Seamus Heaney has died. The news reader made his announcement across the airwaves causing me to stall the car at a junction in Derry. The driver to the left of me looked like he was flapping a wasp away. Gripping the key I started the car again. Chugging off to the right I gestured an apology to the agitated driver who obviously wasn’t listening to the news. If he had of been, and even if he never read a poem in his life, he would have at least recognised the name and learnt of the untimely death of one of Ireland’s finest poets. My stalling was an overreaction surly, but the sheer familiarity of Heaney’s name left me feeling as though a close friend of mine had died.
I have the school curriculum to thank for introducing me to Heaney’s work and his simple rural upbringing that resonated so vibrantly with my own as I dilly dallied home from school through quiet country lanes picking blackberries and peering over hedgerows separating me from cows and freshly ploughed fields. For long enough Digging gave me a deep appreciation of my own father’s passion for working the land and farm routines. Somehow I took his words to heart.
Is that why I started reciting Mid-Term Break at the kitchen sink while preparing for dinner around the time the Nobel Laureate poet was being buried in his beloved Derry soil? The last line stuck in my throat as it had done before, over and over, when I was sixteen.
Little Missy wanted to know why I was sad so I told her about the poet, Seamus Heaney, who had a brother called Christopher. “Just like me?” she said. “Just like you,” I smiled back. “But why are your eyes wet Mummy?” she said as she leaned in to help me pick out a few potatoes for peeling. “Because he wrote a poem once about losing his brother and today they are together again.” “But that’s a happy story.” she said. “So it is,” I said, “…and did you know he also wrote a poem about peeling spuds with his mother?” Missy lifted an eyebrow, her eyes full of suspicion. “He did! I’ll find it for you later,” I said turning on the tap and reaching for a knife. She laughed then and ran out to the garden as tears ran down my face remembering Clearances, the poem Heaney wrote in memory of his mother and the gaping emptiness that it had conveyed.
I stood for a moment watching Missy join her other brother on the trampoline and marvelled all over again at Heaney’s ability to pluck a moment of time out of his world or the world of northern politics, or the underworld and record it in such an organic state that it would be relived and felt and understood again and again, time after time.
Those thoughts and reflections he dug with his pen will never die and a name like Seamus Heaney will never die either. Perhaps it was a natural reaction for me to be taken by surprise at the moment I learnt of his death because, as Paul Muldoon said at Heaney’s funeral, “he had the ability to sweep us all up in his arms,” and so a friend in kind did die but the poet Seamus Heaney and all his works will forever live on in the hearts and minds of men and women all over the world but for now the world is feeling his lost aptly described in Heaney’s own words…
The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence.
Seamus Heaney 1939-2013 RIP