I don’t generally read much poetry, but I have been reading Seamus Heaney since studying “Blackberry-Picking” at school, and he will be missed.
Yes indeed. Too soon.
His poetry linked history with the tumultuous times in Ireland. He will be remembered.
Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney
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.
Sábháilte Turas Seamus
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.
Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013.
From “Clearances,” in memory of his mother.
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours 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.
I saw a superb documentary about Seamus Heaney a year or two ago, called “Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens”. Sadly, it’s no longer available on BBC iPlayer, but it’s well worth keeping an eye out in case it is repeated anywhere.
He is still (and probably forever will be) my favourite poet.
The music of what happens, by the way, is from the Fiannaíocht, the series of stories about Fionn Mac Cumhail and his band of poet soldiers. The Fianna were sitting around looking down on Gleann na Smól and chatting, and one (maybe Oscar, Fionn’s grandson, I think) asked what the others thought was the best music in the world. Oisín, Oscar’s father, said it was the music of hounds belling after a stag; Diarmuid of the Love-spot said it was beautiful women making love; Goll Mac Morna said it was the clash of battle, and so on until they came to Fionn, who was sitting silent and listening to them all. Fionn thought about it and said “The best music is the music of what happens.”
Gods, that was beautiful. Does anyone recommend a specific book of his?
Blackberry-Picking is in Seamus Heaney’s debut collection, Death of a Naturalist, which was first published in 1966 and is one of my favourites. But any of his poetry collections would be a good choice! I also like Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (although that is a translation from the Anglo-Saxon, rather than an entirely original poem).