The Spirit Level

The Spirit Level

by Seamus Heaney


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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."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374525118
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/10/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 584,703
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.23(d)

About the Author

Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Read an Excerpt

The Spirit Level

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1996 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-26779-7


    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.


    [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?

    Omnipresent, imperturbable
    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

    for Adele

    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.

    Keeping Going

    for Hugh

    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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Rain Stick,
To a Dutch Potter in Ireland,
A Brigid's Girdle,
A Sofa in the Forties,
Keeping Going,
Two Lorries,
Weighing In,
St Kevin and the Blackbird,
The Flight Path,
An Invocation,
Mycenae Lookout,
The First Words,
The Gravel Walks,
The Thimble,
The Butter-Print,
Remembered Columns,
'Poet's Chair',
The Swing,
The Poplar,
Two Stick Drawings,
A Call,
The Errand,
A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also,
An Architect,
The Sharping Stone,
The Strand,
The Walk,
At the Wellhead,
At Banagher,

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