“Poets place their voices inside our heads”

The only book I have of Seamus Heaney

The only book I have of Seamus Heaney

31 August 2013
10:37 AM
Manila

M.–

I just found out that Seamus Heaney died. I was reading another article when I saw the headline from the sidebar, and I made a small noise, I was so surprised. My sister thought I was being silly, she said I always react to poets’ and writers’ deaths the same way she does to celebrities. I said, no, it’s more than that. It’s like someone I know died–a friend or a loved one.

I learned that Seamus Heaney had died from a New York Times push notification, a feature on my phone that I keep intending to turn off. It was the saddest I have been about a poet’s death since the death of James Merrill, in 1995, which I learned about, also upon waking, from the NPR broadcast that served as an alarm on my clock radio. Poets place their voices inside our heads, so close to our thoughts that it feels as though we’ve thought them up. It is odd when they make the news, which they do only occasionally, and only by making it very big, by winning the Nobel Prize, as Heaney did, and by dying. It is like learning from the media something secret about yourself, something you thought you’d kept well hidden.

– Dan Chiasson, Postcript: Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), from The New Yorker

I was looking at the only book I have of him, and came to one of my favourite parts. I can’t help but feel that this echoes my life at the moment:

NEOPTOLEMUS
Stop licking your wounds. Start seeing things.

PHILOCTETES
There’s danger in all this somewhere. I can sense it.

NEOPTOLEMUS
The danger is you’ll break if you don’t bend,
So I give up. From now on, you can live
With every consequence of your decision.

PHILOCTETES
Whatever’s been laid out, I’m ready for it.
But there’s consequence to your own endeavours:
You gave your word – you pledged with your hand
And promise you’d take me home.
                                                            So do that now.
Restore your good name. Bury the name of Troy.

NEOPTOLEMUS
I gave my word. I pledged it with my hand.
My life was an open door that started closing
The minute I landed here. But maybe now
It could open back again. So. We go.

PHILOCTETES
                                                            We go?

NEOPTOLEMUS
Gather yourself. Come on.

– from The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

Lastly, a poem. This was Heaney’s anticipatory elegy for Patrick Heaney, his father:

The Stone Verdict
Seamus Heaney

When he stands in the judgement place
With his stick in his hand and the broad hat
Still on his head, maimed by self-doubt
And an old disdain of of sweet talk and excuses,
It will be no justice if the sentence is blabbed out.
He will expect more than words in the ultimate court
He relied on through a lifetime’s speechlessness.

Let it be like the judgement of Hermes,
God of the stone heap, where the stones were verdicts
Cast solidly at his feet, piling up around him
Until he stood waist-deep in the cairn
Of his own absolution: maybe a gate-pillar
Or a tumbled wallstead where hogweed earths the silence
Somebody will break at last to say, ‘Here
His spirit lingers,’ and will have said too much.

The day calls. But this lingers. Something to carry within me for hours and hours.

T.

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