Two boats: remembering Seamus Heaney
With my friend of 50 years I learned to write poetry, explored Ulster’s landscapes and took turns to recite new poems over balls of malt in a Dublin bar
I first got to know this work on smudgy cyclostyled sheets at the Belfast Group. We all applauded the knowing enjambment of “nimble- / Swimming tadpoles”; frogs at the flax dam “Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting”; the concrete music of the “bottle / Corked sloppily with paper” and, in Churning Day, “the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps”. It is as though the particulars of life on an Ulster farm are inventing a language for themselves – a dialect that our senses seem always to have known. In a barn on a hot summer’s day something almost religious happens, something both visionary and matter of fact, flawlessly “formed”:
A scythe’s edge, a clean spade, a pitch-fork’s prongs:
Slowly bright objects formed when you went in.
Working very hard and at a dizzy altitude, Seamus continued to produce miracles throughout his life. Years ago he met me off the Enterprise train. We went to a quayside Dublin bar, sat on stools and, over balls of malt, recited new poems by heart. His was The Harvest Bow, a poem about poetry, about poetry and life, about war and peace, about the fragility of art and of everything. This may be his greatest poem. It wouldn’t be so powerful were it not so consummate, the art that conceals art. The bow is partly a metaphor for Seamus’s complex and enduring craft: “wheat” that “brightens as it tightens twist by twist”. The Harvest Bow came into my head when I learned of Seamus’s death: the “frail device”
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.
In his last collection, Human Chain, I am mesmerised by A Herbal, a sequence translated from the French (though most of it sounds like pure Heaney). I sense the essence of the collection in such lines as these about the poet having laid his “cheek / Against the rush clump / And known soft stone to break / On the quarry floor”. Why is this so heartbreaking? The poet as boy and man, body and soul.
I hope that one day I’ll be able to write an adequate elegy for Seamus. In the meantime I offer two brief poetic reflections on my long friendship with him and Marie. At the 2011 Bloomsday conferments at University College Dublin, a number of poets were being given honorary degrees. During the formal lunch Seamus asked me, “What’s the Greek for boat?” In such scholarly company I, who would claim to be a translator of Homer, couldn’t remember. I was mortified. Soon afterwards I wrote Boat as a kind of squib to ease my embarrassment, but the poem, I hope, reaches deeper than that. It anticipates Seamus’s death (and my own). Marie wrote to tell me it had moved her to tears.
Six months later, having been invited to write a poem about a treasure in the National Museum, I remembered a brooch Marie often wears. It’s modelled on the Broighter Boat, one of the most beautiful objects in the world, all sheen and intricacy, delicate as an eggshell. My poem The Broighter Boat is a gift for Marie. Now that Seamus has arrived in Ithaca, I want him to ease aside the stowaway and take his proper place as the “transubstantial / Imaginary oarsman”.