If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.Seamus Heaney
I’m listening to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on audiobook at the moment and feel completely intimidated in my writing. I have been knocked sideways by his ability to create a sense of sound through great choice of words. The other writer (also a Nobel Prize Winner) who I see as having that extraordinary talent is Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
Part of my birthday expedition yesterday brought me to Hook Head Light House in Co. Wexford ~ which I’ve written about here many times before. It’s one of those places that I love both up close and from afar. On dark nights in Tramore, we can see the light of the Hook, like an old friend, smiling in the distance. And to be beside this 800 year old lighthouse is just something special.
It was coming towards sunset when I got there yesterday and I just stood in awe, like I always do, gazing at its solidity out there in the wilds of the Hook Penninsula.
Just beneath the lighthouse, facing out to sea were two very ordinary, well-worn kitchen chairs. The sight of them, clearly with a history, but now empty, completely knocked the wind out of my sails.
I was glad that the chairs had each other and they looked so comfortable in their ‘companionable silence,’ to steal from W.B. Yeats.
Their emptiness was piercing, at one level, as they reminded me of Mother and Father’s empty chairs in their kitchen after they had died ~ first one and then the other. Their chairs faced each other, though, at either end of the kitchen table, not like this pair.
The little glint as the setting sun caught the chair on the left gave these a sense of warmth, a sense of hope, a deep sense of ongoing love. I felt that if I waited I would see the lovers return to watch the sun set fully and the bright beacon of Hook Lighthouse take over but time called me too ~ called me to go back home to our kitchen chairs that we’ve had for twenty-five years now.
Circumstances dictated that I had to get up early this morning and take the dogs out for their constitutional.
It was very dark and cloudy looking as I scrambled around, drinking a big mug of coffee, gathering up the car keys and a befuddled looking Puppy Stan.
I had visions of needing my torch in the wood as it seemed that the daylight was never going to come . My mind slipped back to a snippet of conversation I overheard yesterday as I walked passed two women chatting in Waterford. One said in a very serious tone: I wish I could wake up dead.’ At the time, I thought to myself, ‘You’d only hear that sort of thing in Ireland.’
I think she probably meant that she would like to die in her sleep and not have to endure any lingering illness. That thinking had brought me back to a hot sunny Summer morning years ago when my mother found herself at a coffee morning where the subject of conversation was: Would you prefer to die suddenly or be sick for a while beforehand? She came home that day in a fury and said that she needed to go to the beach immediately to make up for a wasted few hours discussing ‘ridiculous nonsense ~ as if you have any great choice how you die!’
The sight of a tiny break in the dark sky changed my car and mental gears rather swiftly. All in a few moments, I was treated to drama of dramas as morning painted herself on the black canvass over Tramore Bay:
Standing out by Newtown Cove, I couldn’t but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Song, which opens with the line:
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Nor could I stop myself from wondering how I could ever have doubted that the sun would once again wake up and cast her beams across my world.
Perhaps there’s a lesson here for us all!
Seamus Heaney has been very much on my mind of late. Today is the third anniversary of his death and I miss him with a passion. He was there for me when I really needed him ~ in the aftermath of my mother’s death ~ reading with that wonderful voice of his at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009.
It’s strange how there can be people who never know what a mark they have left on a life. I never spoke to Seamus Heaney but he spoke to me through his poetry and humanity.
Tonight, as I read through some of his poems, I feel even more blessed than ever to be among those who have shared this world and country with him.
How do you say ‘thank you’ to someone who has died? I wish I knew the answer to that but, for now this is the nearest I can come to it.
Rest in Peace, dear man, and I hope you have feasted on some glistening blackberries this late August day.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
(Seamus Heaney 1939-2013)
Swans glided into my life in the Autumn of 1980 ~ thirty-five years ago now.
That was the year that my sweetheart was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just six or eight weeks to live. He died on January 5th, 1981.
We got the chance to walk by lakes, rivers and the sea where we talked very openly of life and love but only in a veiled way about shattered hopes and dreams.
Wherever we went, there were swans; elegant, white companions who seemed to understand all our bittersweetness and melancholy.
That was a time to live in the present and savour each precious moment. The sun shone for us as the leaves turned like setting suns and fell to create a crunchy carpet.
William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney have written about swans in ways that suggest they understood how these magnificent creatures can linger in the heart and memory forever and ever.
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 lightening of 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 or 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
Thirty-five years may be a long time but an Autumn has never passed without the arrival of the swans back into my world in late September. I glimpsed them the other evening as I drove over the little bridge at Annestown here in Co. Waterford and yesterday I spent a few happy hours just watching them as I soaked up the hazy sunshine.
