Labor Day and Seamus Heaney

It’s Labor Day in the U.S., that holiday the Congress and president offered to American labor just when the international movement was starting to celebrate May Day to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs. Call it a coincidence, but in the solar year May Day comes at the peak of creation, when wanderlust is in our hearts, and the landscape and life seem full of possibility. Labor Day is the end of summer. A last dance with the sun.

You could argue it’s a harvest holiday – and I will be boiling corn and slicing raw tomatoes today, of course – but we already have a famous harvest holiday. If symbols matter, and they do, then maybe that’s why we work longer hours with fewer benefits than the rest of the developed world: We associate Labor Day with crying ourselves to sleep the night before school starts.

I could go on about the light in September, the insects, the squishing of rotten figs in one’s toes, and the landscapes with the color of every wildflower jacked up to eleven. I could, but I’m not a poet. The poets I know get up and write it every morning, and I don’t.

This morning was Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Ireland. A part of me, naturally, is jealous of a nation whose leaders can speak knowledgeably about a poet in their midst: If Philip Levine died last week, would Obama, John Boehner, and Bruce Springsteen all have cleared their schedules for today, on a par with the showing in Dublin? And how hard would it have been to find anyone at Coachella who could speak with as much feeling about him as The Irish Times found at Ireland’s Electric Picnic?

But Heaney, whose work was the gateway drug that got me and many people like me hooked on poetry, demanded honesty. His poems such as “A Dream of Jealousy” taught me how direct and raw – not bomb-throwing raw, “I-am-flawed” raw – poetry ought to be. There are fewer people in Ireland than in New York City, across a country the size of South Carolina. It’s easier to know “everyone” there, and so of course a Nobel laureate who writes about common people crossed paths with many of them.

Heaney owned up to the title “the great Irish poet” decades ago, and yet, when reading him,  you often feel you are reading about something other than national identity. When you read Orhan Pamuk, for example, only once in a while when you squint your eyes do you see some engagement with any material other than the great quandary of the Turkish intellectual.  His books are like trophies you keep on your shelf to show how serious you are.  Heaney’s books, full of farming stories and obituaries, and quips about sad grandparents, are for camping trips and nightstands, ones you want to re-read.

Years ago, before my friend Jay Leeming published his books, before I ever read Levine or Tony Hoagland, I sat and memorized “Bogland” one day and can still sit and type it from memory, give or take a bit of punctuation. The Great Irish Elk is his country, but it is also ourselves: the deeper and deeper we look inside, the more we realize there is nothing there. This junk on the outside, and the peripheral details about us – our grandmothers’ accents, our worn-out tools, our symbols – that’s the whole show.

BOGLAND by Seamus Heaney

for T.P. Flanagan

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening –

Everywhere the eye concedes

To encroaching horizon,

 

Is wooed into the Cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

 

They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

 

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

 

Melting and opening underfoot

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They’ll never dig coal here,

 

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

 

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

Comments

  1. Fine homage. Thank you.

  2. Heaney is as Heaney did. Thanks Charles.

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