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From Clearances 5, by Seamus Heaney

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
The cool that came off the sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

For the first half of the reading, Seamus Heaney was “in conversation” with another poet.  They sat on the stage in wide modern chairs, either side of a low table, and the other poet leaned forwards to ask questions.  They were questions that prompted factual answers, and they were not the questions to which I wanted to know the answer.

The answers constructed a cold chronological curriculum vitae, bloodless.  The small farm on which he grew up.  His large family and the two women in the house.  The village school housed in two Nissan huts and later the grammar school a world away from the village.  His teaching jobs.  Giving up the teaching jobs to be A Poet.  Moving from the Ireland of Ulster to the Ireland of Wicklow.  Working apart from his family at Harvard.  He read a couple of poems.  One called “Digging”, about using his pen to find memories.  Another, from his brand new collection, about a fountain pen given to him by his parents.  But I struggled to find Seamus Heaney in the answers.  Finally, time running out, the other poet asked what poetry was for.  Heaney answered, he said, as a “reader”.  He talked about how the threads connecting one poet to an earlier poet bound us together.  How we shared collective emotions through our reading of poetry.  How it constructed a culture where we all had read the same things.  It wasn’t an answer that was personal, it didn’t address what a poem means to an individual, nor did it address what a poem means to the writer of the poem.

I chased my thoughts around with my literary friend during the interval.  Afterwards Heaney read some poems.  A few about his mother.  I envied him the memories that he encased in his evocative words and threw into our laps.  I searched around in my head for memories to match the poignancy of his and came up with nothing.  In “Harvest Bow”, a poem about his taciturn father, he wrote of “gleaning the unsaid off the palpable” and I rolled that beautiful “palpable” around in my head and could think of fleeting moments of connection that I will forever hold dear, but never with her.   I’ve wondered whether that moment of connection is felt by the other person and whether that matters.  Did his mother remembers peeling those potatoes with him?  Was it a memory she cherished and polished as he did?

Harvest Bow

As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.

Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,

And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,

Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.

The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn

Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.

From Clearances 3, by Seamus Heaney

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.