These lines from W.B. Yeats’ Wild Swans at Coole kept floating into my mind:
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
Time is a healer in many ways but there is something about lost love that simply isn’t about ‘healing.’ Rather, it’s about remembering, celebrating and incorporating into the tapestry of living, learning and continuing to love.
Tonight is Culture Night here in Ireland and the whole question of what ‘culture’ means to different people/s has been playing on my mind all day.
It probably won’t surprise regular readers of Social Bridge that culture, for me, is at its best when it brings nature and poetry together.
I associate September very much blackberries and going out with our buckets to secret hideaways to pick them. That’s exactly what I did this evening up this old track a few miles from Tramore.
Various poems about blackberries flashed before me, including Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking, Sylvia Plath’s Blackberrying and this beauty from Galway Kinnell:
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry — eating in late September.
I realise that cultural preferences vary hugely and are very wide-ranging indeed. Ireland is alive with cultural activities tonight and I even caught the choir of birds at their dress rehearsal as I came home after my poetic blackberry feast.
I’d love to hear where the concept of culture brings you?
I’m thrilled that Social Bridge has been Shortlisted in the Blog Awards Ireland 2015 in the ‘Best Post’ Category. The Finalists are being decided by Public Vote which concludes on September 21st ~ just a few short days away now. (Many, many thanks to everyone who has voted for me, thus far.)
If you haven’t voted yet, I’d be delighted if you would vote for Social Bridge, and, of course, encourage all your family and friends to do so too, by clicking this Voting Button:
Today marks the second anniversary of the death of Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
Seamus Heaney’s poetry, as regular readers will know, has been very dear to my heart, especially since I heard him read at the Kikenny Arts Festival in August 2009, just weeks after my mother’s death and at a time when my father was very frail indeed.
Heaney’s work is wide-ranging in terms of theme but, for me, his writings about his family, particularly his late parents, resonate very strongly and never fail to bring solace.
Last night, I was perusing the various volumes of his work that have their home on my desk beside the computer and found myself returning over and over to what I suspect may be his shortest poem of all.
The dotted line my father’s ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away.
(Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber)
The tide has ebbed and flowed rhythmically over the last two years and it certainly hasn’t washed away any of the lines crafted by Seamus Heaney. If anything, it has brought more and more of them up onto the shores of new waves of poetry lovers from all across the world.
I got an intense craving over the weekend to walk back in time and and touch the past. I’m talking about way, way back and the place that drew me was Gaulstown Dolmen which is about five miles from my home in Tramore.
The little grassy path leading up to Gaulstown Dolmen was a joy in itself with honeysuckle wafting its perfume and fully formed, but as yet unripened, blackberries that immediately had me thinking of Seamus Heaney.
Then round a tiny bend and the history of my Co. Waterford opened 6,000 or so years to me.
There is a magnificent quiteness in this special place ~ just the gentle swish of the wind in the trees and the beating of one’s heart.
According to the brilliant Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford compiled by Michael Moore, Megalithic tombs, like Gaulstown Dolmen, were built at a time when much of the country was first intensively occupied by farming communities. Consequently, the tombs, through their large size and impact on the landscape, can be regarded as a statement of ownership of the land as well as burial places.
As I looked at the land around the Dolmen, I wanted to know more and more about how it looked thousands of years ago.
Who walked these lands; what was going through their minds; how did they feel about life and death?
And, of course, who were the individuals who constructed the dolmen with that breath-taking capstone? What sorts of rituals surrounded death back then? It seems that cremation was the usual burial rite but what of the emotions felt by those who were bereaved ~ did such a sense as ‘being bereft’ even exist back then?
I came across a question yesterday on Twitter, with a picture of a seat overlooking an ocean, that had me thinking long into the night. Here’s what it was:
If you could spend an hour on this seat talking with one person (past or present), who would it be?
While I was thinking about the possible contenders, I decided that the seat should be in precious Mount Congreve, but I found it very difficult to nominate one person.
Part of me wanted to have the pleasure of an hour with a personal loved one who has died but I decided that I couldn’t face seeing him/her walk away at the end of the hour.
The person I finally came up with was Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney ( 1939-2013), whose poetry I adore and who made such a lasting impression on me when I heard him read at The Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009.
Here’s one of his poems that I’d loved to have him read to me in that wonderful voice of his:
Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may have let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.
So who would YOU choose to chat with for that one special hour?
The National Ploughing Championships are underway in Ireland at the moment and it’s like the country has been taken over by ploughing fever.
In the midst of this, I’ve been thinking about people who have the courage to plough lonely furrows in the pursuit of a vision, very often at huge cost to themselves but ultimately for the betterment of society. How often do we look back and see how a now ‘famous’ person died in destitution, never to see the fruits of his/her labours recognised and accepted as ‘genius?’
And, of course, the mere mention of ploughing always makes me think of this most evocative poem written by the great Seamus Heaney:
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.