Seeing Things (1991), as Edward Hirsch wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "is a book of thresholds and crossings, of losses balanced by marvels, of casting and gathering and the hushed, contrary air between water and sky, earth and heaven." Along with translations from the Aeneid and the Inferno, this book offers several poems about Heaney's late father.
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About the Author
Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
Read an Excerpt
By Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1991 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
The Journey Back
Larkin's shade surprised me. He quoted Dante:
'Daylight was going and the umber air
Soothing every creature on the earth,
Freeing them from their labours everywhere.
I alone was girding myself to face
The ordeal of my journey and my duty
And not a thing had changed, as rush-hour buses
Bore the drained and laden through the city.
I might have been a wise king setting out
Under the Christmas lights — except that
It felt more like the forewarned journey back
Into the heartland of the ordinary.
Still my old self. Ready to knock one back.
A nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.'
We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts,
That was all. The corners and the squares
Were there like longitude and latitude
Under the bumpy ground, to be
Agreed about or disagreed about
When the time came. And then we picked the teams
And crossed the line our called names drew between us.
Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world ...
It was quick and constant, a game that never need
Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.
You also loved lines pegged out in the garden,
The spade nicking the first straight edge along
The tight white string. Or string stretched perfectly
To mark the outline of a house foundation,
Pale timber battens set at right angles
For every corner, each freshly sawn new board
Spick and span in the oddly passive grass.
Or the imaginary line straight down
A field of grazing, to be ploughed open
From the rod stuck in one headrig to the rod
Stuck in the other.
All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
A mower parted the bronze sea of corn.
A windlass hauled the centre out of water.
Two men with a cross-cut kept it swimming
Into a felled beech backwards and forwards
So that they seemed to row the steady earth.
1. THE POINT
Those were the days —
booting a leather football
truer and farther
than you ever expected!
It went rattling
hard and fast
over daisies and benweeds,
but it sang too,
a kind of dry, ringing
foreclosure of sound.
Or else, a great catch
and a cry from the touch-line
to Point her! That spring
and unhampered smash-through!
Was it you
or the ball that kept going
beyond you, amazingly
higher and higher
and ruefully free?
2. THE PULSE
of a spinning reel. One quick
flick of the wrist
and your minnow sped away
whispering and silky
and nimbly laden.
It seemed to be all rise
and shine, the very opposite
of uphill going — it was pure
duration, and when it ended,
the pulse of the cast line
was smaller in your hand
than the remembered heartbeat
of a bird. Then, after all of that
runaway give, you were glad
when you reeled in and found
yourself strung, heel-tip
to rod-tip, into the river's
steady purchase and thrum.
3. A HAUL
The one that got away
from Thor and the giant Hymir
was the world-serpent itself.
The god had baited his line
with an ox-head, spun it high
and plunged it into the depths.
But the big haul came to an end
when Thor's foot went through the boards
and Hymir panicked and cut
the line with a bait-knife. Then
roll-over, turmoil, whiplash!
A Milky Way in the water.
The hole he smashed in the boat
opened, the way Thor's head
opened out there on the sea.
He felt at one with space,
unroofed and obvious —
surprised in his empty arms
like some fabulous high-catcher
coming down without the ball.
Casting and Gathering
for Ted Hughes
Years and years ago, these sounds took sides:
On the left bank, a green silk tapered cast
Went whispering through the air, saying hush
And lush, entirely free, no matter whether
It swished above the hayfield or the river.
On the right bank, like a speeded-up corncrake,
A sharp ratcheting went on and on
Cutting across the stillness as another
Fisherman gathered line-lengths off his reel.
I am still standing there, awake and dreamy,
I have grown older and can see them both
Moving their arms and rods, working away,
Each one absorbed, proofed by the sounds he's making.
One sound is saying, 'You are not worth tuppence,
But neither is anybody. Watch it! Be severe.'
The other says, 'Go with it! Give and swerve.
You are everything you feel beside the river.'
I love hushed air. I trust contrariness.
Years and years go past and I do not move
For I see that when one man casts, the other gathers
And then vice versa, without changing sides.
Man and Boy
'Catch the old one first'
(My father's joke was also old, and heavy
And predictable), 'then the young ones
Will all follow, and Bob's your uncle.'
On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time
Made him afraid we'd take too much for granted
And so our spirits must be lightly checked.
Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!
Blessed be the detachment of dumb love
In that broad-backed, low-set man
Who feared debt all his life, but now and then
Could make a splash like the salmon he said was
'As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it'.
In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped
Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves
A mower leans forever on his scythe.
He has mown himself to the centre of the field
And stands in a final perfect ring
Of sunlit stubble.
'Go and tell your father,' the mower says
(He said it to my father who told me),
'I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.'
