- Wake up at 2.30 am. Again.
- Flip the pillow to the cool side.
- Fall asleep. Again.
- Dream you’re in a long, dark room (a bar?) that’s crowded with people wearing grey overcoats.
- Through the knot of grey, see Seamus Heaney (not in grey).
- Poke the shoulder of the person next to you and point out Seamus.
- Get excited when your friend says she (? he?) knows Seamus and will bring him over to introduce you.
- Dream there’s an explosion of some sort and the next thing everyone is in the street and Seamus is gone. No blood, no wreckage, no evidence of a bomb. Just no Seamus.
- Wake up in the Thursday November darkness.
- Blink in the bright bathroom light.
- Brush teeth.
- Feed the dog and cats and girl.
- Wave goodbye to the man and the girl.
- Think, “Now what? The bills?”
- Spy the pan of brownies.
- Shave a thin slice as if to even out the crooked cut line. This is a service. An act of straightening. You should be thanked.
- Strictly avoid the news.
- Consider a nap.
- Think about Seamus. Was he wearing a red coat like the little girl in “Shindler’s List”? Was he a sign? A warning?
- Look at the brownie pan again.
- Go outside to get logs.
- Converse with the goats.
- Start the fires.
- Read reviews about smoke detectors.
- Remember that no one can agree on internet reviews.
- In an act of faith, order new versions of the same brand of smoke detectors you already have.
- Check things off the list.
- Add things you’ve already done to the list.
- Check them off.
- Consider a nap.
- No really. Consider it. You didn’t sleep much last night.
- Blame Seamus. Or the fact that you didn’t get to meet him.
- Tell the dog to stop licking himself. Again.
- Think about “The West Wing” as a political fairy tale.
- Do bills.
- Chuck more logs onto the fire.
- Straighten the brownies out just a bit more.
- Wonder where Seamus went when the explosion happened. Was he killed? Did he just leave through the back door? Did he set the explosion off?
- Take a dreamless nap.
- Avoid the radio.
- See the note on the counter. The one the girl wrote before she could spell, that long ago.
- Imagine time as a spiral, where you’re always in reach of the last loop, revisiting concentric circles of your moments, but each pass takes you just a little further from the last.
- Admit you’re not fooling anyone about the brownies.
- Apologize to the dog.
- Wonder if time spirals intersect. When Seamus traveled his spiral, how close did his come to yours?
- Make dinner.
- Watch night come in.
- Think about writing a poem.
- Watch a movie.
- Go to sleep.
- Wake up at 2.30 am.
In memoriam Francis Ledwidge
Killed in France 31 July 1917
The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind
No matter how the real winds buff and sweep
His sudden hunkering run, forever craned
Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack,
The gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet,
The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque —
It all meant little to the worried pet
I was in nineteen forty-six or seven,
Gripping my Aunt Mary by the hand
Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent
To thread the Castle Walk out to the strand.
The pilot from Coleraine sailed to the coal-boat.
Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes.
A farmer stripped to his studs and shiny waistcoat
Rolled the trousers down on his timid shins.
At night when coloured bulbs strung out the sea-front
Country voices rose from a cliff-top shelter
With news of a great litter – “We’ll pet the runt!” –
And barbed wire that had torn a friesian’s elder.
Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside
Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon.
Literary, sweet-talking, countrified,
You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane.
Where you belonged, among the dolorous
And lovely: the May altar of wild flowers,
Easter water sprinkled in outhouses,
Mass-rocks and hill-top raths and raftered byres.
I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform,
A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,
Ghosting the trenches with a bloom of hawthorn
Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave.
It’s summer, nineteen-fifteen. I see the girl
My aunt was then, herding on the long acre.
Behind a low bush in the Dardanelles
You suck stones to make your dry mouth water.
It’s nineteen-seventeen. She still herds cows,
But a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres:
‘My soul is by the Boyne, cutting new meadows…
My country wears her confirmation dress.’
‘To be called a British soldier while my country
Has no place among nations…’ You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later. ‘I am sorry
That party politics should divide our tents.’
In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum
You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans
But miss the twilit note your flute should sound.
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you consort now underground.
