Saturday 17 December 2016

Thoughts in Progress

I recently thought of an Alan Bennet’s quote, which I first came across in a column by Laura Barton, music writer at The Guardian: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” The reason for that pensive moment? Seamus Heaney.

The Irish poet, who died in 2013, left behind an extensive and rich body of work. Yet, I had never “got” Seamus. No matter how many articles and essays I read, including a nostalgia-tinted eulogy by his fellow poet and long-time admirer, Andrew Motion, I failed to connect with his poems.

Until “his hand came out and took mine” a few weeks ago. We had our annual Christmas Bazaar at my school which, as a fund-raising opportunity, always delivers the goods. This time I was put in charge of the teddies’ tombola. Next to me was the “second-hand bookshop” stall. During one of our breaks I nipped over for a quick browse and left with a copy of Contemporary British Poetry. And which author was the first one to be featured? Our Seamus.

"Where finally gold flecks began to dance"

I left work a bit later that evening on account of all the tidying-up. By the time I got home it was dark. With my bike still outside the open front door and my helmet on, I read the first poem in the collection.

Reader, I married Seamus Heaney that night. And no, I don’t care that I am misquoting our lovely and talented Charlotte. The first three lines of Churning Day have stuck with me since: A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast/hardened gradually on top of the four crocks/that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.

I thought of the hand that was being offered to me. I took it. I dared not hesitate, nor reject it. The fullness of those three lines hit me like a heavyweight boxer’s uppercut in my sternum. They spoke not only of the alchemy-like process of making butter in a farm. They became melodic madeleines that took me back to the Havana of my childhood. No, we didn’t make butter at home. But we did our washing on a Saturday and called out to our neighbours who lived in the flat below ours to warn them that our clothes might drip a bit and “would it be all right if they could put out their washing after?”. Of course, we would let them know when we were done. The delight of feeling this connection with a culture - the Irish - that is as strange to mine as mine is to it is the familiarity Seamus' verses breed. Churning Day was not the only poem of his that made me feel this way but it is the one that has stayed with me the longest.

It is a theory of mine that this is one of the advantages of middle age. The lack of rush and abundance of patience. If you have been reading this blog for a long time, then, you know by now that I am not in the habit of chasing after the latest bestseller (although I am one third of the way into Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. Then, again, Zadie is an exception) or the newest music releases. It is almost a rule I live my life by that the more people hype up an author or musician, the less I want to know about their work.

The literature I read, the music I listen to, the art I enjoy, they all come from a similar place: closeness, intimacy. I want to believe that Churning Day was written for me. In fact, I believe it was. Poems like the ones Seamus wrote (yup, you guessed it, I have read a few more, I am catching up very quickly), nuzzle up to your ribs. They fill the space in which you are.

In times of ugliness, as the ones I think we are living through now, I take refuge in art, be it literature or cinema. Art connects me to other human beings, hopefully less interested in pussy-grabbing than in bridge-building. Art knows no boundaries, arrives unbidden and undemanding. But once you acquaint yourself with it, it asks to be fed. Your brain, it wants your brain, your full attention, your senses, your feelings and emotions. Seamus has showed me that recently. I did not “get” him at first because I was looking for him. Sometimes it is better to let that which we are trying to understand, find you instead. Even if it means that your house will “stink long after churning day/acrid as a sulphur mine. The empty crocks/were ranged along the wall again, the butter/in soft printed slabs was piled on pantry shelves/And in the house we moved with gravid ease/our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns/the plash and gurgle of the sour-breathed milk/the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.” As for my hand, it feels a bit greasy. It must be the butter.

This is my last column this year. See you all in the New Year. I hope you have a fantastic holiday period wherever you are and with whomever you spend it.


  1. What a lovely post! I think one of the greatest joys in life is the sense of enveloping connection that arises when a writer's words resonate within our souls. It's like that quote by C.S. Lewis: "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You, too? I thought I was the only one." For a writer to evoke that sort of feeling is a true gift.

  2. I find comfort in art also, mostly painting. I hope you're having a terrific weekend.

  3. I agree with you on the lack of rush being a benefit to middle age.

    Have a Merry Christmas, mate! :)

  4. Yes. Art (in all its forms) give me comfort, education, escape... And every so often I come across a piece which is like coming home.

