Transport for the bride and her family was via a Ford V8 driven by Jack Fraser, grocer/publican/undertaker, but cars were scarce in the Ireland of the early 1950s so some of the guests cycled. The wedding cake was prepared by the bride, baked by Mrs Ryan-Russell, who had a Stanley Range cooker, and the icing was added by the confectionery specialists of Kiely’s Bread Company in Tipperary town. The sun shone and the couple went on to spend 59 years together, during which time they earned love and respect from those who loved and respected them.

Mammy and Daddy

Scaffolding is one of the first poems Seamus Heaney wrote. It’s a metaphorical work about the construction of a marriage and the measures needed to keep it firm in the face of the shocks. Walls of “sure and solid stone” will be strong enough to stand on their own, says Heaney. “Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall / Confident that we have built our wall.”

Scaffolding

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

Seamus Heaney (1939 — 2013)


Late August, heavy rain and sun

Sunday, 30 August, 2015 1 Comment

On this day in 2013, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, died. “I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world,” he once said, “but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.” As the month of August ebbs away, Blackberry-Picking sums up the summer that was, with its mix of “heavy rain and sun.” Heaney is in playful mood here and he even allows himself a bit of rhyming fun at the end: “all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot / Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

Blackberry-Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013)

Blackberries


Armitage, the Aga and slices of lemon drizzle cake

Sunday, 21 June, 2015 0 Comments

The first ever Professor of Poetry at Oxford University was Joseph Trapp, in 1708. Among his literary works was The Church of England defended against the Church of Rome, in Answer to a late Sophistical and Insolent Popish Book. Trapp was followed down the centuries by names including Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, John Wain, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. The incumbent is Sir Geoffrey Hill and he will retire at the end of this academic term. On Friday, it was announced that Simon Armitage is to be his successor. Charlotte Runcie was lukewarm in her reaction: “Certainly his lectures will be warm, contemporary and thoughtful. But his genial, slightly scruffy demeanour on endless arts documentaries has lent him the reputation of a poet to read while taking a second helping of lemon drizzle cake with your feet up by the Aga. This is not a good thing,” she wrote in The Telegraph.

On the other hand, Britain’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, welcomed the decision, calling Armitage “a fine, vocational poet and a brilliant communicator for the modern age who never forgets the roots and ancestry of poetry.” Anyone who can divide the house of poetry must be worth reading.

I Say I Say I Say

Autoplay next video
Anyone here had a go at themselves
for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists
with a blade in the bath? Those in the dark
at the back, listen hard. Those at the front
in the know, those of us who have, hands up,
let’s show that inch of lacerated skin
between the forearm and the fist. Let’s tell it
like it is: strong drink, a crimson tidemark
round the tub, a yard of lint, white towels
washed a dozen times, still pink. Tough luck.
A passion then for watches, bangles, cuffs.
A likely story: you were lashed by brambles
picking berries from the woods. Come clean, come good,
repeat with me the punch line ‘Just like blood’
when those at the back rush forward to say
how a little love goes a long long long way.

Simon Armitage


Water: no matter how much, there is still not enough

Sunday, 14 December, 2014 0 Comments

“Just as I can’t give up smoking because I don’t smoke, I can’t give up writing because I have no talent.” So said Marin Sorescu, the Romanian poet, who retained his sense of humour despite the best efforts of Ceauşescu’s censors. In fact, he could even see a bright side of censorship: “You’re sure to find a pair of faithful and attentive readers.” In partnership with Ioana Russell-Gebbett, Seamus Heaney, the acclaimed Irish poet, who died last year, produced this translation of a Sorescu jewel.

Fountains in the sea

Water: no matter how much, there is still not enough.
Cunning life keeps asking for more and then a drop more.
Our ankles are weighted with lead, we delve under the wave.
We bend to our spades, we survive the force of the gusher.

Our bodies fountain with sweat in the deeps of the sea,
Our forehead aches and holds like a sunken prow.
We are out of breath, divining the heart of the geyser,
Constellations are bobbing like corks above on the swell.

Earth is a waterwheel, the buckets go up and go down,
But to keep the whole aqueous architecture standing its ground
We must make a ring with our bodies and dance out a round
On the dreamt eye of water, the dreamt eye of water, the dreamt eye of water.

Water: no matter how much, there is still not enough.
Come rain, come thunder, come deluged dams washed away,
Our thirst is unquenchable. A cloud in the water’s a siren.
We become two shades, deliquescent, drowning in song.

My love, under the tall sky of hope
Our love and our love alone
Keeps dowsing for water.
Sinking the well of each other, digging together.
Each one the other’s phantom limb in the sea.

Marin Sorescu (1936 — 1996)

Baden verboten


Rainey Heaney

Wednesday, 8 January, 2014 2 Comments

The Christmas reading included Stepping Stones, a big book of interviews with the late Seamus Heaney by fellow poet, Dennis O’Driscoll. It’s an inside job for readers of Heaney’s oeuvre, “on whose behalf I hope to have asked the kinds of questions which they themselves might have wished to pose.” Heaney’s worldview was formed in places named Anahorish, Mossbawn, Lough Beg and Toome and these, to quote him about one of his formative influences, Patrick Kavanagh, are used “as posts to fence out a personal landscape.”

“When did you meet Kavanagh himself?” asks O’Driscoll in the section titled “On the Books.” It was not until the summer of 1967, says Heaney and the place was the Baily pub on Dublin’s Duke Street. Richard Ryan made the introduction.

“At first I avoided the contact as unobtrusively as possible,” says Heaney, “kept my face to the counter when he stopped to speak to Richard, and waited for him to move on — he was coming back past our part of the counter on his way from the Gents. But the pause continued and what had begun as a reticence started to look like an ignorance; so I turned round and said, ‘Mr Kavanagh, can I buy you a drink?’

‘No’, he replies, with the ‘o’ in the ‘No’ well lengthened out. So then Richard says something like, ‘Paddy, this man’s come down here from Belfast, and he’s just published a book of poems. His name’s Seamus Heaney.’ And Kavanagh says to me, ‘Are you Heaney?’ rhyming me with Rainey, as people did in the country at home. ‘Well, I’ll have a Scotch.’ So I took that as a pass.”

Patrick Kavanagh


In the old man-killing parishes

Monday, 14 October, 2013 0 Comments

A recent outbreak of savagery in Northern Ireland brought to mind the work of the late Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, who wrote a series of poems inspired by the discovery of the 4th century Tollund Man, whose mummified corpse was found in a peat bog on the Jutland Peninsula in 1950. In his poem, Heaney compares the ritual sacrifices of ancient Celtic Europe to the “sacrifice” of those murdered by the Irish Republican Army, which had the barbaric habit of burying its victims in peat bogs.

Heaney was in top form when composing this poem and the imagery of his language is startling: “She tightened her torc on him / And opened her fen / Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body.”

The Tollund Man

I

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Seamus Heaney (1939 — 2013)

Tollund Man