Portsmouth Farmers’ Market (parking lot), a set on Flickr.
“The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney. The poet and Nobel laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness.”
– statement on behalf of his family, yesterday
Many years ago, in my 20s, I read his poem Digging, liked it, and knew I would keep reading and liking what he wrote. And I did.
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.
For Harvard, where he was teaching in 1986 (my sister remembered him at a Harvard Lampoon party), he wrote the incantatory Villanelle for An Anniversary. It begins…
A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard,
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.
The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.
He won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1995. His lecture is worth reading in its entirety. (LINK.) He begins with his childhood…
In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.
I wish I had been present for his commencement address at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1996. I was a couple of classes away from finishing my belated degree there – which I did by correspondence after we moved from Chapel Hill first to Florida then New Hampshire, for my husband’s job.
I bought this book the year it was published. It’s on a shelf in the bookcase of my favorite books.
This is good piece, in The New Yorker, remembering Heaney…
And it’s no accident that this selection of the best poems from three decades begins with the word “between,” for Heaney was a poet of the in-between (as his friend Helen Vendler has observed), writing from a zone somewhere between north and south, between Catholic and Protestant, between Ireland, England, and America, between formal and free verse, between public and private, between realism and allegory, and between plain speech and loading “every rift with oar,” while also balancing the gravitas of his subject matter with the frolic and grace of poetic language. As Heaney said, “The point is to fly under or out and beyond those radar systems.”
“How to be socially responsible and creatively free, while being true to the negative evidence of history?” This is the question Heaney was always struggling to answer while making poems of aesthetic beauty and converting the roughness of our human experiences into complex harmonies.
Heaney’s subjects were: What is loyalty? What is exile? What is righteousness? What is love? And how do we govern our emotions? These are themes that preoccupy all of us. And though he lived in a divided Ireland with tanks, posted soldiers, and other degradations, I never heard him claim representative status as a victim.
I think of Heaney as an ethical poet, because he was very much alert to the transformational properties of poetry to console, educate, and improve. He believed writing could change things, as in the episode from the New Testament where Jesus writes in the sand and diverts a crowd from stoning a woman who has been caught committing adultery. It’s Jesus’s writing on the ground with his finger that diverts the angry mob, and, as Heaney said, “It takes the eyes away from the obsession of the moment.” Poetry, he believed, could achieve this, too.
When Heaney was a student poet at Queen’s University, his pseudonym was Incertus—Latin for “uncertain.” And as far as I could tell, the Nobel Prize only deepened his humility.
To me, Heaney’s title, “Opened Ground,” also suggests that something is being exhumed and examined, as if from a grave. It reveals a man refusing to be sentimental as he digs around and extracts truths from his soul and from the world. Whenever I read a Heaney poem, I am reminded of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude,” where he looks out over the side of the boat at still water, solacing himself, and sees the gleam of his own image mixing up with pebbles, roots, rocks, and sky. Time, history, thought, and self all merge in an alluring way—exactly as they do in Heaney’s best poems, where, after he has been digging, there is germination and a flowering.
One last poem I’ll share, Personal Helicon…
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
I miss my hawk.
This little broad-winged hawk, perched here in the oak tree in our front yard, was a visitor for about three weeks from the end of July through the middle of August.
I would hear its call off and on all day (“a plaintive, high-pitched whistle”), and see it circling low above our house, lawn and woods. At first I worried it was after my free-ranging chickens, but broad-wings are very small and my chickens are pretty big and fat. It never bothered them and they got used to it.
Email last night from NH Audubon said that hawk-watching migration season begins September 1. Email from the NH Birds group with daily counts for raptors passing over Pack Monadnock a couple of days ago included 2 osprey, 2 bald eagles, 2 sharp-shinned hawks, a red-tailed hawk, a kestrel, and 5 broad-winged hawks. Was my hawk one of them?
Probably not because why would it go west to go south. Still, I plan to visit a hawk watch site like Monadnock sometime in September on a busy migration day to see what I can see.
Applecrest Farm Orchards, Hampton Falls.
Father and stepmother are visiting on their way home from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick adventures. We cruised the back roads over to Powwow Pond a couple of times yesterday to see my sister and brother-in-law and their new little house on a lilypad-dotted pond cove.
Paddling a canoe on still, fresh water is so nice.
After dinner we played dominoes on the screened porch. I got a text from my youngest daughter in Boston: “Witnessed a gun fight between two black guys in my alley while eating dinner in my kitchen.”
I texted back: “What the hell! You ok?”
