“Lie down/in the word-hoard…”

Good advice from Seamus Heaney. Sometimes I feel such a yearning to burrow in language, to immerse myself in all the words that have collected in my imagination, in my hands, in the hollows at the base of my neck. I hoard words like summer grain, like apples, for their utility and their solace.

But unfortunately I hoard papers as well. (Books, too: the subject of another day.) For weeks now, I’ve wanted to tidy my desk. I’d make a desultory attempt to do that and I’d find that there wasn’t an inch of storage space to put the letters, the notes scribbled onto file cards or old receipts (and nowhere for receipts either which is why they end up on my desk). Today I decided to simply begin. To bring in some bags for the papers that could be recycled and a laundry basket for the stuff I’m going to burn. Every year I have a bonfire of the vanities and it makes me feel so clear afterwards, though my clothes are dense with woodsmoke — and the more esoteric smoke of old manuscripts and Christmas cards and recipes I’ll never try. So now I’ve begun the process and I won’t be able to do anything much in here until I’m finished. It should be incentive. I hope it is.

sunday work.jpg

There’s a filing cabinet to the left of the small table in this photograph. (Beneath the table? The laptop I replaced in February. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worthwhile to have the hard-drive removed to store. But to store for what? Old emails? Four years of drafts of essays and novellas which have already been published? On top of the table, hidden under stuff — the printer I bought to print quilt blocks on treated fabric for a particular project, a quilt to accompany my  essay “Euclid’s Orchard”. There are no available drivers to allow me to use that printer with my current laptop. Still I keep the printer. You never know…)

So far this morning I’ve filled the laundry basket with old journals  — I’m keeping a couple of travel journals but the ones where I am 18 and trying to write poetry are kind of embarrassing now. The ones where I am 32, with three small children under five, and wondering if I’ll ever write again are too sad to re-read. I know. I dipped into them this morning. Ideas for writing workshops from the days I used to teach them? Out. My academic papers from the 1970s, written in such pretentious language? Out.

All four file drawers are empty now and I’m going to organize the folders you see on the floor (and the ones you can’t see to the right of the chair) pretty carefully. There’s an entire folder of letters from literary agents who’ve turned me down. I might burn those. (It would feel liberating, I think.)

On the other hand, there are gems. A forgotten sheaf of wood-engravings by John DePol, sent as a gift when my novella Inishbream was published by the Barbarian Press. (John did the illustrations.) An autobiography written by one son, which condenses his life to the age of 7 with such clarity (I’m leaving out the birth year and the first year):

when I was two I ate a bug. when I was three I was normal. when I was four I got a bike. when I was give I lost my first tooth. when I was six I got stitches. now Im seven.

And there’s a generous letter from Seamus Heaney, written not long after North was published, giving me permission to use from a few lines (attributed, of course) from that book as an epigraph for my second book of poems. No request for a fee. No need to ask his publisher. Just a fulsome note wishing me luck.

I thought I might finish this job today but I can see it’s more of a process than I imagined. Although there’s a very pretty Turkish carpet under all those file folders, I won’t be lying down on it, luxuriating in the word-hoard, for at least a week.

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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