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By Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2001 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
Where the flat water
Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh
As if it had reached an edge of the flat earth
And fallen shining to the continuous
Present of the Bann.
Where the checkpoint used to be.
Where the rebel boy was hanged in '98.
Where negative ions in the open air
Are poetry to me. As once before
The slime and silver of the fattened eel.
Perch on their water-perch hung in the clear Bann River
Near the clay bank in alder-dapple and waver,
Perch we called "grunts," little flood-slubs, runty and ready,
I saw and I see in the river's glorified body
That is passable through, but they're bluntly holding the pass,
Under the water-roof, over the bottom, adoze,
Guzzling the current, against it, all muscle and slur
In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air
That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on hold
In the everything flows and steady go of the world.
They stood. And stood for something. Just by standing.
In waiting. Unavailable. But there
For sure. Sure and unbending.
Rose-fingered dawn's and navy midnight's flower.
Seed packets to begin with, pink and azure,
Sifting lightness and small jittery promise:
Lupin spires, erotics of the future,
Lip-brush of the blue and earth's deep purchase.
O pastel turrets, pods and tapering stalks
That stood their ground for all our summer wending
And even when they blanched would never balk.
And none of this surpassed our understanding.
Out of the Bag
All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag.
He'd arrive with it, disappear to the room
And by the time he'd reappear to wash
Those nosy, rosy, big, soft hands of his
In the scullery basin, its lined insides
(The colour of a spaniel's inside lug)
Were empty for all to see, the trap-sprung mouth
Unsnibbed and gaping wide. Then like a hypnotist
Unwinding us, he'd wind the instruments
Back into their lining, tie the cloth
Like an apron round itself,
Darken the door and leave
With the bag in his hand, a plump ark by the keel ...
Until the next time came and in he'd come
In his fur-lined collar that was also spaniel-coloured
And go stooping up to the room again, a whiff
Of disinfectant, a Dutch interior gleam
Of waistcoat satin and highlights on the forceps.
Getting the water ready, that was next —
Not plumping hot, and not lukewarm, but soft,
Sud-luscious, saved for him from the rain-butt
And savoured by him afterwards, all thanks
Denied as he towelled hard and fast,
Then held his arms out suddenly behind him
To be squired and silk-lined into the camel coat.
At which point he once turned his eyes upon me,
Hyperborean, beyond-the-north-wind blue,
Two peepholes to the locked room I saw into
Every time his name was mentioned, skimmed
Milk and ice, swabbed porcelain, the white
And chill of tiles, steel hooks, chrome surgery tools
And blood dreeps in the sawdust where it thickened
At the foot of each cold wall. And overhead
The little, pendent, teat-hued infant parts
Strung neatly from a line up near the ceiling —
A toe, a foot and shin, an arm, a cock
A bit like the rosebud in his buttonhole.
Poeta doctus Peter Levi says
Sanctuaries of Asclepius (called asclepions)
Were the equivalent of hospitals
In ancient Greece. Or of shrines like Lourdes,
Says poeta doctus Graves. Or of the cure
By poetry that cannot be coerced,
Say I, who realized at Epidaurus
That the whole place was a sanatorium
With theatre and gymnasium and baths,
A site of incubation, where "incubation"
Was technical and ritual, meaning sleep
When epiphany occurred and you met the god ...
Hatless, groggy, shadowing myself
As the thurifer I was in an open air procession
In Lourdes in '56
When I nearly fainted from the heat and fumes,
Again I nearly fainted as I bent
To pull a bunch of grass and hallucinated
Doctor Kerlin at the steamed-up glass
Of our scullery window, starting in to draw
With his large pink index finger dot-faced men
With button-spots in a straight line down their fronts
And women with dot breasts, giving them all
A set of droopy sausage-arms and legs
That soon began to run. And then as he dipped and laved
In the generous suds again, miraculum:
The baby bits all came together swimming
Into his soapy big hygienic hands
And I myself came to, blinded with sweat,
Blinking and shaky in the windless light.
Bits of the grass I pulled I posted off
To one going into chemotherapy
And one who had come through. I didn't want
To leave the place or link up with the others.
It was mid-day, mid-May, pre-tourist sunlight
In the precincts of the god,
The very site of the temple of Asclepius.
I wanted nothing more than to lie down
Under hogweed, under seeded grass
And to be visited in the very eye of the day
By Hygeia, his daughter, her name still clarifying
The haven of light she was, the undarkening door.
The room I came from and the rest of us all came from
Stays pure reality where I stand alone,
Standing the passage of time, and she's asleep
In sheets put on for the doctor, wedding presents
That showed up again and again, bridal
And usual and useful at births and deaths.
Me at the bedside, incubating for real,
Peering, appearing to her as she closes
And opens her eyes, then lapses back
Into a faraway smile whose precinct of vision
I would enter every time, to assist and be asked
In that hoarsened whisper of triumph,
"And what do you think
Of the new wee baby the doctor brought for us all
When I was asleep?"
Bann Valley Eclogue
Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus
— VIRGIL, Eclogue IV
Bann Valley Muses, give us a song worth singing,
Something that rises like the curtain in
Those words And it came to pass or In the beginning.
Help me to please my hedge-schoolmaster Virgil
And the child that's due. Maybe, heavens, sing
Better times for her and her generation.
Here are my words you'll have to find a place for:
Carmen, ordo, nascitur, saeculum, gens.
Their gist in your tongue and province should be clear
Even at this stage. Poetry, order, the times,
The nation, wrong and renewal, then an infant birth
And a flooding away of all the old miasma.