My father is a barefoot boy with news,
Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks
On the afternoon of his own father's death.
The open, black half of the half-door waits.
I feel much heat and hurry in the air.
I feel his legs and quick heels far away
And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me
At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,
Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.
Inishbofin on a Sunday morning.
Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.
One by one we were being handed down
Into a boat that dipped and shilly-shallied
Scaresomely every time. We sat tight
On short cross-benches, in nervous twos and threes,
Obedient, newly close, nobody speaking
Except the boatmen, as the gunwales sank
And seemed they might ship water any minute.
The sea was very calm but even so,
When the engine kicked and our ferryman
Swayed for balance, reaching for the tiller,
I panicked at the shiftiness and heft
Of the craft itself. What guaranteed us —
That quick response and buoyancy and swim —
Kept me in agony. All the time
As we went sailing evenly across
The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,
It was as if I looked from another boat
Sailing through air, far up, and could see
How riskily we fared into the morning,
And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.
Claritas. The dry-eyed Latin word
Is perfect for the carved stone of the water
Where Jesus stands up to his unwet knees
And John the Baptist pours out more water
Over his head: all this in bright sunlight
On the façade of a cathedral. Lines
Hard and thin and sinuous represent
The flowing river. Down between the lines
Little antic fish are all go. Nothing else.
And yet in that utter visibility
The stone's alive with what's invisible:
Waterweed, stirred sand-grains hurrying off,
The shadowy, unshadowed stream itself.
All afternoon, heat wavered on the steps
And the air we stood up to our eyes in wavered
Like the zigzag hieroglyph for life itself.
Once upon a time my undrowned father
Walked into our yard. He had gone to spray
Potatoes in a field on the riverbank
And wouldn't bring me with him. The horse-sprayer
Was too big and newfangled, bluestone might
Burn me in the eyes, the horse was fresh, I
Might scare the horse, and so on. I threw stones
At a bird on the shed roof, as much for
The clatter of the stones as anything,
But when he came back, I was inside the house
And saw him out the window, scatter-eyed
And daunted, strange without his hat,
His step unguided, his ghosthood immanent.
When he was turning on the riverbank,
The horse had rusted and reared up and pitched
Cart and sprayer and everything off balance,
So the whole rig went over into a deep
Whirlpool, hoofs, chains, shafts, cartwheels, barrel
And tackle, all tumbling off the world,
And the hat already merrily swept along
The quieter reaches. That afternoon
I saw him face to face, he came to me
With his damp footprints out of the river,
And there was nothing between us there
That might not still be happily ever after.
The Ash Plant
He'll never rise again but he is ready.
Entered like a mirror by the morning,
He stares out the big window, wondering,
Not caring if the day is bright or cloudy.
An upstairs outlook on the whole country.
First milk-lorries, first smoke, cattle, trees
In damp opulence above damp hedges —
He has it to himself, he is like a sentry
Forgotten and unable to remember
The whys and wherefores of his lofty station,
Wakening relieved yet in position,
Disencumbered as a breaking comber.
As his head goes light with light, his wasting hand
Gropes desperately and finds the phantom limb
Of an ash plant in his grasp, which steadies him.
Now he has found his touch he can stand his ground
Or wield the stick like a silver bough and come
Walking again among us: the quoted judge.
I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!
God might have said the same, remembering Adam.
But I face the ice this year
With my father's stick.
An August Night
His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable.
When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets,
Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.
Field of Vision
I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.
Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.
She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.
Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate —
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see
Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.
Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one
That came near to an imagined perfection:
When he tightened his raised hand and aimed with it,
It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.
So whether he played the warrior or the athlete
Or worked in earnest in the chaff and sweat,
He loved its grain of tapering, dark-flecked ash
Grown satiny from its own natural polish.
Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,
Smoothness, straightness, roundness, length and sheen.
Sweat-cured, sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted.
The springiness, the clip and dart of it.
And then when he thought of probes that reached the farthest,
He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
Evenly, imperturbably through space,
Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless —
But has learned at last to follow that simple lead
Past its own aim, out to an other side
Where perfection — or nearness to it — is imagined
Not in the aiming but the opening hand.
A Basket of Chestnuts
There's a shadow-boost, a giddy strange assistance
That happens when you swing a loaded basket.
The lightness of the thing seems to diminish
The actual weight of what's being hoisted in it.
For a split second your hands feel unburdened,
Outstripped, dismayed, passed through.
Then just as unexpectedly comes rebound —
Downthrust and comeback ratifying you.
I recollect this basket full of chestnuts,
A really solid gather-up, all drag
And lustre, opulent and gravid
And golden-bowelled as a moneybag.
