Workshop Date: 1963-1966
Poet: Seamus Heaney
Four times now I have seen you as another
Man, a grown-up friend, less than a father;
Four times found chinks in the paternal mail
To find you lost like me, quite vulnerable.
Twice it was your incredible distress,
Once your adult laughter, now your weakness.
There was the time when my child-brother died
And in the porch, among the men, you cried.
Again, last year, I was shocked at your tears
When my mother's plane took off: in twelve years
You had not been apart for one whole day
Until this long-threatened, two-week holiday.
I left you lonely at the barrier,
Was embarrassed later when you stood a beer.
The third time you made a man of me
By telling me an almost smutty story
In a restaurant toilet; we both knew
This was an unprecedented breakthrough.
Today, a sinner, and shy about it,
You asked me to drive up to church, and sit
Morose as ever, telling me to slow
On corners or at pot-holes that I know
As well as you do. What is going on
Beneath that thick grey hair? What confession
Are you preparing? Do you tell sins as I would?
Does the same hectic rage in our one blood?
Here at the churchyard I am slowing down
To meet you, the fourth time, on common ground.
You grunt and slam the door. I watch another
Who gropes as awkwardly to know his father.
(Translated from Horace, Odes III, xxi.)When Manlius was consul you were filled,
No matter. The rare Massic that you store
Is only to be savoured on a day
Like this: Corvinus is insisting on
A wine that is a wine. So down you come.
Corvinus will appreciate you, though he looks
The real ascetic and sounds so terribly
Socratic. Anyhow, even Old Cato's
Frosty precepts thawed in the heat of wine.
You are a sugared poison to the souls
Of puritans, a sweet forbidden fruit.
The canny man relaxes when you smile,
Unloads his worst fears, leaks his secret plans.
You'll flush a worried wretch with sudden hope
And boost the small man up into heroics:
Who will go brazen into royal courts
Or face the firing line after a glass.
Join us, then, to-night. Here's company! Bacchus
And the jealous Graces. Venus too.
The lamps flicker. Down you come. We'll drink
Till Pheobus, returning, routs the morning star.
A shadow lurches on the sandy ring,
The crowd elbows and grunts. Coarse bodies sweat
all round the pit, obscenely twisting
For a better view; one thin veined hand claws
At the sand where it has flung a bet.
The yells burst loud as amplified applause.
And in the sun, their shadows a quick blur,
Two crested cocks, like hammers drawn back
On trigger legs, are crouched to spring: each spur
Fixed deadly, each beak honed as a saw's tooth.
A lust that's bred during the squawked attack
Freezes the eyes, contorts the bawling mouth
Of every sporty punter hunkered there.
A blind-eyed noble arbitrates. He rubs
A folded knee, ignores the surly bear
Who clutches at his ruff, the thugs who shout
And threaten with a crutch or whips or clubs.
The trapped hag gapes and chokes; a man with gout
Is howling to the air. Two ageing rakes
Pinch their elegant snuff excitedly.
As the cocks rear up to kill, the ringside aches
And battles furiously as a hot stud:
The blind, the maimed, the deaf dementedly
Easing the daily pain with daily blood.
Salt off the sea whets
the blades of four winds.
They peel acres of locked rock,
pare down a rind of shrivelled ground;
bull-noses are chiselled on cliffs.
Islanders too are for sculpting.
Note the pointed scowl,
the mouth carved as upturned anchor
and the polished head full of drownings.
There he comes now,
a hard pen scraping in his head;
the nib filed on salt wind
and dipped in the keening sea.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
When Francis preached love to the birds
They listened, fluttered, throttled up
Into the blue like a flock of words
Released for fun from his holy lips.
Then wheeled back, whirred about his head,
Pirouetted on brothers' capes.
Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played
And sang, like images took flight.
Which was the best poem Francis made,
His argument true, his tone light.
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
Turns work to ritual. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
Like inflated pebbles. Native
to the blank hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.
Under a white flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
White bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.