Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston





Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney, April13, 1939 - August 30, 2013


Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
(I had the privilege of meeting him years ago in a café in Harvard Square.)


FreeThinke said...

A wonderful poem! A new, highly personal way of claiming the pen is (at least) as mighty as the sword -- or the spade.

I understand what Mr. Heaney must have felt to write this, because I too came from a long line of earthy, practical ancestors whose dedication to hard physical work and infinite capacity for gardening, incessant maintenance, and endless home improvement projects far exceeded anything I've ever been able to accomplish along those lines.

How could such practical people produce an impractical idealist -- a dreamer dedicated to Music, Poetry, Literature and Art?

Part of the answer may lie in this quotation:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

~ John Adams (1735 - 1826)

Though they may not have been consciously aware of it, all the hard work of my ancestors in good, plain, practical -- necessary -- toil and endeavor certainly is what has made it possible for me to enjoy the wonderful experiences I have had learning and performing keyboard works of of Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofieff and Britten. Plus all the fun I've have reading books, writing poetry, satirical verse and nonsense rhymes, and designing, planning and supervising the renovation and transformation of dilapidated houses into beautiful dwellings.

I think your Mr. Heaney was quietly celebrating his having built on the accomplishments of his forebears, even as he envied them a bit. I know I feel the same way.

Looking back all I can think is, "My God! HOW did they DO all that? How could they have ENDURED it?" Then I quickly add, "Thank God I do not have to -- thanks to them."

FreeThinke said...

FYI: I sent Mr. Heaney's poem to a fiend in London -- a fellow poet who has had a few of her things published in anthologies -- one put out by Oxford University Press.

She and I went to high school together, and discovered this common interest only a few years ago after we had our 50th high school reunion.

She taught poetry and literature at one of the schools in London for many years, and has been responsible -- along with you -- for introducing me to modern poets I probably would never have known otherwise.

She may already know Mr. Heaney's work. I'll find out soon enough.

She loved the Joyce Sutphen you gave us not long ago.