Seamus Heaney, from “Squarings”
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.
I was four but I turned four hundred maybe,
Encountering the ancient dampish feel
Of a clay floor. May four thousand even.
Anyhow, there it was. Milk poured for cats
In a rank puddle-place, splash-darkened mould
Around the terracotta water-crock.
Ground of being. Body’s deep obedience
To all its shifting tenses. A half-door
Opening directly into starlight.
Out of that earth house I inherited
A stack of singular, cold memory-weights
To load me, hand and foot, in the scale of things.
Heather and kesh and turf stacks reappear
Summer by summer still, grasshoppers and all,
The same yet rarer: fields of the nearly blessed
Where gaunt ones in their shirt-sleeves stooped and dug
Or stood alone at dusk surveying bog-banks –
Apparitions now, yet active still
And territorial, still sure of their ground,
Still interested, not knowing how far
The country of the shades has been pushed back,
How long the lark has stopped outside these fields
And only seems unstoppable to them
Caught like a far hill in a freak of sunshine.
For certain ones what was written may come true:
They shall live on in the distance
At the mouths of rivers.
For our ones, no. They will re-enter
Dryness that was heaven on earth to them,
Happy to eat the scones baked out of clay.
For some, perhaps, the delta’s reed beds
And cold bright-footed seabirds always wheeling.
For our ones, snuff
And hob-soot and the heat off ashes.
And a judge who comes between them and the sun
In a pillar of radiant house dust.
Mountain air from the mountain up behind;
Out front, the end-of-summer, stone-walled fields;
And in a slated house the fiddle going
Like a flat stone skimmed at sunset
Or the irrevocable slipstream of flat earth
Still fleeing behind space.
Was music once a proof of God’s existence?
As long as it admits things beyond measure,
That supposition stands.
So let the ear attend like a farmhouse window
In placid light, where the extravagant
Passed once under full sail into the longed-for.
Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,
Convert to things foreknown;
And how what’s come upon is manifest
Only in light of what has been gone through.
Seventh heaven may be
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.
At any rate, when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried
And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,
That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.