Workshop Date: 1963-1966
Poet: Seamus Heaney
Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally
Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green aerial its secret stations.
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till nonchalantly
He gripped the expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
High-riding kites appear to range quite freely
Though reined by strings, strict and invisible.
The pigeon that deserts you suddenly
Is heading home, instinctively faithful.
Lovers with barrages of hot insult
Often cut off their nose to spite their face,
Endure a hopeless day, declare their guilt,
Re-enter the native port of their embrace.
Blinding in Paris, for his party-piece
Joyce named the shops along O'Connell Street
And on Iona Colmcille sought ease
by wearing Irish mould next to his feet.
Jaws puff round and solid as a turnip,
Dead eyes are statue's and the upper lip
Bullies the heavy mouth down to a droop.
A bowler suggests the stage Irishman -
Whose look has two parts scorn, two parts dead man -
His silver watch chain girds him like a hoop.
My father's uncle, from whom he learnt the trade,
Long fixed in sepia tints, begins to fade
And must come down. Now on the bedroom wall
There is a faded patch where he has been
As if a bandage had been ripped from skin,
Empty plaque to a house's rise and fall.
Twenty years ago I herded cattle
Into pens or held them against a wall
Until my father won at arguing
His own price on a crowd of cattlemen
Who handled rumps, groped teats, stood, paused and then
Bought a round of drinks to clinch the bargain.
Uncle and nephew, fifty years ago,
Hackled and herded through the fair days too.
This barrel of a man penned in the frame:
I see him with the jaunty hat pushed back,
Draw thumbs out of his waistcoat, curtly smack
Hands and sell. Father, I've watched you do the same
And watched you sadden when the fairs were stopped.
No room for dealers if the farmers shopped
Like housewives at an auction ring. Your stick
Was parked behind the door and stands there still.
Closing this chapter of our chronicle
Take your uncle's portrait to the attic.
. . . . the others, with emaciated faces and prominent, staring eyeballs, were evidently in an advanced state of starvation. The officer in charge reported the incident to Sir James Dombrain, the Inspector General . . . . . and Sir James "very inconveniently," wrote Routh, "interfered." Cecil Woodham-Smith: The Great Hunger.
Routine patrol off West Mayo; sighting
A rowboat heading unusually far
Beyond the creek, I tacked and hailed the crew
In Gaelic. Their stroke had clearly weakened
As they pulled to, from guilt or bashfulness
I was conjecturing when, O my sweet Christ,
We saw piled in the bottom of their craft
Six grown men with gaping mouths and eyes
Bursting the sockets like spring onions in drills.
Six wrecks of bone and pallid, tautened skin.
"Biadh, biadh, biadh," in whines and snarls their desperation
Rose and fell like a flock of starving gulls.
We'd known about the shortage but on board
They always kept us right with flour and beef
So understand my feelings, and the men's,
Who had no mandate to relieve distress.
There was relief available in Westport
Though these poor brutes would clearly never make it.
I had to refuse food: they cursed and howled
Like dogs that had been kicked hard in the privates.
When they drove at me with their starboard oar
(Risking capsize themselves) I saw they were
Violent and without hope. I hoisted
And cleared off. Less incidents the better.
Next day, like six bad smells, those living skulls
Drifted through the dark of bunk and hatches
And once in port I exorcised my ship
Reporting all to the Inspector General.
Sir James, I understand, urged free relief
For famine victims in the Westport Sector
And earned tart reprimand from good Whitehall.
Let natives prosper by their own exertions;
Who could not swim might go ahead and sink.
"The Coast Guard with their zeal and activity
Are too lavish" were the words, I think.
(For Michael Longley)
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
The swell foams where they float and crawl,
A catherine-wheel of arm and hand.
Each head bobs curtly as a football.
The yelps are faint here on the strand.
No milk-limbed Venus ever rose
Miraculous on this western shore;
A pirate queen in battle clothes
Is our sterner myth. The breakers pour
Themselves into themselves, the years
Shuttle through space invisibly.
Where crests unfurl like creamy beer
The queen's clothes melt into the sea
And generations sighing in
The salt suds where the wave has crashed
Labour in fear of flesh and sin
For the thime has been accomplished
As through the swallows in swimsuits,
Brown-legged, smooth-shouldered and bare-backed
They wade ashore with skips and shouts.
So Venus comes, matter-of-fact.
The ridged lip set upstream, you flail
Inland again; your exile in the sea
Unconditionally cancelled by the pull
Of your home water's gravity.
And I stand in the centre, casting.
The river, cramming under me, reflects
Slung gaff and net, and a white wrist flicking,
Setting you up the well-dressed specks.
Walton thought garden-worms, perfumed
By oil crushed from dark ivy berries
The lure that took you best. But here you're doomed
By senseless hunger in your eyes.
Ripples arrowing beyond me,
The current strumming rhythms up my leg:
Involved in water's choreography
I go like you by gleam and drag
And will strike when you strike, to kill.
We're both annihilated with the fly.
You can't resist a gullet full of steel.
I will turn home fish-smelling, scaly.