|our family's cottage in Northern Ireland|
When I was a child, my parents possessed only a few books of poetry. They’d moved to Northern Ireland in the early sixties and I was born there. We moved to Canada in the middle of The Troubles. Yeats. Halevi. And some books by Seamus Heaney. North. Death of a Naturalist. Wintering Out.
I first discovered North and was mesmerized by its small perfect blueness. The stylized Viking boat on the cover. I learned that my dad was at Queen’s University the same time as Heaney and remembered him. Our neighbours did, too.
As a young teen Heaney, was the most important teacher in my singing school. I revelled in the loamy richness of his words. To lean into language and what it could do. The intensity of sound. The peatiness of heard relations between words or their bright metal. Subtle rhymes. The line, like an eel in a basket of eels, amazed itself. The form, beaten into a shine. Or seemingly discovered.
And what unusual words, unearthed from the word-hoard could do. Rich. Resonant. Strange, yet Antaeus-grounded. The world is always a dialect of itself. History is etymology. A bog which transforms and preserves. Which makes myth. Keep your eye clear as the bleb of icicle. Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.
My father was a gynaecologist, not exactly the rural farmer-father of Heaney. But I understood that when Heaney talked about land, he spoke about the land that we walked through. Traveled out to: its strands, fields, mountains, meadows, and fields. This wasn’t the out-of-focus misty-eyed Ireland of romance, but, as the words showed me, the bog-rich, palpable, visceral world. And it had its own stories.
I learned to listen to the words as words. I remember Heaney at York University reading the names of Irish towns. Speaking about the names in the fishing reports. (And I remembered that music from my childhood, and my new-learned music of names on late night CBC radio.) The specifics of one’s voice. That thick Ulster, the boy’s version which I used to have. Language, emotion, life, land and culture were snug together.
But I also learned about social engagement. When my father remembered Heaney, it was to recall him standing up at a student meeting and deliver an impassioned speech. The Troubles entered Heaney’s poems. Memory. Culture. Language. How poems expressed and investigated. Troubled. Thought and sang.
And our ethical engagement, our understanding of the world was rooted in both time and space. History and culture. Our myths, legends, and stories. In our language. Language, feeling, thought. And poetry: both tool and pleasure.
So thank-you and rest in piece, famous Seamus. History, the earth and the language receive you. I hope they treat you as well as you treated them.