Seamus Heaney, from “Settings”
Seamus Heaney often said that, from his experience as a poet, one’s creative life followed three phases: “the movement involves a pattern of getting started, keeping going and getting started again. Some books are a matter of keeping going; some—if you’re lucky—get you started again.” Heaney was without doubt that his 1991 collection, Seeing Things, “was a new start. There, for once, the old saw came true: life began, or began again, at fifty.”
The center of Seeing Things—and perhaps the very center of his poetry, and maybe even his greatest achievement—is the sequence called “Squarings,” which consists of forty-eight twelve-line poems. He never wrote about nature, history, myth, other poets, or his own rural upbringing so well. This week I will post my favorite poems from each of the sequence’s four parts.
And strike this scene in gold too, in relief,
So that a greedy eye cannot exhaust it:
Stable straw, Rembrandt-gleam and burnish
Where my father bends to a tea-chest packed with salt,
The hurricane lamp held up at eye-level
In his bunched left fist, his right hand foraging
For the unbleeding, vivid-fleshed bacon
Home-cured hocks pulled up into the light
For pondering awhile and putting back.
That night I owned the piled grain of Egypt.
I watched the sentry’s torchlight on the hoard.
I stood in the door, unseen and blazed upon.
Rat-poison the colour of blood pudding
Went phosphorescent when it was being spread:
Its sparky rancid shine under the blade
Brought everything to life – like news of murder
Or the sight of a parked car occupied by lovers
On a side road, or stories of bull victims.
If a muse had sung the anger of Achilles
It would not have heightened the world-danger more.
It was all there in the fresh rat-poison
Corposant on mouldy, dried-up crusts.
On winter evenings I loved its reek and risk.
And windfalls freezing on the outhouse roof.
Memory as a building or a city,
Well lighted, well laid out, appointed with
Tableaux vivants and costumed effigies –
Statues in purple cloaks, or painted red,
Ones wearing crowns, ones smeared with mud or blood:
So that the mind’s eye could haunt itself
With fixed associations and learn to read
Its own contents in meaningful order,
Ancient textbooks recommended that
Familiar places be linked deliberately
With a code of images. You knew the portent
In each setting, you blinked and concentrated.
On the bus-trip into saga country
Ivan Malinowski wrote a poem
About the nuclear submarines offshore
From an abandoned whaling station.
I remember it as a frisson, but cannot
Remember any words. What I wanted then
Was a poem of utter evening:
The thirteenth century, weird midnight sun
Setting at eye-level with Snorri Sturluson,
Who has come out to bathe in a hot spring
And sit through the stillness after milking time,
Laved and ensconced in the throne-room of his mind.