–Seamus Heaney, from Field Work: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.
Francis Ledwidge was an Irish poet. He enlisted in October 1914 in the 5th battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1917. He wrote three volumes of poetry during his years at war. Some poems were about the fighting, but many were about the birds, the moon, and thoughts of home.
A BURST of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.
And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.
This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.
Belgium, July, 1917.
The end of August.
Just two weeks ago we were in the full langour of summer. And now? It’s decidedly fall. You’d think after all these years I’d be used to the sudden tilt toward September, but it takes me by surprise every year.
Unlike the linear transition from spring to summer, this time of year has a somewhat Möbius logic, the seasons fighting each other for possession of each day.
The mornings begin in a cool autumnal fog, the ground between the house and the barn littered with freshly fallen maple leaves, the filmy webs in the grass speckled with dew. By mid-morning, the sun’s burnt through the fog and the slanting light glances off the apple trees’ browning leaves. In the afternoon, the puffy clouds are riding the hill ridge, and the air is warm and humid. Thunderstorms are possible. And cookouts. Summer teases again until the early sunset when the cool air rushes in. Fall again.
This time of year, I feel like I’m sitting on the pin of a hinge. Neither here nor there. I can see in both directions: backward to the long lazy days and the porch-sitting nights; forward to the apple pies and glowing pumpkins. I like both views. It would be nice to be able to stay here for awhile and savor the vista.
But, as it always does, time rushes forward and we must get to doing things.
School has begun. High school, mind you. And it’s grand. So far.
I didn’t take a first-day-of-school picture of H this year because it just didn’t seem right. She was in a hurry out the door in the morning and seemed too grown up for that. But I have a picture in my heart, snapped in the school parking lot at the end of the first day: her close-mouthed (grown up), wide smile, a pair of uplifted eyebrows, and a “thumbs up” sign. “I LOVE high school!”
And with that, the end of August has kicked us into action. The firewood is all stacked (oh, I have pictures to show you, I do!), M’s been building things. We made jars and jars of pickles. And we’re finally back to making real cheese. Tomato jam, we made that, too, and have been wondering if there’s anything it wouldn’t taste good on (so far, the answer is “no”, although Avgolemeno is probably an unlikely pairing).
And did I tell you I actually got brave enough to meet with a cello teacher, and I’ve now had two lessons and last lesson I played a whole song accompanied on piano by my cello teacher? A whole song.
Last fall, I remember feeling a sense of promise at this change of season, and I’m feeling it again. This is not like me, but it seems to be becoming me. I’d just like to linger here for awhile, feeling freshly woken from a warm, slumbery season. I wish it would last.
What I wrote above, I wrote on Thursday, full of optimism. And on Friday, I learned that Seamus Heaney had died, and I was heartbroken.
I suppose that could seem odd. After all, I didn’t know him personally. I did meet him once, when he was visiting my university, a guest of my Irish literature professor. He briefly visited our class; he gave a reading later that week. I have the date, time, and classroom number penned into my copy of his collected poems. It was the beginning of my new relationship with poetry. When I learned what a poem could do to your head and your heart, how it could unscrew your scalp and let the universe pour in.
No, I didn’t know him personally, but I think it won’t surprise you to know that I felt I knew him personally, or, rather, that his poems became personal to me, and that he and they became a thread woven through my life, our lives. The books and the readings (three in all I was lucky enough to attend, two with Michael). The orange and white kitten I named after him. The leather-bound volume M gave me one year for my birthday. The paperback copy of Seeing Things we bought in a bookstore in Dublin on our honeymoon. Precious because it was purchased in Ireland, and one of the few non-essential things I allowed space in my backpack.
But all those things aside, of course, it was the poems.
To think there will never be another one from him is part of what breaks my heart. I know I shouldn’t be so greedy. He’s already given us so many. And still I want more. To have my heart feel airy and full of wonder, huge and embracing, tender and concrete, filling with the air of September or October, neither here nor there, blown open by his words.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
–Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996)
We’re here on this shore of the Atlantic, after driving through sleet and slush and rain, and spending a night in our sister’s cozy home. We tried to sleep, but the dog was restless all night (there was a cat to meet), and made a pathetic whining sound for hours. We arrived on the Cape in cloud and cold, grateful to be at our home-away-from-home.
