The Spirit Level was the first book of poems Heaney published after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Reviewing this book in The New York Times Book Review, Richard Tillinghast noted that Heaney "has been and is here for good . . . [His poems] will last. Anyone who reads poetry has reason to rejoice at living in the age when Seamus Heaney is writing."
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About the Author
Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
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The Spirit Level
By Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1996 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
The Rain Stick
for Beth and Rand
Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly
And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,
Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.
To a Dutch Potter in Ireland
for Sonja Landweer
Then I entered a strongroom of vocabulary
Where words like urns that had come through the fire
Stood in their bone-dry alcoves next a kiln
And came away changed, like the guard who'd seen
The stone move in a diamond-blaze of air
Or the gates of horn behind the gates of clay.
The soils I knew ran dirty. River sand
Was the one clean thing that stayed itself
In that slabbery, clabbery, wintry, puddled ground.
Until I found Bann clay. Like wet daylight
Or viscous satin under the felt and frieze
Of humus layers. The true diatomite
Discovered in a little sucky hole,
Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable —
Like the earth's old ointment box, sticky and cool.
At that stage you were swimming in the sea
Or running from it, luminous with plankton,
A nymph of phosphor by the Norder Zee,
A vestal of the goddess Silica,
She who is under grass and glass and ash
In the fiery heartlands of Ceramica.
We might have known each other then, in that
Cold gleam-life under ground and off the water.
Weird twins of puddle, paddle, pit-a-pat,
And might have done the small forbidden things —
Worked at mud-pies or gone too high on swings,
Played 'secrets' in the hedge or 'touching tongues'—
But did not, in the terrible event.
Night after night instead, in the Netherlands,
You watched the bombers kill; then, heaven-sent,
Came backlit from the fire through war and wartime
And ever after, every blessed time,
Through glazes of fired quartz and iron and lime.
And if glazes, as you say, bring down the sun,
Your potter's wheel is bringing up the earth.
Hosannah ex infernis. Burning wells.
Hosannah in clean sand and kaolin
And, 'now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins',
In ash-pits, oxides, shards and chlorophylls.
2. AFTER LIBERATION
[from the Dutch of J. C. Bloem (1887–1966)]
Sheer, bright-shining spring, spring as it used to be,
Cold in the morning, but as broad daylight
Swings open, the everlasting sky
Is a marvel to survivors.
In a pearly clarity that bathes the fields
Things as they were come back; slow horses
Plough the fallow, war rumbles away
In the near distance.
To have lived it through and now be free to give
Utterance, body and soul — to wake and know
Every time that it's gone and gone for good, the thing
That nearly broke you —
Is worth it all, the five years on the rack,
The fighting back, the being resigned, and not
One of the unborn will appreciate
Freedom like this ever.
Turning tides, their regularities!
What is the heart, that it ever was afraid,
Knowing as it must know spring's release,
Shining heart, heart constant as a tide?
Is the life that death springs from.
And complaint is wrong, the slightest complaint at all,
Now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins.
[A Brigid's Girdle
Last time I wrote I wrote from a rustic table
Under magnolias in South Carolina
As blossoms fell on me, and a white gable
As clean-lined as the prow of a white liner
Bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard.
I was glad of the early heat and the first quiet
I'd had for weeks. I heard the mocking bird
And a delicious, articulate
Flight of small plinkings from a dulcimer
Like feminine rhymes migrating to the north
Where you faced the music and the ache of summer
And earth's foreknowledge gathered in the earth.
Now it's St Brigid's Day and the first snowdrop
In County Wicklow, and this a Brigid's Girdle
I'm plaiting for you, an airy fairy hoop
(Like one of those old crinolines they'd trindle),
Twisted straw that's lifted in a circle
To handsel and to heal, a rite of spring
As strange and lightsome and traditional
As the motions you go through going through the thing.
It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.
But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the back yard of our life
As if something callow yet tenacious
Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.
The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.
Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we'd failed them by our disregard.
A Sofa in the Forties
All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest,
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train
And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door
Our speed and distance were inestimable.
First we shunted, then we whistled, then
Somebody collected the invisible
For tickets and very gravely punched it
As carriage after carriage under us
Moved faster, chooka-chook, the sofa legs
Went giddy and the unreachable ones
Far out on the kitchen floor began to wave.
