Friday 30 August 2013

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

Please join me in praying for the repose of the soul of Seamus Heaney. I spent much of my pre-children life studying 20th C Irish writing and his work was central to my PhD research. I was fortunate to have met him on numerous occasions, some formal, others less so. I will fondly remember drinking Guinness with him in a small dark Belfast pub after an impromptu reading he gave to a small group of post-graduate students. He was not an overtly religious man, and had expressed an uneasy agnosticism over the years, but his poetry often articulated an innate sense of the divine in our lives and the nuances of the Catholicism that was indelibly imprinted upon the Ireland of his youth. He came from a humble family, the eldest of 9 children but despite being a famous poet by the time I met him in the early 1990s he was modest in his demeanour and generous with his time: truly one of nature's gentlemen. I pray that he will experience the joy of the beatific vision before long.

Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat ei. Requiéscat in pace. Amen


The Biretta

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 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 made it looked squashed, some clean and tall. 
It was as 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.

Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 - 30 August 2013)

Matthew Lawless, "The Sick Call", National Gallery of Ireland


Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying--
He had always taken funerals in his stride--
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble,"
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 - 30 August 2013)

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