Short Relief: Words live after 'Death of a Naturalist'

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I was introduced to Seamus Heaney my freshman year in college. One of my hall-mates was an exchange student from Pomona College. An Irish guy. Aspiring writer. He said that Heaney was great and I should read him.

I never saw Heaney in person before he died last month. But I have heard his voice. And I have read his books. Like “Wintering Out,” “North,” “The Spirit Level,” “Electric Light,” and “Death of a Naturalist.” I keep one in my office.

Sometimes, when I need a break, when things are going badly, when I need a diversion, a reminder that there are other things in life, some perspective, I will read one of his poems. And be transported, to potato fields where:

Good smells exude from crumbled earth
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
(“At A Potato Digging”)

Or, to a time and a place where a thatcher:

… eyed the old rigging, poked at the eaves,
Opened and handled sheaves of lashed wheat-straw.
Next, the bundled rods: hazel and willow
Were flicked for weight, twisted in case they’d snap.
It seemed he spent the morning warming up:

Then fixed the ladder, laid out well honed blades
And snipped at straw and sharpened ends of rods
That, bent in two, made a white-pronged staple
For pinning down his world, handful by handful.

It’s best to read the poems out loud. Helps to work through them. Find where to pause. Where to place the emphasis. Try to figure out what they mean. It’s interesting how concentrated language works. How it evokes connections. Taps into truth, shared understanding. Sometimes intended. Sometimes not fully appreciated.

I like “Digging.” About how Heaney’s writing was like his father’s tending the earth, how:

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
… Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

And how:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

I’ve read “Honeymoon Flight” at a wedding. About how:

… launched right off the earth by force of fire
We hang, miraculous, above the water
Dependent on the invisible air
To keep us airborne and to bring us further.

And how:

Travelers, at this point, can only trust.

Heaney knew trouble and tragedy. If you want to feel a lump of grief in your stomach, try “Mid-Term Break.”

When the world is mad. When sectarians blow each other up over differences of doctrine. When gunmen mow down shoppers at the mall, and workers in the yard. When strongmen gas children. When partisans would rather attack each other on principle, rather than compromise and make a little progress.

Sidebar Elements

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.