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Seamus Heaney

Literature Discussion Group

7:00-9:00
Teaism at 8th & D Streets, NW
- meet downstairs
 
 

The Grauballe Man


As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep


the black river of himself.

The grain of his wrists

is like bog oak,

the ball of his heel


like a basalt egg.

His instep has shrunk

cold as a swan’s foot

or a wet swamp root.


His hips are the ridge

and purse of a mussel,

his spine an eel arrested

under a glisten of mud.


The head lifts,

the chin is a visor

raised above the vent

of his slashed throat


that has tanned and toughened.

The cured wound

opens inwards to a dark

elderberry place.


Who will say ‘corpse’

to his vivid cast?

Who will say ‘body’

to his opaque repose?


And his rusted hair,

a mat unlikely

as a foetus’s.

I first saw his twisted face


in a photograph,

a head and shoulder

out of the peat,

bruised like a forceps baby,


but now he lies

perfected in my memory,

down to the red horn

of his nails,


hung in the scales

with beauty and atrocity:

with the Dying Gaul

too strictly compassed


on his shield,

with the actual weight

of each hooded victim,

slashed and dumped. 


====================


A Kite for Aibhín


After "L'Aquilone" by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)


Air from another life and time and place,

Pale blue heavenly air is supporting

A white wing beating high against the breeze,


And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon

All of us there trooped out

Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,


I take my stand again, halt opposite

Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,

Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.


And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,

Lifts itself, goes with the wind until

It rises to loud cheers from us below.


Rises, and my hand is like a spindle

Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower

Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher


The longing in the breast and planted feet

And gazing face and heart of the kite flier

Until string breaks and—separate, elate—


The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.


========================


Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication


1. Sunlight


There was a sunlit absence.

The helmeted pump in the yard

heated its iron,

water honeyed


in the slung bucket

and the sun stood

like a griddle cooling

against the wall


of each long afternoon.

So, her hands scuffled

over the bakeboard,

the reddening stove


sent its plaque of heat

against her where she stood

in a floury apron

by the window.


Now she dusts the board

with a goose's wing,

now sits, broad-lapped,

with whitened nails


and measling shins:

here is a space

again, the scone rising

to the tick of two clocks.


And here is love

like a tinsmith's scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin.


2. The Seed Cutters


They seem hundreds of years away. Brueghel,

You'll know them if I can get them true.

They kneel under the hedge in a half-circle

Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.

They are the seed cutters. The tuck and frill

Of leaf-sprout is on the seed potates

Buried under that straw. With time to kill,

They are taking their time. Each sharp knife goes

Lazily halving each root that falls apart

In the palm of the hand: a milky gleam,

And, at the centre, a dark watermark.

Oh, calendar customs! Under the broom

Yellowing over them, compose the frieze

With all of us there, our anonymities.


==========================


Death Of A Naturalist


All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window-sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst into nimble-

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it. 


==============================


North


I returned to a long strand,

the hammered curve of a bay,   

and found only the secular

powers of the Atlantic thundering.


I faced the unmagical

invitations of Iceland,

the pathetic colonies

of Greenland, and suddenly


those fabulous raiders,

those lying in Orkney and Dublin   

measured against

their long swords rusting,


those in the solid

belly of stone ships,

those hacked and glinting

in the gravel of thawed streams


were ocean-deafened voices

warning me, lifted again

in violence and epiphany.

The longship’s swimming tongue


was buoyant with hindsight—

it said Thor’s hammer swung

to geography and trade,

thick-witted couplings and revenges,


the hatreds and behind-backs

of the althing, lies and women,   

exhaustions nominated peace,   

memory incubating the spilled blood.


It said, ‘Lie down

in the word-hoard, burrow   

the coil and gleam

of your furrowed brain.


Compose in darkness.   

Expect aurora borealis   

in the long foray

but no cascade of light.


Keep your eye clear

as the bleb of the icicle,

trust the feel of what nubbed treasure   

your hands have known.’


================================


Digging


Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.


Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down


Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.


The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.


By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.


My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.


The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.


==================


Casualty


I   


He would drink by himself   

And raise a weathered thumb   

Towards the high shelf,   

Calling another rum   

And blackcurrant, without   

Having to raise his voice,   

Or order a quick stout   

By a lifting of the eyes   

And a discreet dumb-show   

Of pulling off the top;   

At closing time would go   

In waders and peaked cap   

Into the showery dark,   

A dole-kept breadwinner   

But a natural for work.   

I loved his whole manner,   

Sure-footed but too sly,   

His deadpan sidling tact,   

His fisherman’s quick eye   

And turned observant back.   


Incomprehensible   

To him, my other life.   

Sometimes, on the high stool,   

Too busy with his knife   

At a tobacco plug   

And not meeting my eye,   

In the pause after a slug   

He mentioned poetry.   

We would be on our own   

And, always politic   

And shy of condescension,   

I would manage by some trick   

To switch the talk to eels   

Or lore of the horse and cart   

Or the Provisionals.   


But my tentative art   

His turned back watches too:   

He was blown to bits   

Out drinking in a curfew   

Others obeyed, three nights   

After they shot dead   

The thirteen men in Derry.   

PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,   

BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday   

Everyone held   

His breath and trembled.   


II   


It was a day of cold   

Raw silence, wind-blown   

surplice and soutane:   

Rained-on, flower-laden   

Coffin after coffin   

Seemed to float from the door   

Of the packed cathedral   

Like blossoms on slow water.   

The common funeral   

Unrolled its swaddling band,   

Lapping, tightening   

Till we were braced and bound   

Like brothers in a ring.   


But he would not be held   

At home by his own crowd   

Whatever threats were phoned,   

Whatever black flags waved.   

I see him as he turned   

In that bombed offending place,   

Remorse fused with terror   

In his still knowable face,   

His cornered outfaced stare   

Blinding in the flash.   


He had gone miles away   

For he drank like a fish   

Nightly, naturally   

Swimming towards the lure   

Of warm lit-up places,   

The blurred mesh and murmur   

Drifting among glasses   

In the gregarious smoke.   

How culpable was he   

That last night when he broke   

Our tribe’s complicity?   

‘Now, you’re supposed to be   

An educated man,’   

I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me   

The right answer to that one.’


III   


I missed his funeral,   

Those quiet walkers   

And sideways talkers   

Shoaling out of his lane   

To the respectable   

Purring of the hearse...   

They move in equal pace   

With the habitual   

Slow consolation   

Of a dawdling engine,   

The line lifted, hand   

Over fist, cold sunshine   

On the water, the land   

Banked under fog: that morning   

I was taken in his boat,   

The Screw purling, turning   

Indolent fathoms white,   

I tasted freedom with him.   

To get out early, haul   

Steadily off the bottom,   

Dispraise the catch, and smile   

As you find a rhythm   

Working you, slow mile by mile,   

Into your proper haunt   

Somewhere, well out, beyond...   


Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.


==========================


The Tollund Man



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 here in Jutland 

In the old man-killing parishes 

I will feel lost, 

Unhappy and at home. 


----------------------------------

 

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.

 

-------------------------------

 

Follower

 

My father worked with a horse-plough,

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow.

The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

 

An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

The sod rolled over without breaking.

At the headrig, with a single pluck

 

Of reins, the sweating team turned round

And back into the land. His eye

Narrowed and angled at the ground,

Mapping the furrow exactly.

 

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,

Fell sometimes on the polished sod;

Sometimes he rode me on his back

Dipping and rising to his plod.

 

I wanted to grow up and plough,

To close one eye, stiffen my arm.

All I ever did was follow

In his broad shadow round the farm.

 

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always. But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

 

-------------------------------

 

Bogland

 

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening--

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encrouching horizon,

 

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

 

They've taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

 

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

 

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They'll never dig coal here,

 

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

 

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

 

Biographical information: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/211

His Nobel Prize lecture: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html