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.”
He 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)
* * *
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)
* * *
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.
from “The Spirit Level” (London: Faber & Faber, 1996)
* * *
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