Seamus Heaney, from “Crossings”
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.
Travelling south at dawn, going full out
Through high-up stone-wall country, the rocks still cold,
Rainwater gleaming here and there ahead,
I took a turn and met the fox stock-still,
Face-to-face in the middle of the road.
Wildness tore through me as he dipped and wheeled
In a level-running tawny breakaway.
O neat head, fabled brush and astonished eye
My blue Volkswagen flared into with morning!
Let rebirth come through water, through desire,
Through crawling backwards across clinic floors:
I have to cross back through that startled iris.
Everything flows. Even a solid man,
A pillar to himself and to his trade,
All yellow boots and stick and soft felt hat,
Can sprout wings at the ankle and grow fleet
As the god of fair-days, stone posts, roads and crossroads,
Guardian of travellers and psychopomp.
‘Look for a man with an ash plant on the boat,’
My father told his sister setting out
For London, ‘and stay near him all night
And you’ll be safe.’ Flow on, flow on,
The journey of the soul with its soul guide
And the mysteries of dealing-men with sticks!
On St. Brigid’s Day the new life could be entered
By going through her girdle of straw rope
The proper way for men was right leg first,
Then right arm and right shoulder, head, then left
Shoulder, arm and leg. Women drew it down
Over the body and stepped out of it.
The open they came into by these moves
Stood opener, hoops came off the world
They could feel the February air
Still soft above their heads and imagine
The limp rope fray and flare like wind-born gleanings
Or an unhindered goldfinch over ploughland.
Not an avenue and not a bower.
For a quarter mile or so, where the country road
Is running straight across North Antrim bog,
Tall old fir trees line it on both sides.
Scotch firs, that is. Calligraphic shocks
Bushed and tufted in prevailing winds.
You drive into a meaning made of trees.
Or not exactly trees. It is a sense
Of running through and under without let,
Of glimpse and dapple. A life all trace and skim
The car has vanished out of. A fanned nape
Sensitive to the millionth of a flicker.
Running water never disappointed.
Crossing water always furthers something.
Stepping stones were stations of the soul.
A kesh could mean the track some called a causey
Raised above the wetness of the bog,
Or the causey where it bridged old drains and streams.
It steadies me to tell these things. Also
I cannot mention keshes or the ford
Without my father’s shade appearing to me
On a path towards sunset, eyeing spades and clothes
That turf-cutters stowed perhaps or souls cast off
Before they crossed the log that spans the burn.
Yeats said, To those who see spirits, human skin
For a long time afterwards appears most coarse.
The face I see that all falls short of since
Passes down an aisle: I share the bus
From San Francisco Airport into Berkeley
With one other passenger, who’s dropped
At the Treasure Island military base
Half-way across Bay Bridge. Vietnam-bound,
He could have been one of the newly dead come back,
Unsurprisable but still disappointed,
Having to bear his farmboy self again,
His shaving cuts, his otherworldly brow.