Since I learned of Seamus Heaney’s death on Friday, I have been subtly off my kilter. It’s not enough to make me change my usual daily routines, or give much, if any, outward sign of mourning. It’s more like what Auden wrote of the day Yeats died: “A few thousand will think of this day/ As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.” Most likely, by next year, I’ll have forgotten the date, or even the month of his death. Listening to the news, as Parliament or Congress both bat around what to do about a pile of gassed children in Syria, I am occasionally staring off into the middle distance and thinking of a poet. What could be more frivolous?
Except, that’s what poets are for.
In 2001, in September, I was at a desk in a circle of desks in my Major British Writers class when a young man, whose name I can’t remember but whose face I can, first announced a few bizarre facts about a plane and the World Trade Center. We continued class. After class was out, I walked to the campus center and clustered with all the other students around the TV there. I don’t know if we were, in fact, studying Keats on that day (my chronology of those weeks is jumbled), but it was “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” that lilted in my brain every time I watched the repeating footage of a deep blue sky, a fire, and the worst of all, those tiny black dots arcing out from the building and to the ground.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It was not quite sensible, or even accurate to the occasion. Cortez and Keats both were full of wonderment, awe. But I couldn’t help it. Those lines, the image of Cortez and his men before the awesome blue expanse of the Pacific; there must have been terror in it too. The blue gulf I was staring into, the sky all around the towers, the sky as deadly as the ocean, if you have to jump into the center of it.
When I heard Heaney was dead, I was self-consciously sad. He wasn’t mine, not grandfather, father, or friend. Not an acquaintance, and not my national poet, American that I am. How to account for the loss then? I read a lot of poetry during my time in college. Yesterday, I pulled down Opened Ground
, Heaney’s volume of selected poems. I always dread looking at a book I marked up in college; my notations in the margins usually make me cringe. But I had evidently been more restrained with this book. The few underlinings or circles I had made were without explanation, and I can’t for the life of me know what they were supposed to signify. The lines they point to aren’t the ones I would underscore now. And that is the thing that brings me some solace. That ten years later, the poems are new to me again. They mean something different, and the meaning is in different places.
I read that Heaney’s last recorded words were in a text message to his wife. In Latin, they read Noli timere, ”don’t be afraid.” What his true last words were maybe only his nurses know. Maybe there were no others. Maybe they were the nonsense garble of anesthetic induction. All I know of his last hours is that text message, his last written words. In a modern poetry class, I had to memorize his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” and whether it was the familiarity bred by learning each line by heart, or something intrinsic about it, it remains one of my favorites. Now, instead of Kevin, the last lines will always make me think of Heaney himself, at the last:
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird,
And, on the riverbank, forgotten the river’s name.
Now he undergoes a shift, from living man to dead poet. He goes from husband and father to figure, history. Born the year Yeats died, now he joins him in the beginning of his own mythology. There will not be any more of the private man, any words only between him and his wife, or his sons, his one daughter. He can no longer elaborate, or clarify, or write another thing. Of Yeats’ death, Auden wrote, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.” Now, we put our own gloss on him. Remembering and misremembering fragments of poems, checking to see if another ten years alters our opinions of them. As long as he lived, he wasn’t ours. Now that he’s dead, he’s given over to us, and we bear him.