In­ti­mate, wise and en­dur­ing

Sea­mus Heaney had been in­tend­ing to com­pile a per­sonal se­lec­tion of his best work prior to his death in 2013. Now his fam­ily have taken on the task, choos­ing one hun­dred poems which trace an arc across his stel­lar ca­reer, writes MARTINA DEVLIN

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - PO­ETRY

In nu­merol­ogy, 100 rep­re­sents en­ergy, in­de­pen­dence and in­fi­nite po­ten­tial. Could there be a more ap­pro­pri­ate num­ber for Sea­mus Heaney’s lat­est col­lec­tion, an an­thol­ogy that traces an arc across his stel­lar writ­ing ca­reer? In his lat­ter years, the No­bel Lau­re­ate in­tended to com­pile a per­sonal se­lec­tion of his po­etry but death in­ter­vened. Now his fam­ily has done it for him, whit­tling down his cor­pus for the col­lec­tion ti­tled, with pleas­ing sim­plic­ity, 100 Poems.

Half-re­mem­bered favourites crop up here, like old friends at a re­union, along­side more re­cent work. Here’s ‘St Kevin and the Black­bird’ in which he imag­ines the saint on his knees pray­ing, and forced into main­tain­ing the pos­ture when eggs are laid in his out­stretched palm. De­spite the dis­com­fort, there is a bonus — Kevin finds him­self “linked into the net­work of eter­nal life”.

There’s his tribute to Nel­son Man­dela, ‘The Cure at Troy’, also as­so­ci­ated with the heady days of the Good Fri­day Agree­ment when hope and history rhymed.

Here, too, is ‘From the Repub­lic of Con­science’ com­posed for Amnesty In­ter­na­tional — “a fru­gal repub­lic” where peo­ple should speak on their own be­half and in their own tongue. There is puck­ish­ness and pain in his po­etry, along­side el­egy and hon­esty. Above all, his love for fam­ily glows through. His wife is ever present, her shadow fall­ing across many of the pieces in­cluded, such as ‘Scaf­fold­ing’ in which he com­pares their re­la­tion­ship to a sturdy wall.

Had he lived in a dif­fer­ent age, Heaney might have been a sean­chaí be­cause he is a nat­u­ral-born sto­ry­teller. His im­agery, too, is mem­o­rable: a rowan is “like a lip­sticked girl” while a skunk is rem­i­nis­cent both of the cha­suble at Mass and his wife bend­ing over, root­ing in a drawer for her night­dress.

His Gaelic her­itage mat­tered to him and he knew his coun­try’s history, but he was on close terms with the clas­sics, too, and fig­ures from the an­cient world of­ten make an ap­pear­ance. Faber & Faber, hard­back, 184 pages, €12.99

‘Re­quiem for the Crop­pies’ re­calls the United Ir­ish­men of 1798 who died “shaking scythes at can­non” but had a re­birth when bar­ley grew out of their graves. It was pub­lished on the 50th an­niver­sary of 1916. What might he have pro­duced for the cen­te­nary two years ago?

Nei­ther apol­o­gis­ing for the Trou­bles nor mythol­o­gis­ing them, he em­bed­ded those dark years in their con­text. A jour­nal­is­tic qual­ity emerges in some of this po­etry, as in ‘Ca­su­alty’ when he in­cor­po­rates loy­al­ist graffiti af­ter Bloody Sun­day in 1974: Paras 13 Bog­side 0. But he does not shy away from “our tribe’s com­plic­ity” in the Trou­bles. In ‘Fu­neral Rites’ his tone is curt: “Now as news comes in/of each neigh­bourly mur­der/we pine for cer­e­mony,/ cus­tom­ary rhythms.”

And in ‘Pun­ish­ment’ he ex­plores the con­tra­dic­tions in the repub­li­can tra­di­tion where girls are tarred and feath­ered for frater­nising with sol­diers, iden­ti­fy­ing a re­cur­rent pat­tern which scape­goats women.

Heaney be­lieved in the power of po­etry and his con­vic­tion car­ried weight. Out of his ru­ral North­ern back­ground he cre­ated work that was ac­ces­si­ble, in­ti­mate, wise and en­dur­ing. In his hands, de­pic­tions of child­hood, farm life and tight-knit com­mu­ni­ties be­come univer­sal. Through his eyes, we smell the newly-turned soil, see the courting cou­ples star­tled out of sand dunes, hear fam­i­lies recit­ing prayers, watch him peeling pota­toes with his mother.

The past is a liv­ing en­tity for him. ‘Fol­lower’ shows his fa­ther to us, a farmer guid­ing a horse-drawn plough, his eye “map­ping the fur­row ex­actly” and him­self as a wor­ship­ful small boy stum­bling af­ter or rid­ing on his back, “dip­ping and ris­ing to his plod”. Now his fa­ther fol­lows him, he says, a re­minder of the cy­cle of life.

Heaney man­aged the feat of ap­pear­ing to be an or­di­nary man, even while he was plainly ex­tra­or­di­nary. He won the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1995 “for works of lyri­cal beauty and eth­i­cal depth, which ex­alt ev­ery­day mir­a­cles and the liv­ing past” and I re­mem­ber, as a young reporter, be­ing in­structed to ring him up about the win. He spoke for a few min­utes, be­fore say­ing gen­tly, “that’ll do now” — a North­ernism which trans­lates as let’s have no more fuss.

At read­ings, I was struck by his warmth, hu­mil­ity, that in­tel­lect, and the rhythm of his Co Derry ac­cent. You can’t eas­ily sep­a­rate the man from his work be­cause a strong au­tho­rial voice is threaded through it.

The cur­rent col­lec­tion in­cludes a fore­word from his daugh­ter Cather­ine Heaney, who de­scribes choos­ing the poems as a poignant process, and you can well be­lieve it. It be­gins with ‘Dig­ging’ in which he com­mits him­self to po­etry and ends with ‘In Time’, ded­i­cated to his grand­daugh­ter Síofra. It’s dated Au­gust 18, 2013 — 12 days later he was dead. In the poem, he is help­ing the tiny, de­ter­mined girl to walk, recog­nis­ing that he won’t live to see her stride out as grown woman — yet he can picture it. “I saw you years from now/(More years than I’ll be al­lowed)…”

By his death, aged 74, he had sent an elec­tri­cal charge through the po­etry world. If you pick up this book, you will hear the words of a mas­ter sing in­side your head.

Also worth vis­it­ing is ‘Sea­mus Heaney: Lis­ten Now Again’ — a Na­tional Li­brary of Ire­land ex­hi­bi­tion at the Bank of Ire­land Cul­tural and Her­itage Cen­tre in Dublin’s Col­lege Green (ad­mis­sion free) — with orig­i­nal manuscripts, let­ters, di­ary en­tries, pho­to­graphs and note­books on show.

Here, his word-weav­ing, dream-cast­ing, imag­i­na­tion-stir­ring voice lives on. As it does in the work it­self.

100 Poems Sea­mus Heaney

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