Sunday, 1 December 2013

Death of a Naturalist

Like so many others, I was saddened to hear of Heaney’s death this past summer. I knew that Heaney had recovered from a serious stroke a couple of years earlier, and indeed he looked thinner and rather more fragile than the young man I first met back in, I believe, early spring of 1978. The occasion was a reading he gave at Yale. He wasn’t well known in the States then. Probably less than forty people made up the audience. Heaney read several sonnets from the “Glanmore” sequence, one of his loveliest. Then, in view of the fact that no one had arranged a post-reading reception, it seemed natural and cordial for the Resident Fellow to invite him and some of the audience to have a drink at Silliman College. I recall shaking the hand of this vigorous, hesitant man with prematurely gray hair nearly down to his shoulders, wearing jeans and a plaid cotton shirt. He had trouble meeting my eyes, and I don’t think he was fully comfortable in those surroundings—but then who could blame him at that stage of the game?
     The next meeting came perhaps five or six years later, when I was living in New York. He had given a reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, at the invitation of Grace Schulman, who was the director of the Poetry Center. Grace had people to her place down in Greenwich Village after the event. By now Heaney was a famous poet, confident, relaxed, wearing a suit, and surrounded by admirers. With him was his wife Marie, who I think was glad to have someone to talk to while fans monopolized her husband. I found Marie unaffectedly down to earth, patriotic about her origins in the North of Ireland, with a sharp eye and wit, not to mention being lovely to look at. I forget the stimulus for it, but at some point Heaney was led to recite one of Wyatt’s best known poems, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” It was in that era that the current revival of interest in Wyatt began—and may that revival endure. I knew by then that it was a near certainty Heaney would one day be tapped for the Nobel. There was no mistaking his ability and the aptness of awarding the prize to a poet from Northern Ireland. And perhaps it was just such a certainty that convinced me to make no attempt to stay in touch in the years after. Besides, sincere admiration isn’t by itself a basis for a long-lasting association. I could always meet him on the page, and that was the main thing. News of his personal life came to me from people we knew in common, and (strange thing among poets) I never heard any reports of nastiness or arrogance where Heaney was concerned. He was admired as poet and as human being. 
     In my book Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007, his work is discussed at some length.  After the piece was commissioned and published, he went on to publish several more books, so needless to say my essay doesn’t cover his career; but I think it remains a useful starting point.  There is always much to say about Heaney's poems. A sequence titled “Clearances” (from The Haw Lantern) gives a moving portrayal of his mother and recounts her death; and “Squarings,” from the next book, which does much the same for his father. Of course an elegy eulogizes the deceased, but it is also a dry run for the elegist’s own eventual departing this life. Both sequences have that aspect. In The Human Chain, his most recent book, Heaney moved a step closer to confrontation with mortality in a brief sequence titled “Chanson d’Aventure”, which describes being driven in an ambulance to a distant hospital.  Directly after this, the book’s title poem describes the manual labor of heaving sacks of meal onto a trailer, an action Heaney turns into a metaphor for the final unloading of our mortal coil. He realizes he would no longer have the strength to do such heavy work, labor characterized in the poem as, “A letting go which will not come again./Or it will, once. And for all.” 
     To state the obvious, Heaney was preparing himself. And it may be that in advance of this final admission to hospital, he already knew what his last words were going to be. Isolated from Marie in an emergency bay, he text-messaged to her the Latin phrase “Noli timere”, that is, “Fear not”.  He was sending a variant on Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene, spoken in the garden on the Sunday of the Resurrection: “Noli me tangere”. This is usually translated as, “Do not touch me”, but a rather more accurate translation would be, “Do not hold on to me”. What’s being recommended in the gospel account is a letting go. Heaney would agree with the instruction, I think, (the phrase is included in the Wyatt sonnet mentioned above), and he added his own reassurance that there is no need to be fearful. The death of a naturalist is indeed natural, part of the human cycle and also part of the “human chain.”  The “natural man” has been put off and is now replaced by his writings, which continue to excite, instruct, and reassure his readers.  The letting go has now taken place. It is once, and it is “for all”. All of us.   

Attending the funeral, Bono and Alison Hewison

1 comment:

  1. I shall definitely not heed the advice, "Do not hold on to [him]."