from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – John Dennison

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

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I’VE SPENT THE BETTER PART of the last six years devoted to Seamus Heaney’s work and thought. I say devoted, but, as for many, Seamus was first an object of study, a lofty mouth who moved and shook us with his persuasive eloquence, who stood on the mountain of his own saying. Perhaps because of that loftiness and because I was striving to master his prose writings in some measure, the name Seamus Heaney made me fluctuate, sometimes wildly, between praise and het-up, over-emphatic critique; it was the occasion for a measure of self-knowledge of my prevarication and academic disingenuity.

            But in our brief meetings, mostly to talk over small matters about his history and past reading, the object of my study became a subject proper, a person to whom I found myself answerable, even as, taking him at his word, I weighed and criticised his prose writings. More than once I came away moved by his largesse, and resolved to ensure the act of criticism was more fundamentally an acknowledgement and honouring of the poet’s integrity.

            June this year found me in Dublin to look at manuscripts, and Seamus very graciously invited me down to Strand Road. I can’t gloss my afternoon there a great deal more than I have already tried to in ‘Grace note’, except to say that I found myself subject to my subject, and in that, was appeased. Most profoundly, Seamus addressed me as a poet, an address that I now can’t shake off. I left all teared up, and wandered home rather aimlessly in the high summer light, pausing for a breather with Kavanagh by the Grand Canal.

            I meant to write in thanks, and delayed too long. The postcard I meant to send, a reproduction of one of impressionist James Nairn’s paintings of Wellington Harbour, for me came to frame Seamus’s absence after his death. Surprised by grief on the 30th of August, I found myself a day or so after out at the line, getting in the washing under a dusk of high-blown, underlit cloud. The blackbird spoke up. Delighted, and remembering Seamus’s love of the bird, I waited for its regular benediction to come again. It didn’t, and that absence keeps on going through.

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Triptych

Grace note

17 June 2013

……………………………………The walls stepping back apace;
……………………………………the late, high, western sun
……………………………………declining any impulse to grace

……………………………………ourselves, be otherwise than
……………………………………our falling shadows, our homing faces
……………………………………reveal we are. And then:

……………………………………a drink? A whiskey? The capacious
……………………………………front room, quiet talk, the telly
……………………………………cutting to Obama in Belfast,

……………………………………while the critic in me
……………………………………is weaned. Dublin Bay
……………………………………takes up the slack—the

……………………………………incarnation sets us free for play
……………………………………(sure, no truer word spoken);
……………………………………I’m suitably censered, you might say.

……………………………………Poet, bless me three times, even!

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Postcard

James Nairn, Wellington Harbour, 1894

………………………..Dear S, meant to send this some time back.
………………………..Thought you’d recognise the scene well enough:
………………………..in the foreground, a woman walks with a stick,
………………………..set in her own shadow as in her love,
………………………..the face a heavy dab of grief, a desire
………………………..to be elsewhere. Lately the waters rise,
………………………..and in brightness the sheds and the wharf lower
………………………..as the man, darkling, is held. What remains
………………………..is that a gulf exists; and the true poem,
………………………..our boat beyond all making, floats adjacent,
………………………..its shocking mast crossing the horizon
………………………..so that we might see, in this moment,
………………………..how truly the water gives us back the light.
………………………..Hope all well; not sure if you’ll get this alright.

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Touch and go

i.m. Seamus Heaney

……………………The day remembers itself to a sky-blown dusk,
……………………light still coming off the small cloths which ride
……………………the sagging line. Inside, the family play hide and seek,

……………………all our early numbers mounting so confident
……………………to the coming ready or not, while everybody scatters,
……………………loses themselves so easily. And with this: blackbird,

……………………his brief wise-o exile song, a smatter
……………………of grace notes struck out at the gable-end.
……………………So: we’re held, heart-pegged, hung in the matter

……………………of things counted out, and hid, and found—
……………………appeasing knowledge of song, and of our folly.
……………………Wait here over-long for what doesn’t come again,

……………………translates away, across, and up the gully.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Dennison is a poet and literary critic, and a chaplain at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he lives with his wife and young family. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of St Andrews, research which forms the basis for a forthcoming monograph on Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics. Recent poetry by John Dennison has appeared in PN Review, New Walk, Poetry Proper and Broadsheet (NZ). His poems also featured in New Poetries V (Carcanet, 2011).

25 thoughts on “from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – John Dennison

  1. Thank you! I married the Word and Bird Man, Clyde Kessler, and I greatly appreciate poetry, especially his! He has had over 200 poems published in magazines. I like the ones you have here very much. Clyde is a big fan of Seamus Heaney!

  2. A beautiful tribute to a much loved man. I feel very privileged to live near Seamus Heaney’s hometown and have been able to visit his grave occasionally, and sit in solitude with “Death of a Naturalist”. Gone, but not forgotten.

  3. Seamus Heaney was my introduction to poetry that I could love as a child. Digging was just one of many poems that inspired me. As a teacher I use his
    Poetry to inspire the young I teach.

  4. Very beautifully written. I studied Seamus Heaney in grad school and loved his poetry. I totally understand your need to publicize this post card as a tribute. I look forward to following your future posts. Lynn K. in the U.S.

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