Seamus Heaney on My Mind

Seamus Heaneyby Jim Forest

One of the great joys for us in recent weeks was going to a poetry reading by Seamus Heaney in Amsterdam. The venue — a former church that is now a theater — was packed. It’s amazing how many Dutch people turn out for an evening of poetry in another language, and in this case despite one of the fiercest rainstorms I’ve ever experienced in Holland.

I had never seen Heaney before but his face was somehow familiar. Then it clicked. He has a remarkable resemblance to the actor Peter Ustinov. It’s a very pink, potato-shaped face topped with hair halfway between silver and snow. He wore a bright white shirt with round brown buttons, no tie, and a tweed jacket.

My favorite moment of the evening was a poem rooted in an Irish legend describing a tiny ship sailing in the air through an abbey church in ancient times. Our world of air and light was a submerged, invisible world to the little people sailing overhead. The anchor got tangled in something in the church and the ship was in difficulty as a result until one of the monks below freed the anchor. The ship sailed on, passing through the stone wall as through air. It is a poem of the two worlds we move between — the world that’s flat and the world that shimmers. Interesting that it’s a monk who notices the passing ship and helps preserve it from the dangers below; one may hope that the spiritual life will open ones eyes to what is generally missed.

Heaney commented, “You had better get into the marvelous. It’s more important than the matter-of-fact.” He recalled as a child the pleasure of seeing a whole world in the rain drops on a telegraph wire.

The function of the poet, he said, “is simply to write poetry, to let poetry happen, to let a poem come through. And many do this but wouldn’t have the arrogance to call themselves poets. I didn’t dare call myself a poet until I had published three books. To be poet is like taking vows, to belong to a holy order.”

Seamus Heaney autographHe was asked about being a Catholic and coming from a Catholic milieu, which some other Irish writers have found a heavy burden. Heaney didn’t identity himself with “liberated ex-Catholics” who regard the Church chiefly as the wielder of a strap, hitting backsides and rapping knuckles, and forever lining up people to enter the confessional but expresses his debt to a religious up-bringing. “We never felt ourselves alone in the universe for one second,” he said. “You were given a strong sense of the universe. You were illuminated by a light-filled creation, the sense of a big shimmer of which you were a part. Sanctifying grace. You didn’t have to understand it. So for me the Church wasn’t a set of repressions but a sense of visionary possibilities. Catholicism has that aspect of poetry, the imagined elsewhere, the actual moving toward the radiant, ad majorem dei gloriam.”

(written in 1995)

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The Annals Say

by Seamus Heaney

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

— from the book “Seeing Things” (Lightenings viii)

Seamus Heaney grave stone
Seamus Heaney’s gravestone

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Saint Kevin & the Blackbird


And then there was Saint Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young is hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he:
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel in his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underneath

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
“To labour and not to seek reward,” he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

–Seamus Heaney
from “The Spirit Level” (London: Faber & Faber, 1996)

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From The Republic of Conscience


When I landed in the republic of conscience

it was so noiseless when the engines stopped

I could hear a curlew high above the runway.

At immigration the clerk was an old man

who produced a wallet from his homespun coat

and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

The woman in customs asked me to declare

the words of our traditional cures and charms

to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

No porter. No interpreter. No taxi.

You carried what you had to and very soon

your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.


Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning

spells universal good and parents hang

swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.

Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells

are held to the ear during births and funerals.

The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.

Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.

The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,

the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.

At their inauguration, public leaders

must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep

to atone for their presumption to hold office ?

and to affirm their faith that all life sprang

from salt in tears which the sky-god wept

after he dreamt his solitude was endless.


I came back from that frugal republic

with my two arms the one length, the customs men

having insisted my allowance was myself.

The old man rose and gazed into my face

and said that was official recognition

that I was now a dual citizen.

He therefore desired me when I got home

to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere

but operated independently

and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

— Seamus Heaney

Remembering Rosanne

Charles & Rosanne (1993)
Charles & Rosanne at the time of their wedding in 1993

On the 24th of July my sister Rosanne breathed her last. She was 68. In her final hours each breath was a great labor. Her husband, Charles, and two of her four children were at her bedside when she exhaled that final time. I was a few feet away. Quite soon all four children were in the house along with grandchildren and cousins plus other members of our complex family in which bonds of DNA are not the decisive ingredient. The next morning Charles washed Rosanne and then all the family oiled her from forehead to toes before placing rose petals on her body.

