Seamus Heaney and his poetry have been weaving in and out of my life for over 25 years now. I remember celebrating wildly with my mother in 1995 when news came through that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It seemed so right that he was star poet reading at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009, just a few short weeks after Mother had died. Kilkenny was the place where my parents first met in the early 1940s and I felt their happy youthful presence all round me as I made my way to St. Canice’s Cathedral for the performance.
Nothing could ever have prepared me for the impact which Seamus Heaney and his poetry had on me that balmy August evening. It was as if he knew that Mother had just died and was trying to comfort me by telling me that I was not alone in my sadness. The emotion with which he read about his own mother penetrated my sorrow and his words were like empathetic arms around me:
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
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.
Last week, I spent a few days in Co. Clare which was my father’s native county. He had been thrilled to hear about my expedition to Kilkenny in August 2009 and he talked of how complicated and time-consuming it had been back in the 1940s to get from Kilkenny to Kilrush, especially when one was the junior in the bank. One of my reasons for visiting Co. Clare last week was to go and see some of the ‘special’ places that Father told me about before his death in September 2010. I was also inspired by Seamus Heaney to take the time to visit Flaggy Shore in the Burren Region, just a few miles from Ballyvaughan.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
(from The Spirit Level)
The swans were just as he described and more than anything I knew that Seamus Heaney would fully understand when I felt, yet again, my heart being caught off guard and blown open.