“Death comes to the feast.”

beowulf-02I’ve given JOB long enough to post this; for some reason, he refuses, though his duty is clear. Oh, well. Ye Olde New Yorker has a fun piece on some guy named Tolkien who went and translated Beowulf and then never published it…

“…Spoilers proliferate. When Beowulf goes to meet the dragon, the poet tells us fully four times that the hero is going to die. As in Greek tragedy, the audience for the poem knew the ending. It knew the middle, too, which is a good thing, since the events of Beowulf’s fifty-year reign are barely mentioned until the dragon appears. This bothered many early commentators. It did not bother Tolkien. The three fights were enough. Beowulf, Tolkien writes in his essay, was just a man:

And that for him and many is sufficient tragedy. It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone: lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod (life is transitory: light and life together hasten away). So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast.

According to Tolkien, ‘Beowulf’ was not an epic or a heroic lay, which might need narrative thrust. It was just a poem—an elegy. Light and life hasten away.”

Be sure to follow the link for a throwdown between J.R.R. and some clown named Seamus!

Lantern Light: In Memory of Seamus Heaney

…Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines…

It’s probable my western people came
To traverse the diagonal of Clare to Toome
And visit your decaying troubles north,

Though nothing came across as fact but blood –
Our shared veins, yours being born into it all
The same year my father was, oceans apart,

Born into immigrant declinations,
And I, the same year as your second volume,
Would touch my head, my heart and shoulder blades

To Protestant peace for Roman Catholic ease.
My student years leaned fast away from light;
But when the light came on and shone for good

I came upon your hoard – hard as Beowulf
At finding the fire-lick of dragon’s teeth –
All bound between two papered covers, gift

And warning, given at Christmas from a friend
Whose family sat through most of Pinochet’s
Disappearing act: “Write like him; words endure.”

Between the words I read, the worm would squeeze
Its golden castings. Glimmering smoke in peat
Would shed a dim munificence of words

That figured more than I could count, and tugged
At rugged terrain like hooks that tangle hanks
Of line and grab the stoutest trout by the gill.

Herein, smoked and hung to dry, I soon learned
The government of the tongue, the parliament
Of eye and ear that rise like mist or fog

Above the fields, working grammar’s mercy
With poetic justice. Piss kerplunks
The rust-frailed bottom of a tin bucket

And bog water ripens the haw. Lantern
And electric light can have us seeing things,
Some different by nature, some by want of art –

And so, to be safe, in chthonic rhythms
You dug a bit deeper, giving ink-black soil
A natural death, and dark doors a way out

From winter’s complacency. Turning on
The radio, I scanned through static’s district
And circled around again to other

Stations – channeled like a late-night lorry
Being checkpointed into a “quare” station.
I landed on stony sorrow’s own island.

Though early morning, I was now hard awake.
Your death was being read in short facts.
Before the sign-off, their words allowed yours,

And your thick-pelted voice began to sing
Once more through the wireless, the distance
Being slane-cut one final lasting time:

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Amid the usual dire news of war,
Politics’ darkening spirit, leveling fires
Across the country from Yosemite’s

Most recent, reticular conflagrations
To somber sanctuary lamps that hush
With scent of paraffin and crimson cast,

Your voice remembered, retained, redressed with truth
What seemed a link between the latest hour
And matters which reach to a place more human,

Chaining us to your words as to things to come.

The Greatest Living Catholicish Writer of Verse Is No Longer…


“The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night, dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”


for Seamus

When you close your new eyes on old ceilings,
You would perhaps dream, my son, pilgrim dreams
And lights behind your lids will shoot like tracers.

Through star fields and Spanish architecture
You would perhaps dream your body’s floating
And squibs of light sear your lids like comet trails.

But as you close your new eyes on these old days,
A light beyond sleep hints at what is to come,
Wants you to go. Will you wait for us to catch up?

*I wrote this for my son (yes, named after the poet) when he was born – but seems appropriate here too.


The Vital Link – A Review of “Human Chain: Poems” by Seamus Heaney


Words being given new airs…
-“Canopy,” Seamus Heaney

An ancient saying first attributed to Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and made popular by Roman writers Seneca and Horace, “Ars longa, vita brevis” taps into a universal frustration among artists. In translations, it is perhaps put most succinctly by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer – “The life so short, the craft so long to learn…”

In this day and age, Horace, Seneca, Chaucer and the rest would be twice frustrated, and no doubt might have emended this tagline to read, “Vita facilis, ars dificilis” (Life is easy, art is difficult). Not only is the poetical art a difficult one to master for both writer and reader – but in an age which values the “soft” meaning of art little or less, at least, than it values the “hard” facts of science, poetry with all that tricky metaphoric baggage to lug around has especially received a drubbing from today’s no-nonsense culture.

