Saturday 31 August 2013

Door into The Dark

Here's a quiz for Irish people - nobody else would be remotely interested in the answers:
Name the 7 Irish people who have been awarded (even part of) a Nobel prize.  I would guess that only about 3 people in 100 standing up against a bar in Dublin could get them all right in 7 minutes.

I'll give you one for free, not the most recent recipient: Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday and left a hole in my inner self. In my youth, before the relentless pressure to specialise shoehorned me into a far too narrow "science only" boot, I both read and wrote poetry.  When I arrived in Dublin very fresh off the boat in the mid 1970s, one of the first things I did was buy a copy of Door into the Dark by Seamus Heaney.  Can't remember why I bought it now, but I bought it new and it became a most treasured possession for the next several decades. So I was a fan before he became really famous and 20+ years before he was rocketted to the top with the Nobel and all the celeb razzmatazz that brought in its train.  
I loved the way his words were onomatopoeic for ordinary domestic observations and how he could look sideways at the normal and make a deep comment on his own life or life in general.
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.
evokes the enormous sacrifices that a generation of Northern Irish parents, his included, made to give their children a leg-up through education.

But 1 ran my hand in the half-filled bags 
Hooked to the slots. 
It was hard as shot, 
Innumerable and cool. 
The bags gaped 
Where the chutes ran back to the stilled drum 
And forks were stuck at angles in the ground 
As javelins might mark lost battlefields. 
is from The Wife's Tale, which sweeps the whole life of a young farm-wife into a single picnic lunch at harvest time.  I suspect that poem was a deliberate call-to-mind and elaboration of Keats' heart-breaking couplet:
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

Many years later, I found myself - surprised-and-delighted - back in Dublin working in a lab with some really sharp people half of whom were From Foreign and at least one was plain FF.  We were pushing back the frontiers of science but we made a deliberate effort to behave like Renaissance Folk and make with some culture of an evening.  When it came my turn to organise an event I said we must all go to the Abbey Theatre to see The Burial at Thebes, Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone.  I don't think I lost face by insisting on that as a way to pass an evening.  The issues for Antigone and Creon in mythic Greece are still pulsing in our world today and need a great poet to make truly dark.

It was one of the last such events I took part in, because that Summer I retired (again!) and went on a long walk through Spain.  Somewhere in La Rioja, after several weeks of tramp, while walking past an ancient ruin I was greeted by a stout German fellow with "Salve!".  I was so taken aback that I quizzed him about it, thinking it was a latinism that had dug itself into German language the way "Mensa" is standard German for a student refectory.  But he said otherwise - it was because we were in place so clearly built by the Romans that he thought it would be amusing to use a bit of Latin.  So we fell to talking, as you do on the Camino, about the sun and the earth and all that runs between.  And in the course of that 15 minutes of exposing and sharing our true selves, I said that he could do no better as an introduction to Irish poetry than remember "The Wife's Tale" and the words "Hard as shot, innumerable and cool".  And the advice stands for you, Dear Reader.
Ave atque vale, Heaney!

No comments:

Post a Comment