  5. Art in its many forms can give comfort and keep one on their toes too. Although sometimes a wtf surly comes due.

  6. "his hand came out and took mine", indeed you did. The best post I've read here, perhaps anywhere. Bennett and Seamus, the perfect Christmas gifts. Thank you for your generosity. Happy and warm holidays to you and your family. I will very much look forward to your return in the New Year. Hasta leguo !

  7. Hi dear friend, I think you already know how much I love art...just from my posts alone. :) I do find comfort, joy and solace in it...even though I have no talent for it. I have been told that I have a good eye for it, though. So nice to have you back. Wishing you all the best, and Merry Christmas and a very Happy and prosperous New Year to you. Take good care of yourself.

  8. I very much agree with your analogy about finding a thought you have thought or an experience you have experienced appear in a book, CiL .... and, in general, with your expressions about the essence and intrinsic value of art.

    While art often is magical, my own solace and source of contentment -- my Sanctuary/Refuge -- comes not from it, but from Nature. For me, no melody composed by humankind can match the song of a bird, no dance be more beautiful than a bounding deer, no architectural wonder more stunning than a mountain, no painting more alluring than rolling ocean waves .... well, you get my drift. I think this stems from racial/genetic memory being rooted deeper in me than in most.

  9. Your post just confirms how I feel these days when reading---whether literature, poetry, autobiography or fiction---I often feel as though I cannot get enough, as though I am hungering for a world or a perspective beyond where I find myself...Heaney and others provide some of that.
    Happy Christmas and New Year to you.

  10. Many thanks for this - I struggle with Heaney, so now I know not to give up. It will speak to me one day.

    (And a line which spoke to me recently - on the TV programme with a group of Muslims living together for a couple of weeks - when one said, 'When in doubt, don't be a dick.' I might just put that on my wall!)

  11. Nice post Cuban.I do agree with Fram.Noth compares to the song of the wind and nature-Also we are nature.When you are very quiet you can hear your beautiful heartbeats..That goes on and on.Tic, Tac ,Tic ,Tac.For one day to relax....So is nature..For me its most imortant not I what have done for my self..But what I have possible made of good moments

    for others( gives a great satisfaction of the ego.) When I can not do what I want I find it in beautifully music ,art and books.In books you can leave your world and dive in to whatever your dreams desire..Only remember to come back..Like Alice in wonderland

    I dont have any wise or more good words to say..Still stuck in bed with the flu..But wish for you and family a cosy warm Christmas with much love and joy It has been nice to read your blog.

    Greetings Anita

  12. El sentirse parecido a personas en sus formas de pensar,de vivir, de escribir no hay fronteras ni años que separen la semejanza, me alegro que pudiste disfrutar de unos buenos poemas que te hicieron recordar a la vez tus buenos años.
    Un abrazo.

  13. Your blog is amazing!
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  14. Great column... and a great video! Thank you.
    Wishing you a very merry Christmas and looking forward to reading your posts next year.

  15. Great post! I confess I know next to nothing about Seamus Heaney, but I completely understand your excitement about making this connection with the author's work. And I love that quote about the hand coming out to take yours. Now it's time to check out Mr. Heaney.

  16. liked your grave words !
    i agree with quote that it is not looking or reading what reveals the reality hidden beneath the words or scenes .
    it is the sensibility of our way of observation that opens the doors of real meaning of their virtual existence

  17. Hi Mario - I definitely need an introduction to poetry ... but am so glad you've had your hand taken and are now starting to appreciate Seamus Heaney. That Beethoven in Havanna - is blissful ... loved that ...

    Have a peaceful Christmas with time to recover and restore ... ready for 2017 - enjoy everything ... cheers Hilary

  18. It's wonderful when you suddenly 'get' a poet!

  19. What a beautiful and inspirational post to end the year!
    Wow, I loved reading this...for I have been there too - that breath-taking moment when you read something that reaches inside and grabs you by the Soul!!:)

    Wishing You a Magical Christmas too...and a Wonderful New Year! :))

  20. gracias por compartir tus bellas letras
    un abrazo de diciembre

  21. Merry Christmas to you and your family... and all the best in 2017. :)

  22. Felices fiestas.
    Gracias por pasar por mi blog.
    Es de agradecer.

  23. Wishing you and your family a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

  24. un placer siempre el leerte
    un abrazo inmenso y que todo lo que quieras se te cumpla

  25. I'm with you, Cubano. Art is my refuge and not the picks that are deemed hot, although I too am reading Zadie! These times are so very brutal, it's only art and spirit that comforts.

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