Rosanne was startlingly emaciated. On the day she died, it had been three weeks since she last accepted food. When I arrived, she was taking very little water. She seemed unable to swallow.

For seven years Rosanne had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. The onset had been very slow — an increasing degree of absent-mindedness that finally reached the point of her having to give up her work as an occupational therapist. In that period Charles and other family members looked for dietary changes that might help stop the damage to her brain or even reverse it. During the last few years she was gradually stripped of her active vocabulary until words were few and rare. She was sometimes confused about where she was. A wheel chair was needed. Going out became a challenge. She became utterly dependent on the care of others, Charles most of all.

Charles holding Rosanne's hand
Charles holding Rosanne’s hand the day of her death

Thank God I was able to take part in the last nine days of Rosanne’s life — part of a community of family members and friends who were not only camping out on the edge of her deathbed but on the border of the mystery of death.

The hours when I was at her side were mainly times of silence but also of a quiet one-sided conversation and reading aloud. I urged her, for example, to ignore the advice of Dylan Thomas about not going gently into that good night; better, I proposed, to embrace, embrace the dying of the light. Using the Bible I have on my e-reader, I picked out psalms, or parts of psalms, that seemed appropriate. I slowly read her the story of Lazarus being called out of his tomb, accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, the Beatitudes, the Book of Jonah, parts of the Song of Songs, the canticle of praise sung by the three young men consigned to the furnace in Babylon — texts that have to do with death not having the last word, the grave not being the end of the journey, life not being a bad joke. I told Rosanne that no one knows much about what happens after death but that we get occasional joyful glimpses of heaven in day-to-day life.

Though she couldn’t speak, apart from an occasional yes or no or groan of distress as her body was turned, I think she recognized each of us who took part in the vigil and heard what we had to say. She communicated by intense attention to the face of the person sitting at her side, sometimes with a puzzled look, at other times with a gaze of recognition, or so it seemed to me. And there was communication by hand-holding. She held hands with each of us with a remarkable firmness, each massaging the thumb of the other.

Rosanne's hand the morning after she died
Rosanne’s hand the morning after she died

The kitchen and dining room near the bedroom in which Rosanne was dying served as a gathering place. Charles did a lot of cooking and family members brought still more food. Cooking and eating became a way of coping. Over meals lots of stories about Rosanne were told. One that especially rang bells for me came from our stepsister Tamara, who recalled a post-high school trans-Atlantic crossing by ship taken by Rosanne, Marianne and herself in 1962. Along the way there was a major storm that sent furniture sliding from port to starboard and back again plus water splashing through portholes. After the storm, the question was raised: “What if the ship were sinking? What would our last words or actions have been?” Answer: Marianne would write a poem, Tamara would say, “Just a minute!” and Rosanne would say, “Oh! Really?”

From childhood until her death, Rosanne had an “Oh! Really?” quality. It was in her steady, wide-eyed gaze. It lay behind her kindness not only in good times but in trying circumstances. It reflected her passionate curiosity about the world, a permanent “tell me more” setting.

One of Rosanne’s traits was giving away things that she loved. Nineteen years ago, while driving us to the rehabilitation center where she was then working, she gave Nancy a Navajo sandcast bracelet. While she made no explanation, it was, I think, Rosanne’s way of saying to Nancy, “Welcome to the family.”

Rosanne and I were both “red-diaper babies” — the children of Communist parents — but neither of us were, as adults, engaged with any political party or inclined to look at the world through ideologically-ground glasses or to value people according to their politics.

“Blessed are the pure of heart,” one of the Beatitudes affirms. Throughout her life Rosanne had a very pure heart, a deep innocence, a quiet selflessness, an innate ability not to judge others. From early adulthood she had been drawn to an alternative way of life — non-acquisitive, peaceful, sharing, self-giving — and those traits remained with her until the end.

Jim Forest

Photos taken during the days I was with the family in Santa Cruz are in this folder:

text as of 6 August 2013

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