A thought experiment will suffice to prove the truth of this assertion. When is the last time you read a poem? A book of poems? All the books of a single poet? All the poets of an era?

It’s a safe assumption that the answer to many if not all these questions is “not any time recently.” Despite the lack of interest in poetry, though, the poets continue to fling out beautiful lines to any and all who care to read.

Among them is perhaps the foremost master of the craft writing in English today, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born and raised a Catholic in mostly Protestant Northern Ireland, Heaney has found in the various tensions which his homeland has bred a rich and fertile bed from which more than a dozen original works have sprung, a raft of translations – including his version of the Old English poem “Beowulf” (reviewed in these pages when it first came out in 1999) – and several books of critical prose.

Because of the tight and eliptical narrative structure which Heaney usually locks into his poems, the summary blurbs on the back side of the book are always as welcomed as any hinting gloss to a manuscript obscure but rewarding in its study. According to the blurb backending “Human Chain,” this new collection elicits “continuities and solidarities,” that is, the common and consequential links of dignity and aspirations which all humans share.

The Nobel laureate’s thirteenth collection of verse since his debut with “Death of a Naturalist” in 1967, “Human Chain” continues to show the link between words and emotions, faith and doubt, the certainty of death and the hope of life. The title poem of the collection, “Human Chain,” sets out to define the terms under which, at least for Heaney, many of these tensions have declared a momentary truce.

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I’d worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave –

The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed

That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

Although the circumstances and exact details of the human crisis in the poem are unidentified, the clarity of emotion with which Heaney invests the poem indicates both for the moment – “once” – and for eternity – “for all” – the importance of restoring and reaffirming our faith in the “human chain” supplied by links of continuity tempered by solidarity.

Part and parcel of this solidarity for Heaney is the Catholicism which is every bit a part of his constitution as a poet as the peat bogs and political violence which haunt his poems. The Catholic elements in his work are never pushed – but seem to emerge all of their own, usally on the back of a reminscience as a detail from his personal past, or sneaking into one of his typically enthralling thumbnail observations. In “A Mitre Box,” a good example of the latter, he contemplates the small mercies found in a child’s alms-collecting.

But still in your cupped palm to feel
The chunk and clink of an alms-giving mitre-box
Full to its slotted lid with copper coins,

Pennies and halfpennies donated for
“The foreign missions” … Made from a cardboard kit,
Wedge-roofed like a little oratory

And yours to tote as you made the rounds,
Indulged on every doorstep, each donation
Accounted for by a pinprick in a card –

A way for all to see a way to heaven,
The same as when a poinholed camera
Obscura unblinds the sun eclipsed. 

While the Catholic faith is more a cultural than spiritual identifier for Heaney – growing up in 1940s-1950s Northern Ireland, Heaney indicates, one was either Ulster Catholic or Orangeman (Northern Irish Protestant), with little room for much else – his relationship to the Catholic Church is not a cut-and-dried case of faith lost (or refound for that matter). In the 2006 book-length interview “Stepping Stones,” Heaney explains to Dennis O’Driscoll how it is between the Church and himself.

“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic?” asks Driscoll, to which Heaney replies: “I suppose so, because Catholicism provided a totally structured reading of the mortal condition which I’ve never quite deconstructed. I might have talked differently, certainly more diffidently, if you’d asked me about these matters thirty years ago, since I eventually did my best to change from catechized youth into secular adult….[I]n maturity, the myths of the classical world and Dante’s Commedia (where my Irish Catholic subculture received high cultural ratification) and the myths of other cultures matched and mixed and provide a cosmology that corresponded well enough to the original…”

One look at his poetry is enough to confirm that while he may for all practical purposes be finished with Catholicism, it is far from being finished with him.