And I wish they could be painted, known for what
Pigment might see beyond them, what the reach
Of sense despairs of as it fails to reach it,
Especially the thwarted sense of touch.
Since Edward Maguire visited our house
In the autumn of 1973,
A basketful of chestnuts shines between us,
One that he did not paint when he painted me —
Although it was what he thought he'd maybe use
As a decoy or a coffer for the light
He captured in the toecaps of my shoes.
But it wasn't in the picture and is not.
What's there is comeback, especially for him.
In oils and brushwork we are ratified.
And the basket shines and foxfire chestnuts gleam
Where he passed through, unburdened and dismayed.
Like Gaul, the biretta was divided
Into three parts: triple-finned black serge,
A shipshape pillbox, its every slope and edge
Trimly articulated and decided.
Its insides were crimped satin; it was heavy too
But sported a light flossy tassel
That the backs of my fingers remember well,
And it left a dark red line on the priest's brow.
I received it into my hand from the hand
Of whoever was celebrant, one thin
Fastidious movement up and out and in
In the name of the Father and of the Son AND
Of the Holy Ghost ... I placed it on the steps
Where it seemed to batten down, even half-resist
All of the brisk proceedings of the Mass —
The chalice drunk off and the patted lips.
The first time I saw one, I heard a shout
As an El Greco ascetic rose before me
Preaching hellfire, saurian and stormy,
Adze-head on the rampage in the pulpit.
Sanctuaries. Marble. Kneeling boards. Vocation.
Some it made look squashed, some clean and tall.
It was antique as armour in a hall
And put the wind up me and my generation.
Now I turn it upside down and it is a boat —
A paper boat, or the one that wafts into
The first lines of the Purgatorio
As poetry lifts its eyes and clears its throat.
Or maybe that small boat out of the Bronze Age
Where the oars are needles and the worked gold frail
As the intact half of a hatched-out shell,
Refined beyond the dross into sheer image.
But in the end it's as likely to be the one
In Matthew Lawless's painting The Sick Call,
Where the scene is out on a river and it's all
Solid, pathetic and Irish Victorian.
In which case, however, his reverence wears a hat.
Undaunting, half-domestic, loved in crises,
He sits listening as each long oar dips and rises,
Sad for his worthy life and fit for it.
The Settle Bed
Willed down, waited for, in place at last and for good.
Trunk-hasped, cart-heavy, painted an ignorant brown.
And pew-strait, bin-deep, standing four-square as an ark.
If I lie in it, I am cribbed in seasoned deal
Dry as the unkindled boards of a funeral ship.
My measure has been taken, my ear shuttered up.
Yet I hear an old sombre tide awash in the headboard:
Unpathetic och ochs and och hohs, the long bedtime
Anthems of Ulster, unwilling, unbeaten,
Protestant, Catholic, the Bible, the beads,
Long talks at gables by moonlight, boots on the hearth,
The small hours chimed sweetly away so next thing it was
The cock on the ridge-tiles.
And now this is 'an inheritance'—
Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked
In the long ago, yet willable forward
Again and again and again, cargoed with
Its own dumb, tongue-and-groove worthiness
And un-get-roundable weight. But to conquer that weight,
Imagine a dower of settle beds tumbled from heaven
Like some nonsensical vengeance on the people,
Then learn from that harmless barrage that whatever is given
Can always be reimagined, however four-square,
Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time
It happens to be. You are free as the lookout,
That far-seeing joker posted high over the fog,
Who declared by the time that he had got himself down
The actual ship had been stolen away from beneath him.
in memoriam John Hewitt
My handsewn leather schoolbag. Forty years.
Poet, you were nel mezzo del cammin
When I shouldered it, half-full of blue-lined jotters,
And saw the classroom charts, the displayed bean,
The wallmap with its spray of shipping lanes
Describing arcs across the blue North Channel ...
And in the middle of the road to school,
Ox-eye daisies and wild dandelions.
Learning's easy carried! The bag is light,
Scuffed and supple and unemptiable
As an itinerant school conjuror's hat.
So take it, for a word-hoard and a handsel,
As you step out trig and look back all at once
Like a child on his first morning leaving parents.
Excerpted from Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1991 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Golden Bough,
The Journey Back,
1. THE POINT,
2. THE PULSE,
3. A HAUL,
Casting and Gathering,
Man and Boy,
The Ash Plant,
An August Night,
Field of Vision,
A Basket of Chestnuts,
The Settle Bed,
2. THE COT,
3. SCENE SHIFTS,
5. LUSTRAL SONNET,
6. BEDSIDE READING,
7. THE SKYLIGHT,
A Pillowed Head,
A Royal Prospect,
Wheels within Wheels,
The Sounds of Rain,