death of a naturalist

It was my high-school English teacher, George Kelly, who suggested to me that I read Seamus Heaney. It was 1972 and he loaned me his copy of Death of a Naturalist. (I have George to thank for encouraging me to take a path I hadn’t even suspected existed: writing…) The poems were so clean and precise. “Digging”, for instance:

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

I didn’t know then that one day I would live in the west of Ireland and watch men dig turf in exactly that way. I didn’t know then that simple language could take you so far into the heart of a subject, a landscape.

In 1976, living in London, I bought North at Foyle’s. I was enchanted by the image of its author on the back cover — a portrait by Edward McGuire. The poet sits at a small table, a book in his hands, while behind him, at the window, the wild is pushing against the glass. The floorboards are beautifully scrubbed and grained. I remember going by train from my digs in Wimbledon to one of the theatres in the City to hear Seamus Heaney read from North and I thought he was reading to me alone. I’m sure every person in the crowded hall felt the same way, the poems about the Troubles and the poems about the bodies brought up from the bogs singing the same dark notes.

Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification,  outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

I remember his generous and courteous response to my request that he allow me to use a few lines from his “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces” as an epigraph for my poetry collection, Ikons of the Hunt. (There was no suggestion on his part that I should pay him a fee. How times have changed.) When I sent him a copy of the book, he sent a kind note to say he’d enjoyed it.

I’ve read every book by Seamus Heaney. There’s something to admire, to love, in every one. The cover of Seeing Things is a perfect entrance to the poems it contains — the tiny gold boat from the Broighter hoard on a black background and the title, the poet’s name, balanced across the darkness. There are poems in it about his father’s death, exact and dignified. Poems about the past, in which homely objects — a pitchfork, a bed, a schoolbag — shine with a light almost holy. His praise was practical and sturdy.

How strange to hear on the radio news this morning that Seamus Heaney died yesterday. Just a few months ago Forrest and Manon heard him read in Scotland. Like his poems, I guess I thought he’d go on forever.

Here’s the Broighter boat to take him away, wherever he wants to go.

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