Heaney Healing

I am listening, over one week, to an abridged version of the Roy Foster book, On Seamus Heaney. Adrian Dunbar is reading. Cashmere blanket voice. I could listen to him read my home insurance policy and still feel comforted.

Commitment, that’s what’s coming through in this morning’s section, that Heaney was a committed grafter: drafting, crafting, re-drafting. There are chinks of light, there are lucky moments, there are graced thoughts and ideas, but writing is graft, by and large, and graft propels him. Something I’d do well to remember. No point in waiting till the new week, month, year: the graft starts each new day.

Dunbar has just read a couple of lines about how Longley once called Death of a Naturalist a collection of “little miracles”. And don’t we all need to watch out for the little miracles? The problem is not that that they don’t happen, the problem is we fail to recognise them when they do, to keep our eye on the fleeting, which is as evasive as the bubble a child chases to burst before it floats away. Except, if the bubble is an idea, a line, a theme, then I ought not to burst the bubble, but try to keep it intact.

Next episode is about Heaney’s teaching stint at Berkeley, California. Dunbar is reading something about the phenomenon of moving away from home kickstarting the ‘memory bank’. That happened to me six years ago when I moved here. (Dismissive voice (my own): But you’re not Heaney, are you?)

Third instalment. My main takeaway from this episode is about seeking a vista, looking outwards to go deep and to see inwards. I’m not managing to explain it well, but I feel what he means. The horizon, I see things on the horizon, perhaps imagined, images or feelings I can draw from. To draw towards the imagined is fine for Heaney, the inner voices are a real as the outer. He has an imagined chat with Joyce in which he hears Joyce speak to him from the grave telling him: “What you must do, must be done on your own / so get back in harness. The main thing is to write / for the joy of it. Cultivate a word-lust” (XII Station Island, Seamus Heaney)

The last two installments, I listen to as a double bill. (Missed yesterday’s broadcast because of Dunbar (a visit to), not to be confused with Adrian Dunbar, the reader. I like both Dunbars.) Today was about the importance of silence, how silence and sound are intrinsic to being a writer. We need to listen to sounds, noise, but also silence. Especially the silence. Attune ourselves to what’s behind the hush. The important whispers we neglect. Now he’s saying something about how poetry brings order to the ripples that spread out through life, the inexorable movement of ripples. And I’m losing track now as I’m caught in the image and forgetting to listen. Instead, I’m seeing still water, then ripples and wondering about order and connection and making links.

Back to listening. Heaney has had a stroke whilst in Donegal. There follows a quiet time for him. He is ageing. It’s an opening of consciousness. It’s happening: that thing that a closeness to death does to everyone. For him, it’s his own death. For me, it was sitting with the dead – that close succession of deaths, those warm, breathing bodies turned so quickly cold – that brought me enormous grief and ensuing fear, followed by expansiveness. Is that the right word, expansiveness? It wasn’t always there after the deaths, but often it was, this feeling of such space around me. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, sometimes it was freeing, and, until lately, it was always sad.

“What you must do, must be done on your own.” He may have meant it about writing, but I draw a much wider meaning from this sorrowfully empowering line.

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