Word Cloud: DIGGER

by NONA BLYTH CLOUD

April is a good month for poetry-lovers.

Just a partial list of April’s birthdays includes: Edmond Rostand, Maya Angelou, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Wordsworth, Louise Gluck, Charlotte Brontë, Robert Penn Warren, Walter del la Mare, Ted Kooser, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Carolyn Forché, Constantine Cavafy, Annie Dillard, and of course, the greatest of them all, William Shakespeare.

I’m discussing Shakespeare this month early on Monday mornings at TCS (aka The Coffee Shop) here at Flowers for Socrates if you’ve a fondness for the Bard.

However, this week’s Word Cloud poet is Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), who was born on April 13, in Northern Ireland, but lived much of his life in Dublin. He is as famous for his translations as he is for his own poems. As a guide to Ireland’s past and present, and the ancient world of Myth and Legend, he has few peers.
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Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it. 

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For Heaney, the past seems closer than it is for most of us. His imagination carries us with him as he looks at an empty, icy Atlantic, hearing battle-clash, and long-dead voices.

North

I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.

I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,

those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams

were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue

was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

________________________________________________________________

There is a terrifying randomness to war, especially civil war, because you know people on both sides. Step to the left, instead of the right, and you live. Turn to the person standing next to you, and suddenly, his blood and bone explodes in your face. It changes who you are, and what’s important.

Casualty

I.

He would drink by himself 
And raise a weathered thumb 
Towards the high shelf, 
Calling another rum 
And blackcurrant, without 
Having to raise his voice, 
Or order a quick stout 
By a lifting of the eyes 
And a discreet dumb-show 
Of pulling off the top; 
At closing time would go 
In waders and peaked cap 
Into the showery dark, 
A dole-kept breadwinner 
But a natural for work. 
I loved his whole manner, 
Sure-footed but too sly, 
His deadpan sidling tact, 
His fisherman’s quick eye 
And turned observant back. 

Incomprehensible 
To him, my other life. 
Sometimes on the high stool, 
Too busy with his knife 
At a tobacco plug 
And not meeting my eye, 
In the pause after a slug 
He mentioned poetry. 
We would be on our own 
And, always politic 
And shy of condescension, 
I would manage by some trick 
To switch the talk to eels 
Or lore of the horse and cart 
Or the Provisionals. 

But my tentative art 
His turned back watches too: 
He was blown to bits 
Out drinking in a curfew 
Others obeyed, three nights 
After they shot dead 
The thirteen men in Derry. 
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said, 
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday 
Everyone held 
His breath and trembled. 

II. 

It was a day of cold 
Raw silence, wind-blown 
Surplice and soutane: 
Rained-on, flower-laden 
Coffin after coffin 
Seemed to float from the door 
Of the packed cathedral 
Like blossoms on slow water. 
The common funeral 
Unrolled its swaddling band, 
Lapping, tightening 
Till we were braced and bound 
Like brothers in a ring. 

But he would not be held 
At home by his own crowd 
Whatever threats were phoned, 
Whatever black flags waved. 
I see him as he turned 
In that bombed offending place, 
Remorse fused with terror 
In his still knowable face, 
His cornered outfaced stare 
Blinding in the flash. 

He had gone miles away 
For he drank like a fish 
Nightly, naturally 
Swimming towards the lure 
Of warm lit-up places, 
The blurred mesh and murmur 
Drifting among glasses 
In the gregarious smoke. 
How culpable was he 
That last night when he broke 
Our tribe’s complicity? 
‘Now, you’re supposed to be 
An educated man, ‘ 
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me 
The right answer to that one.’ 

III. 

I missed his funeral, 
Those quiet walkers 
And sideways talkers 
Shoaling out of his lane 
To the respectable 
Purring of the hearse… 
They move in equal pace 
With the habitual 
Slow consolation 
Of a dawdling engine, 
The line lifted, hand 
Over fist, cold sunshine 
On the water, the land 
Banked under fog: that morning 
I was taken in his boat, 
The screw purling, turning 
Indolent fathoms white, 
I tasted freedom with him. 
To get out early, haul 
Steadily off the bottom, 
Dispraise the catch, and smile 
As you find a rhythm 
Working you, slow mile by mile, 
Into your proper haunt 
Somewhere, well out, beyond… 

Dawn-sniffing revenant, 
Plodder through midnight rain, 
Question me again. 

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Heaney’s descriptions often blend past and present, as working the peat brings relics to the light after centuries smothered in the dark.  

Bogland

for T. P. Flanagan

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening–
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

 

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The best of poetry makes us see things anew which we take for granted. This poem is about more than blackberries, but it is still about them, too.

Blackberry-Picking

for Philip Hobsbaum

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.

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 For those of us who live in earthquake or volcanic country, this poem has added meaning.

Anything Can Happen

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

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Heaney seemed more hopeful in his poems as he reached the half-century mark, an optimism which caught him off-guard.

Fosterling

‘That heavy greenness fostered by water’ (John Montague)

At school I loved one picture’s heavy greenness –
Horizons rigged with windmills’ arms and sails. 
The millhouses’ still outlines. Their in-placeness 
Still more in place when mirrored in canals. 
I can’t remember never having known 
The immanent hydraulics of a land 
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone. 
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.

Heaviness of being. And poetry 
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens. 
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty 
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans 
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten, 
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

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Seamus Heaney was dubbed “Famous Seamus” in Ireland – he was that rare poet who pleased critics, academics and the public in equal measure. In 1995, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was a popular choice. In 2008, two-thirds of all poetry titles sold in the U.K. were his.

Heaney once said: “I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

It’s an apt description of his poems, so deeply Irish, but universally understandable. They appeal to the ear, and catch at the heart.  It’s no wonder that he’s considered one of the ‘Major Poets of the 20th Century,’ but also one of April’s great joys for lovers of words.


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Selected Poetry Collections

  • 1966 – Death of a Naturalist, Faber & Faber
  • 1969 – Door into the Dark, Faber & Faber
  • 1972 – Wintering Out, Faber & Faber
  • 1975 – North, Faber & Faber
  • 1979 – Field Work, Faber & Faber
  • 1984 – Station Island, Faber & Faber
  • 1987 – The Haw Lantern, Faber & Faber
  • 1991 – Seeing Things, Faber & Faber
  • 1996 – The Spirit Level, Faber & Faber
  • 2001 – Electric Light, Faber & Faber
  • 2006 – District and Circle, Faber & Faber
  • 2010 – Human Chain, Faber & Faber
  • 1998 – Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber & Faber
  • 2014 – New Selected Poems 1988-2013, Faber & Faber

Biography

Visuals 

  • A Man Digging Potatoes by Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
  • Storm on the Irish Coast
  • Abandoned fishing boat
  • Skeleton of an Irish Elk
  • Blackberries
  • Irish stone ruin
  • Sky through winter tree branches
  • Seamus Heaney – Photocall Ireland 1995

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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