Whatever stains you, you rubbed it into yourselves:
Earth mark, birth mark, mould like the bloodied mould
On Romulus's ditch-back. But when the waters break
Bann's stream will overflow, the old markings
Will avail no more to keep east bank from west.
The valley will be washed like the new baby.
Pacatum orbem: your words are too much nearly.
Even "orb" by itself. What on earth could match it?
And then, last month, at noon-eclipse, wind dropped.
A millennial chill, birdless and dark, prepared.
A firstness steadied, a lastness, a born awareness
As name dawned into knowledge: I saw the orb.
Eclipses won't be for this child. The cool she'll know
Will be the pram hood over her vestal head.
Big dog daisies will get fanked up in the spokes.
She'll lie on summer evenings listening to
A chug and slug going on in the milking parlour.
Let her never hear close gunfire or explosions.
Why do I remember St. Patrick's mornings,
Being sent by my mother to the railway line
For the little trefoil, untouchable almost, the shamrock
With its twining, binding, creepery, tough, thin roots
All over the place, in the stones between the sleepers.
Dew-scales shook off the leaves. Tear-ducts asperging.
Child on the way, it won't be long until
You land among us. Your mother's showing signs,
Out for her sunset walk among big round bales.
Planet earth like a teething ring suspended
Hangs by its world-chain. Your pram waits in the corner.
Cows are let out. They're sluicing the milk-house floor.
The stable door was open, the upper half,
When I looked back. I was five years old
And Dologhan stood watching me go off,
John Dologhan, the best milker ever
To come about the place. He sang
"The Rose of Mooncoin" with his head to the cow's side.
He would spin his table knife and when the blade
Stopped with its point towards me, a bright path
Opened between us like a recognition
That made no sense, like my memory of him standing
Behind the half door, holding up the winkers.
Even then he was like an apparition,
A rambler from the Free State and a gambler,
All eyes as the pennies rose and slowed
On Sunday mornings under Butler's Bridge
And downed themselves into that tight-bunched crowd
Of the pitch-and-toss school. Sunlight on far lines,
On the creosoted sleepers and hot stones.
And Dologhan, who'd worked in Montana once,
With the whole day off, in the cool shade of the arch.
The Loose Box
Back at the dark end, slats angled tautly down
From a breast-high beam to the foot of the stable wall —
Silked and seasoned timber of the hayrack.
Marsupial brackets ... And a deep-littered silence
Off odourless, untainting, fibrous horsedung.
* * *
On an old recording Patrick Kavanagh states
That there's health and worth in any talk about
The properties of land. Sandy, glarry,
Mossy, heavy, cold, the actual soil
Almost doesn't matter; the main thing is
An inner restitution, a purchase come by
By pacing it in words that make you feel
You've found your feet in what "surefooted" means
And in the ground of your own understanding —
Like Heracles stepping in and standing under
Atlas's sky-lintel, as earthed and heady
As I am when I talk about the loose box.
* * *
And they found the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
And laid in a manger.
But the plaster child in nappies,
Bare baby-breasted little rigor vitae,
Crook-armed, seed-nailed, nothing but gloss and chill —
He wasn't right at all.
And no hayrack
To be seen.
The solid stooping shepherds,
The stiff-lugged donkey, Joseph, Mary, each
Figure in the winter crib was well
And truly placed. There was even real straw
On the side-altar. And an out-of-scale,
Too crockery, kneeling cow. And fairy lights.
But no, no fodder-billowed armfuls spilling over ...
At the altar rail I knelt and learnt almost
Not to admit the let-down to myself.
* * *
Stable child, grown stabler when I read
In adolescence Thomas dolens Hardy —
Not, oddly enough, his Christmas Eve night-piece
About the oxen in their bedded stall,
But the threshing scene in Tess of the D'Urbervilles —
That magnified my soul. Raving machinery,
The thresher bucking sky, rut-shuddery,
A headless Trojan horse expelling straw
From where the head should be, the underjaws
Like staircases set champing — it hummed and slugged
While the big sag and slew of the canvas belt
That would cut your head off if you didn't watch
Flowed from the flywheel. And comes flowing back,
The whole mote-sweaty havoc and mania
Of threshing day, the feeders up on top
Like pyre-high Aztec priests gutting forked sheaves
And paying them ungirded to the drum.
Slack of gulped straw, the belly-taut of seedbags.
And in the stilly night, chaff piled in ridges,
Earth raw where the four wheels rocked and battled.
* * *
Michael Collins, ambushed at Beal na Blath,
At the Pass of Flowers, the Blossom Gap, his own
Bloom-drifted, soft Avernus-mouth,
Has nothing to hold on to and falls again
Willingly, lastly, foreknowledgeably deep
Into the hay-floor that gave once in his childhood
Down through the bedded mouth of the loft trapdoor,
The loosening fodder-chute, the aftermath ...
This has been told of Collins and retold
By his biographer:
One of his boy-deeds
Was to enter the hidden jaws of that hay crevasse
And get to his feet again and come unscathed
Through a dazzle of pollen scarves to breathe the air.
True or not true, the fall within his fall,
That drop through the flower-floor lets him find his feet
In an underworld of understanding
Better than any newsreel lying-in-state
Or footage of the laden gun-carriage
And grim cortege could ever manage to.
Or so it can be stated
In the must and drift of talk about the loose box.
Excerpted from Electric Light by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 2001 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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