01 September 2013

A breach in the language itself


We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching 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.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Those who know Ireland realise it's a country that operates like a small town; Dublin masquerades as a city but is really a village. And so we're all about connections. We live in a place where it's possible for an ordinary person to come across a Nobel Laureate poet in ordinary places: a restaurant in south Dublin, a small poetry reading in a city-centre bookshop, the holiday home of good friends in Donegal, where Seamus Heaney and his wife stayed when it was owned by another poet. There are so many people in Ireland who have stories to tell about Heaney, how his poetry engaged them, spoke to or for them, how they met him, when they heard him, where they saw him. And I'm just another one.

The poem I copied out here tonight is from a book given to me in 1982 as a gift by my late brother, who would have turned 57 this week. In 1982, I was living on the Canadian prairies and missing the boglands of home. My brother's inscription reads "To remind you of the place you've never left". Heaney's poetry did just that. More recently, on the death of my father, a friend gave me a copy of Heaney's "The Human Chain" in the hope that it would "offer better words of consolation", and it did. For these reasons, and more, Heaney's loss feels almost personal.

Don Paterson rightly said "The death of this beloved man seems to have left a breach in the language itself", but Michael Longley was right too when he said that "...there are tens of thousands of people today who will be feeling personally bereaved because he had a great presence. Just as his presence filled a room, his marvellous poems filled the hearts of generations of readers."

That's all for this week, apart from wishing a dear son Happy Birthday: have a great one CM.

And have a good week all.