Ghost-train? Death-gondola? The carved, curved ends,
Black leatherette and ornate gauntness of it
Made it seem the sofa had achieved
Flotation. Its castors on tiptoe,
Its braid and fluent backboard gave it airs
Of superannuated pageantry:
When visitors endured it, straight-backed,
When it stood off in its own remoteness,
When the insufficient toys appeared on it
On Christmas mornings, it held out as itself,
Potentially heavenbound, earthbound for sure,
Among things that might add up or let you down.
We entered history and ignorance
Under the wireless shelf. Yippee-i-ay,
Sang 'The Riders of the Range', HERE IS THE NEWS,
Said the absolute speaker. Between him and us
A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation
Reigned tyrannically. The aerial wire
Swept from a treetop down in through a hole
Bored in the windowframe. When it moved in wind,
The sway of language and its furtherings
Swept and swayed in us like nets in water
Or the abstract, lonely curve of distant trains
As we entered history and ignorance.
We occupied our seats with all our might,
Fit for the uncomfortableness.
Constancy was its own reward already.
Out in front, on the big upholstered arm,
Somebody craned to the side, driver or
Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air
Of one who had run the gauntlet. We were
The last thing on his mind, it seemed; we sensed
A tunnel coming up where we'd pour through
Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
And be transported and make engine noise.
The piper coming from far away is you
With a whitewash brush for a sporran
Wobbling round you, a kitchen chair
Upside down on your shoulder, your right arm
Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow,
Your pop-eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting
With laughter, but keeping the drone going on
Interminably, between catches of breath.
The whitewash brush. An old blanched skirted thing
On the back of the byre door, biding its time
Until spring airs spelled lime in a work-bucket
And a potstick to mix it in with water.
Those smells brought tears to the eyes, we inhaled
A kind of greeny burning and thought of brimstone.
But the slop of the actual job
Of brushing walls, the watery grey
Being lashed on in broad swatches, then drying out
Whiter and whiter, all that worked like magic.
Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we'd been restored to? Our shadows
Moved on the wall and a tar border glittered
The full length of the house, a black divide
Like a freshly opened, pungent, reeking trench.
Piss at the gable, the dead will congregate.
But separately. The women after dark,
Hunkering there a moment before bedtime,
The only time the soul was let alone,
The only time that face and body calmed
In the eye of heaven.
Buttermilk and urine,
The pantry, the housed beasts, the listening bedroom.
We were all together there in a foretime,
In a knowledge that might not translate beyond
Those wind-heaved midnights we still cannot be sure
Happened or not. It smelled of hill-fort clay
And cattle dung. When the thorn tree was cut down
You broke your arm. I shared the dread
When a strange bird perched for days on the byre roof.
That scene, with Macbeth helpless and desperate
In his nightmare — when he meets the hags again
And sees the apparitions in the pot —
I felt at home with that one all right. Hearth,
Steam and ululation, the smoky hair
Curtaining a cheek. 'Don't go near bad boys
In that college that you're bound for. Do you hear me?
Do you hear me speaking to you? Don't forget!'
And then the potstick quickening the gruel,
The steam crown swirled, everything intimate
And fear-swathed brightening for a moment,
Then going dull and fatal and away.
Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood
In spatters on the whitewash. A clean spot
Where his head had been, other stains subsumed
In the parched wall he leant his back against
That morning like any other morning,
Part-time reservist, toting his lunch-box.
A car came slow down Castle Street, made the halt,
Crossed the Diamond, slowed again and stopped
Level with him, although it was not his lift.
And then he saw an ordinary face
For what it was and a gun in his own face.
His right leg was hooked back, his sole and heel
Against the wall, his right knee propped up steady,
So he never moved, just pushed with all his might
Against himself, then fell past the tarred strip,
Feeding the gutter with his copious blood.
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
Old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper's sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.
Excerpted from The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1996 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Rain Stick,
To a Dutch Potter in Ireland,
A Brigid's Girdle,
A Sofa in the Forties,
St Kevin and the Blackbird,
The Flight Path,
1. THE WATCHMAN'S WAR,
3. HIS DAWN VISION,
4. THE NIGHTS,
5. HIS REVERIE OF WATER,
The First Words,
The Gravel Walks,
Two Stick Drawings,
A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also,
The Sharping Stone,
At the Wellhead,