After lunch, and after the car was unloaded and the beds made and the groceries put away… we napped. As you do when you are content, and chilled, and knowing that the ocean is scouring the shore just a short walk away.
Some years ago–a lifetime ago–I took a nap on the other shore of the Atlantic, in the sheltering crook of a wall at Dún Dúchathair, to the tune of the wind and the waves.
Now we’re awake, and the evening is waiting, and Seamus Heaney, who knows something about cold rocks, windswept shores, and putting a few words together, is celebrating his birthday on that other shore (or so I imagine; he could be sitting in a coffee shop in Indianapolis, for all I know).
Lovers on Aran
The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas
To posess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.
My favorite thing? The thing I would grab in the middle of the night if the house were burning down?
I set myself a few ground rules:
- it couldn’t be a person or a pet (of COURSE I would save those first from a burning house)
- it had to be something I could carry in my own hands (that leaves out the house, the barn, the giant maple tree in the yard, the view out my bedroom window, the ocean)
- it had to be a tangible thing (strike sunlight, the sound of the bamboo wind chime on a lazy Saturday, music, smiles, laughing with friends, the taste of a tomato pulled straight off the vine on a warm August day, the view from a summit, and the moment just before bed time, when there’s nothing left to do but lie down and rest)
Well, that eliminated a lot of options straight away.
I looked around the room. The camera was an obvious choice. Too obvious. Besides, as much as I love my camera (well, both of my cameras), I could buy a new one with the insurance money.
For a day, I seriously considered the one-handed gate latch on the main gate by the goat barn. Really, I love that thing. It’s made my life so much easier, when my hands have been full of hay or water buckets and I need to slip in and out of the gate quickly without letting curious goats escape.
I nearly settled on that, then remembered that it, too, could be easily replaced.
Next, naturally, I came to things that could never be precisely replaced because they were one-of-a-kind, either because they were acquired under such specific, unrepeatable circumstances, or given to me by people who were no longer around to give.
The last birthday gift my mother gave me: a beautiful whale-bone carving she bought on a trip-of-a-lifetime to Alaska.
The mah jong set my grandmother used for years and that I played with as a child.
Yellowed photographs of great grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, taken before the digital age and stored in shoe boxes and other flammable containers.
The cream and egg white whipper from M’s family; irreplaceable, unique, and perfectly suited to the job.
Little scraps of paper, notes, and poems that H has left me over the years.
A little plastic triangular-shaped ring that was the first thing that H held in her little baby hand.
Books. Books. Books. Inscribed, worn out, written in, dog-eared, reread, stained, carried everywhere.
The hunk of rock brought back from the Dolomites, the seashells, the river rocks, the nests, the colorful leaves, the branches-turned-walking sticks from a hundred hikes.
Uh oh. That’s getting to be a long list.
Listen, Rebecca, you have just bare minutes to grab something before the smoke and flames overwhelm you. What will you take?
I cheated a bit. Not one thing, but two.
A leather-bound, letter-press-printed, signed book of poetry, by my favorite poet, containing some of my favorite poems, including this one. A gift from M, when I was in grad school, and we could not afford such luxuries. But for poetry and love, you make some exceptions.
And, easily, because it’s on my hand already, the gold band on my left ring finger — made by a jeweler in Portsmouth, NH, who understood exactly how simple a ring I wanted; put on my finger in a round room in Bergen, Norway, by my sweetheart; worn nearly every day since, for going on twenty years; bearing the scars, scratches, and nicks that make up a life, including the time it had to be cut off my swelling finger after I broke my arm 10 days after H was born.
All else can be replaced.
It may be Wordless Wednesday, but it’s also Seamus Heaney’s birthday, and that deserves just a few words. His, mostly.
Seamus may well be my favorite poet. I’ve seen him read three times, and every time was memorable, but possibly most memorable was one evening at Boston College, in a high-ceilinged hall, when he read this poem, and conjured with words that ship in the air, sailing over our heads.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
– Seamus Heaney, Lightenings