Sky Entered

we wrote our dear john letters in the same pen
and before the ink was dry they were already stamped and sent
yours to west berlin and mine to kent
and they sat side by side until they went

your sunday school script was packed in tight
careful and considered in the faltering bathroom light
mine in the spidery hand in which i still write
i thought of every line as a fuse ready to light

they came back broken they came back bent
and expected us to be what they thought they’d left
and though we weren’t quite whole
turned out we were all
each other needed to grow old

the thick skin on my back grew hard to cut
i’m sure the words were sharp but they never stuck
we sat back pretty easy and we watched the decades bend
home, bus stop, shop, bus stop and home again

they came back broken they came back bent
and expected us to be what they thought they’d left
and though we weren’t quite whole
turned out we were all
each other needed to grow old

now my stiff limbs jerk across the station concourse
like a wind up toy forced to walk
and you’ve been dead six years now but sometimes it feels like more
and i am old, i am old
you’ve been dead six years now but sometimes it feels like more
and i am old, i am old

*

31 August 2013
10:50 pm
Edinburgh

T. —

The morning opened with a low moan, a half-whispered repeated into the early hours.

No… no. No, no, no. No.

I’m thankful for good people, the warmth of company and laughter on a day that only serves to remind me of the losses we cross the longer we stumble through our lives. I’m thankful for the people who make things real, from whom words on the page turn into breath, and speak of life.

*

The rest of this is for you, who are gone too soon, who brought the soul of life into so many eyes.

As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note. The very gunfire braces us and the atrocious confers a worth upon the effort which it calls forth to confront it. We are rightly in awe of the torsions in the poetry of Paul Celan and rightly enamoured of the suspiring voice in Samuel Beckett because these are evidence that art can rise to the occasion and somehow be the corollary of Celan’s stricken destiny as Holocaust survivor and Beckett’s demure heroism as a member of the French Resistance. Likewise, we are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.

Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture. Blowing up sparks for meagre heat. Forgetting faith, straining towards good works. Attending insufficiently to the diamond absolutes, among which must be counted the sufficiency of that which is absolutely imagined. Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in despite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous. And once again I shall try to represent the import of that changed orientation with a story out of Ireland.

This is a story about another monk holding himself up valiantly in the posture of endurance. It is said that once upon a time St. Kevin was kneeling with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross in Glendalough, a monastic site not too far from where we lived in Co. Wicklow, a place which to this day is one of the most wooded and watery retreats in the whole of the country. Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.

– Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize Speech 1995

*

FM: Back to your Nobel lecture. You recited a line from your poem, where the narrator says, “Walk on air against your better judgment.” You offered this line as an instruction to yourself and all who listened. What does that mean?

SH: A person from Northern Ireland is naturally cautious. You grew up vigilant because it’s a divided society. My poetry on the whole was earth-hugging, but then I began to look up rather than keep down. I think it had to do with a sense that the marvelous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry. That line is from a poem called “The Gravel Walks,” which is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-betweenness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens. I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world, because you don’t just want photography, and you don’t want fantasy either.

– Interview in The Crimson with Seamus Heaney, 2008

*

The Skylight
Seamus Heaney

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

*

*

Goodnight,
M

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