She called (I abandoned my position at the dominoes table) and she told me how she was eating chicken nuggets in her third-floor apartment kitchen at 6 p.m. when she heard “pop! pop! pop!” in the alley, looked out the window, and saw a guy holding a black bag aiming a silver handgun at a smaller, slender guy who was running away but turning to shoot back. About 20 rounds exchanged between the two of them, with no apparent injury, then they were gone.
Lots of apartments and shops right there, and people came out afterwards and started calling the police, who arrived in (she timed it) 3 minutes. She was nerved up about it all, and looking forward to moving to her new apartment closer to a major university in a couple of days. That evening, she was going to use her gunfight-witnessing adrenaline to clean the apartment some more.
She will be in her new apartment before the big moving day of the entire year in Boston, September 1st. “Around here, it’s called Allston Christmas,” she said. “People don’t want to move stuff so they drag it out to the curb and leave it there and you can walk around and get lots of free stuff that day.”
The other day she gave a dollar for the first time to a familiar homeless man on the sidewalk near her apartment. She thought he would say ‘thank you’ but instead he looked up at her very seriously, held her gaze, and said, “Now you be careful around here.”
I told her: I completely agree with that man.
At Betsey Cotton’s grave. Little River Cemetery.
Barely legible words on the lichen-spotted headstone tell that Betsey was born in 1801 and died when she was 16.
I don’t know who left the figurine. It is affixed to the top of a sort of glass jar or bell. It has been there long enough that moss and grass have grown and anchored the glass rim in this tipped position.
An old cemetery, it is rare to find something left at a grave. A small basket of flowers, maybe, with a ribbon on the handle. There are American flags and metal markers denoting veterans’ burial sites, back to the Revolutionary War. There are red flags for firemen.
I had my camera with me to take photos of the inside of Little River Church after the final service of the summer, before it is closed again ’til next year. I parked on the side of Woodland Road just so I could walk there and back through the cemetery. It is a place full of peace and presence.
Today’s sermon was love wins.
This morning I was reading a piece in the online Wall Street Journal on the failed U.S. strategy in the Mideast, written by Walter Russell Mead.
In the beginning, the Hebrew Bible tells us, the universe was all “tohu wabohu,” chaos and tumult. This month the Middle East seems to be reverting to that primeval state…
Tohu wabohu?… that is too wonderful not to learn and remember. From Wikipedia…
Tohu wa bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) is a Biblical Hebrew phrase found in the Book of Genesis 1:2. It is usually translated “waste and void,” “formless and empty,” or some variation of the same. It describes the condition of the earth before God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Precise translation of the phrase is difficult, as only the first word, “tohu,” appears to have any independent meaning.
There is evidence that the sentence “And the earth was without form and void” (tohu v’bohu) indicates destruction, not simply primitive creation. This phrase is rendered more strongly elsewhere (i.e., in other ancient versions). For example, the Chaldee Version has “But the earth had become desert and empty,” the Septuagint has “But the earth had become unfurnished and empty,” and the Aramaic has “And the earth had become ruined and uninhabited.”[
“Tohu” is used 20 times in the Hebrew Bible and is used to mean “vain” or “waste.” “Bohu” appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 1:2; Isa. 34:11; Jer. 4:23) — always together with “tohu” and always quoting Genesis 1:2. Rabbi Judah taught that Akiva said Tohu is a green line encompassing the world from which darkness emanates. 
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
In modern French, “tohu-bohu” is used as an idiom for “confusion” or “commotion”. Also in colloquial German, “Tohuwabohu” means “great confusion”; “tohuvabohu” has the same meaning in Estonian and Hungarian.
I visited Applecrest Farm Orchards for peaches, blueberries and beets around 3:30 p.m. What a beautiful day. You can tell just by looking at the light on the fruit!
I stopped at Philbrick’s Fresh Market on the way home and bought some Purple Haze chevre (my current cheese obsession), flax seed crackers, kale (for morning juicing) and a bottle of Argyros Estate “Atlantis” wine from Santorini.
I wondered if this bottle from a crowded shelf in the NH State Liquor store could possibly remind me of the wine I drank there on the cliff top in bright sun with the deep blue sea a thousand feet below. In fact, it does. The white wine assyrtiko grape is different. Here it is, as described by a good NY Times wine writer…
These wines in particular show pure briny, mineral flavors, as if they were the concentrated essence of millions of tiny seashells.
Oh lord, yes.
As for the Atlantis 2011 in particular…
Straightforward and pleasant with aromas and flavors of citrus, flowers and earth.
(Cheers! Good health! in many languages.)