To Set The Darkness Echoing – Seamus Heaney and Natalie Shapero

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) – 1995 Nobel Prize Laureate. Photo: Copyright John Minihan

Personal Helicon

for Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

 One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch,
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it.
And one
Was scaresome for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

 Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

 Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber Limited, 1998

May came to the Cowichan Valley where I live and dismissed, with no apologies, April and its cold days of drench. Now bright days, warmth and no more fear of frost for the new plants in the garden.

But still, now and again, a chill dismembers me without warning. Then, to use Seamus Heaney’s expression, I become full of world-worry and more specifically full of dread for the random and frightful nature of death. Specifically, the death of my friends’ 22 year-old son in a bike accident a few weeks ago.

American poet Natalie Shapero, Professor of the Practice of Poetry, Tufts University, Photo Credit:Alonso Nichols,Tufts University

These next words go a long way to saying what I feel about death these days. They are by American poet Natalie Shapero (nominated for a 2018 Griffin International Poetry Prize) from her poem Were You Lying Then or Are You Lying Now in her 2017 collection, Hard Child,  published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017:

…………That’s just like death to creep in
wherever it can, to huddle in wait
in the dooryyard of every story. Death is the best

 of the lurkers. Death is the worst

sort of lurker, the best sort of soldier of fortune.
It hardly ever refuses anyone’s offer.

Offered to come or not, death today for me is a relentless _ _ _ker. And I don’t mean lurker.

I wasn’t planning on writing a small riff on death but I think I was triggered by Heaney’s wonderful poem Personal Helicon, published in his first book of poems in 1966. Heaney’s fascination with the dark, the noisome. And the last stanza:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

But in particular, I am gob smacked by the last two lines. First the second to last poetic line: Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme. Isolated like this out of its syntax I am so taken by the inference that to rhyme is to be beneath all human dignity. To rhyme is to go to the cluttered undignified, messy places in the human spirit. Places that reflect back our faces, not attractively. Places where rats slap across our imager reflected in the water. Yes, the places where we see our shadow side and it isn’t pretty. Beneath dignity.

Ad then the last grammatical sentence split between the last two poetic lines where I rhyme means something else:

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

Heaney says I rhyme. I could say: I write. I write to set the darkness echoing. I write to see what I don’t know I need to see. Sometimes the not very attractive parts of me. My shadows I carry, my insecurities, my arrogance. I set the darkness echoing.

I used the last grammatical line of Heaney’s poem as an epigraph in my 2016 poetry collection: Hyaena Season. That line feels like a call to arms. To set the darkness echoing like Heaney does in so many of his poems and as he did as a boy as he yelled down the dank vertical corridors of old wells and to his surprise:

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it……..

To hear myself, differently! It’s why I write. How as I rhyme, as I invite a poem to appear on my page I hear my own words like an echo in someone else’s voice. I hear a clean new music. From the darkness a new insight. A light.

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