But the point of reading Heaney’s poems – and especially those in “Human Chain,” are not to witness the exhibitions of a fallen-away Catholic poet thrashing out his personal salvation through a well-wrought line. Rather, it is to see that the faith of his fathers, which opposed and eventually in his later years perhaps helped to overcome, as he tells O’Driscoll. “a general, generational assent to the proposition that God is dead” experienced it in his youth,

The linkage in “Human Chain” is exactly composed of the bonds necessary to carry poet and reader through the darkness – a darkness Heaney styles in many of this volume’s poems as a sort of underworld, much like that found in Virgil’s “Aeneid” which his hero Aeneas would visit before founding Rome. Sometimes these bonds area physical – as in “Album” where he recounts his connection to his father “Were I to have embraced him anywhere/ It would have been on the riverbank/That summer before college…” and learning that proper affection comes with the bright abandon of youth. “It took a grandson to do it properly,/ To rush him in the armchair/ With a snatch raid on his neck,// Proving him thus vulnerable to delight…” The poet finds the proper words to show the connections in “Album” (which itself means “white”) and “delight” rings truest of all, scattering darkness and absorbing the elegaic passages earlier in the poem.  

In his attempt to shed light on the poetic landscape in “Human Chain,” Heaney revisits the roads and rides of his past down which he roams and roves, searching for more of those same “continuities and solidarities.”

In “The Wood Road,” a poetic reminiscence of the road outside his childhood home, Heaney recalls it as the junction of various public and private histories – Northern Ireland’s “troubles,” the farm work that brought the poet into adulthood, and the death of a young neighbor seen in “the stain at the end of the lane/Where the child on her bike was hit/By a speed-merchant from nowhere/…A back wheel spinning in sunshine// A headlamp in smithereens.”


Film it in sepia,
Drip-paint it in blood,
The Wood Road as is and was,
Resurfaced, never widened,
The milk-churn deck and the sign

For the bus-stop overgrown.

As in memory, so in life, the growth of the road is organic, “overgrown,” not artificially enlarged upon, “resurfaced, never widened.” This description of “The Wood Road,” arising from the organic depths of cultural, religious, political and personal memory, is in many ways the defining aspect of Heaney’s style.

Another road in the book, “Route 101,” brings the reader even deeper into these depths of memory, as Heaney recounts a bus ride in his youth into a Virgilian underworld – the juncture and platform for the significant yokes and links in his own life. After buying a copy of Virgil’s “Aeneid” at a bookstore, the poem’s speaker relates how, upon boarding, he watched as the busman Charon-like “ ruled the roost in bus station and bus/Separated and directed everybody// By calling not the names but the route numbers/And so we scattered as instructed…” The route takes him to weddings, funerals, harvests, love lost and love found – a whole roadmap of emotions and experiences inextricably linked one to another.

In the “Aeneid,” Aeneas presents a golden bough to the underworld’s gatekeeper to gain entrance to Hell, where he discovers his destiny as founder of the “Eternal City,” Rome (as much as Dante would find that his destiny lies in the truly eternal city of God in heaven through a tour of hell guided by Virgil). This image of the golden bough becomes in Heaney’s hands a sheaf of oat stalks, presumably recalled from his youth, adorning a neighbor’s home altar. “Each head of oats,” he writes,

A silvered smattering, each individual grain
Wrapped in a second husk of glittering foil
They’d saved from chocolate bars, then pinched and cinched

“To give the wee altar a bit of shine.”
The night old Mrs. Nick, as she was to us,
Handed me one it as good as lit me home.

The deeper the reader goes into “Human Chain,” the more “Route 101” becomes a polyglot of the book’s many “continuities and solidarities.” In the poem, Heaney is linking himself to his personal past and his nation’s history, his culture, the faith of his youth, and even the greater literary tradition of Virgil and Dante of which he is unquestionably a part. For the importance of community at all these levels – family, friends, fellow Catholics (and even the antagonistic Irish Protestants), his countrymen, his literary forebears, all exist as points along the way, the various gifts of time and place which, like the oat stalk in the poem, as good as light both Heaney and his readers to as many interpretations of “home” as the “Human Chain” can bear.

Even as he reaches home, or at least the home of friend and musician the late David Hammond, the darkness and silence of a house divested of its owner proffers the mystery of a real presence (not necessarily the Catholic version of this mystery, but perhaps one fostered by the shadow-liturgy of poetry).

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

That kept me standing listening while it grew
Backwards and down and out into the street
Where as I’d entered (I remember now)

The streetlamps too were out.
I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here there was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

On an overgrown airfield in late summer.

This presence/absence which Heaney discovers in “The door was open and the house was dark,”  is that most vital link – the essential bond reinforced by gossamer and adamantine alike. The absence/presence is the invisible reality of words, which in “Human Chain,” Heaney handily shows, possesses a power to forge each link of humanity’s chain.

Editor’s note: An abridged version of this article will appear in The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse, on Oct. 20.