It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve felt something was about to happen, something which would impact on me emotionally. My daughter turns 5 tomorrow and we’ve been planning a picnic and a day out at the open farm, but I knew that wasn’t it. We woke up the other day to find a stunning spider’s web across the safety bars on our fire escape door. The sun was streaming through the trees behind our apartment block and backlighting the web. “It looks like a fingerprint, Mummy,” Layla said, and I felt that was profound for an almost five year-old. I wanted to write a poem about it but I’m no poet.
It was a lovely morning and we went blackberry picking (again). Fellow blogger and amazing photographer, Meticulous Mick, had promised me a blackberry photo so that I could include it on my ‘Irish Poem of the Week’ page. It was to accompany Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking from Death of a Naturalist, 1966 – Heaney’s first published collection. I’d been thinking about it for over a week. Sylvia Plath wrote a great poem on blackberrying too, but she wasn’t Irish, and in any case, I spent 3 years of my life with Seamus Heaney. Not in the physical sense, but in the intellectual, spiritual and I guess, emotional sense. He was one of the 2 poets I researched extensively for my PhD thesis, the other being Michael Hartnett (1941 – 1999) who features elsewhere on my blog. As we were driving back from our blackberry picking, the top news headline was that Seamus Heaney had died in a Dublin hospital during a routine operation.
I never met Seamus Heaney but several of my tutors at the University of Ulster had been taught by him and my Supervisor had socialised with him on a number of occasions. I have never heard or read a bad word about the man, who was apparently genial, modest, witty, and great company. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so his credentials as a poet will never be disputed. Over the coming days and weeks, tributes will pour in for his body of work. In my opinion, some of his most remarkable poetry was written in his later years. District and Circle is impressive and many of those poems hark back to the earlier days of Death of a Naturalist, but Human Chain is an absolutely phenomenal work of art. That’s the volume I will reach for when I get back home to my bookcase in the UAE next week.
For now though, I’m going to stick with my original intention and post Blackberry Picking which is accompanied by one of MM’s wonderful shots.
Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.