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.