Time period: 1963-1966
Poet: Seamus Heaney
Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17kq5
A year has gone, twelve salaries have been spent
And not a penny saved; each month pounds went
To landlord, grocer, barmen, waitresses,
To girls at petrol-pumps and in payboxes.
Bed, meals, journeys, entertainments - there's how
The whole thing slipped away. It's April now
Again, and still no earthly treasure stored,
No heed paid to the canny unjust steward;
Just one year older, with no child, no poem
That will endure, no shape in paint or stone
Shored up against the ruins. The diary
Makes depressing reading. I can't tell why
I noted meals and meetings that now look
As useless as the stubs of old cheque-books -
"Dined with May" or "Wild night with Donal. Booze."
Rise like ghost hangovers to accuse
And puncture resolutions of amendment.
I'll bridge no future from a quicksand present
Where necessary routine buries guilt
And time's blade sinks in surely to the hilt.
Her scarf a la Bardot,
In suede flats for the walk,
She came with me one evening
For air and friendly talk.
We crossed the quiet river,
Took the embankment walk.
Traffic holding its breath,
Sky a tense diaphragm:
Dusk hung like a backcloth
That shook where a swan swam,
Ambiguous as a hawk
Hanging deadly, calm.
A vacuum of need
Collapsed each hunting heart
But tremulously we held
As hawk and prey apart,
Preserved classic decorum
And practised life for art.
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late -
Mushroom loves already
Had puffed and burst in hate.
So, chary and excited
As a thrush linked on a hawk,
We thrilled to the March twilight
With nervous childish talk:
Still waters running deep
Along the embankment walk.
I was six when I first saw kittens drown.
Dan Taggart pitched them, 'the scraggy wee shits,'
Into a bucket; a frail metal sound,
Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
Of the pump and the water pumped in.
"Sure isn't it better for them now?" Dan said.
Like wet gloves they bobbed and shone till he sluiced
Then out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.
Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung
Round the yard, watching the three sogged remains
Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung
Until I forgot them. But the fear came back
When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows
Or, with sickening tug, pulled old hens' necks.
Still, living displaces false sentiments
And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
In a barrel, I applaud. It makes sense:
"Prevention of cruelty" talk cuts ice in town
Where they consider death unnatural,
But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.
And I was taught to feel, perhaps too much,
The self-sufficing power of solitude.
For ten miles the road races a stream,
Unreels unevenly over the hills' rumps.
The car drones hard, swings wide on corners, bumps.
Rocky elbows dig the horizon's ribs;
Thrush-brown bogland spreads like a dirty vest,
Drawn tight where the mountain swells a thug chest.
Driving alone here once, gooseflesh wind peeling
The land bare, rushes whistling, spare shrubs bent,
I lifted three unexpected children
With runny noses, smarting cheeks and eyes
That ran cold water and anxiety.
From the edge of the back seat they courteously
Spoke up with yes and now. The big white house
At the second bridge was where they lived. Yes,
They walked to school each day. No, it was less
Than four miles. In the driving mirror
Six wide eyes searched for the crooning radio
Till the eldest girl said, "Here," and I pulled slow
Round a hunch-backed bridge. An old woman waved
In the door, tall, clutching a black cat
To her bosom. Wore a black dress and a wide hat.
She staggered towards the road as I changed down,
Frantic with joy, still waving. Her mouth a dark gap.
Good God, she wanted a lift. I pulled up.
"Don't wait, don't take her," the eldest cautioned
As three bums slid down and the door shut.
"Thanks, mister. Go on. She's dotin', her head's cut."
To go or not to go was not the question:
That the girl spoke blunt facts seemed plain enough
So, wrecking a hill-crazed dream, I moved off.
The old lady gaped wide and waved me back.
The children clustered round and waved me on.
They all waved happily as I drove for town.
At first there were short bouts
With people and old poems
For sparring partners.
He hit language rough clouts
But lacked style which only comes
Many hard scraps later.
Then one day he let go
Like an old bull, hugely:
Punched words like baled thunder
And won his first KO.
Was noted consequently
By critical punters.
So he wrote like hell; trounced
His each personal hate,
Love; and was promoted.
They praised the way he bounced
Plain speech, his use of brute
Verbs. Whole fights were quoted.
Suddenly, as if sick,
The punch weakened and scraps
Were lost. His jabs went blunt.
Fans missed the old cruel kick,
Discussed, forgot. Perhaps
Champ age. But poets don't
And though they must touch gloves
With speech and box hard thoughts,
They never simply slug
The ear. They dance and move
With purpose. so I doubt
The ex-champ was a thug.
Sucking his tooth, savouring salvation
As a lozenge, he sentries picture queues,
Brands a ribald city with red-hot news,
A technicolour trailer of damnation.
In rhetoric outdated as the cut
Of his clothes sin tosses her lace-frilled hem.
Every cinema reeks, a den of shake;
Every star with cleavage, a scarlet slut.
He slams a charge of Christ's words in the breach
And belabours bored fronts with Scripture fire,
Aiming to cut down rather than inspire:
Quotations, hard as schrapnel, burst to teach.
The barrage flies above indifferent queues.
Beggars and flag-sellers at least embarrass
But preacher leaves us cold, we know his past:
Poor fear-drunk driftwood from a tide of booze.
Bat-winged dusk; in the chill nave
Subdued and tight-lipped farmers sit
Totting up breaches of faith, hope, love.
Their souls sweat hot as an armpit.
Ancestral waistcoat, fading crease
Make MacKenna almost tidy;
The civil service of his knees
Applies for God's death subsidy.
With horn beads audible, head bare,
Handkerchief spread on the kneeling board,
He prepares accounts with nervous care,
Afraid to mince words with the Word.
His turn comes round, confess he must:
Within the hoarse dark of the box
He catalogues his lies, booze, lust
And noses out grace like an old fox.