To Set the Darkness Echoing

To Set the Darkness Echoing

I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

— from Personal Helicon

Seamus Heaney introduced me to Ireland and lured me into Irish studies. Had I not encountered Heaney as an undergrad — that lecture I attended on modern Irish poetry– I’d never have ended up at Boston College, never have met Dom. My life would be totally different. And all because his poetry swept me off my feet.


I returned to the long strand
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.

I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,

those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams

were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue

was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

Today at the park I felt my phone buzz in my pocket and glanced down to see a text, hyperlink to an article: “Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74”. I felt like crying.

I came home and pulled his books off my shelf, a fair pile of them I have, and yet not all. I began my collection back in the 90s: Seeing Things, The Haw Lantern, Station Island, Sweeney Astray. The Faber and Faber covers. When and where did I buy them? A bookmark slips out: The Wicklow St Book Shop, Dublin. And a grocery store receipt from the shop around the corner when I lived in Salem during my grad school years.

I flipped through the pages, looking at the post-it notes, wondering when I stuck them in and why, the marginalia– not so many notes in my Heaney as in my Eliot I tend to listen to him but not talk back. But somehow I was too distracted to read more than a few lines here and there. I kept hearing the sound of his voice.

That magnificent voice. I first heard on a little audio cassette my mom bought me. Then the amazing privilege, once I’d followed the Irish fever to Boston, of hearing him read. Twice. Once in the Irish Studies House at Boston College, an intimate gathering, maybe 30 people in the small room. Then at Harvard, a bit bigger lecture hall, maybe a hundred students, I remember how they sat in the aisles, filled the space on the floor around the podium. And then sometime after all that there was the cd spinning rainbows and the sound of his magnificent Beowulf. Oh yes, Beowulf.

And one of my favorites, St Kevin and the Blackbird:

I recall the time I dragged Dom to a performance of The Burial at Thebes. I remember When he came to give a poetry reading at Boston College he told a story about a student stopping him as he crossed Harvard Yard and he was ready to give an autograph, confirm he was indeed the Nobel Laureate, and the student only wanted to ask directions. I loved his self-deprecating humor and the glorious sound of his voice. And I am so very grateful for the treasure of his poetry.

At dinner tonight I read a few poems to the family. One of my favorite poets died today. I want to read you some of his poems. Bella especially was entranced. After dinner I played her a recording of St Kevin and the Blackbird. Maybe tomorrow we’ll listen to more.

Oh Heaney is wound round my heart like the morning glory vines in the tree outside our front door. Little hidden lines I keep tripping over as I comb my memories.

Farewell, Seamus Heaney. And thank you.

Melissa Wiley has a lovely reminiscence too. I love the line she quotes: “And catch the heart off guard and blow it open…”

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