Friday, 30 August 2013


Two Lorries                  (6th & 7th verses) 

Of motes and engine-revs, but which lorry
Was it now? Young Agnew’s or that other,
Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode
In a time beyond her time in Magherafelt…
So tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman.
Listen to the rain spit in new ashes

As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
Then reappear from your lorry as my mother’s
Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.         

What to say?  I’ve typed out ‘Two Lorries’ and will change the verse above each day for a week (not tomorrow, it’s late now) – because I feel like holding a wake, and the poem’s got seven verses.  I’ve written myself a reminder, MAGHERAFELT, but doubt I’ll forget because the world has changed with Seamus Heaney’s death.   

There is no choice about the seven.  The course is set and the poem has to fulfil it.  Sestinas are good for thoughts, and coal deliveries, that go round and round; here, Heaney makes the form good for inevitability too.  The past turns into the future, because it must, and then the two get confused and synthesised into something universal.   

Why this poem?  It could have been many others.  There’s the coalman and the mother; there’s the lorry, the coal, the ashes, the dust, the folded coal-bags, the bus and its route, the black-leaded stove... and then the turn, the second lorry emerging from the first and enacting the way routine life is suddenly slammed aside when something terrible happens, even though in this case the two scenes are decades apart... and then that synthesis.  The way film underlies the poem, the glamour of wishes or the film-like nature of unbelievably terrible events.  The way the Troubles underlie it.  Black and white, underworld lorryman and angel, death and dream. 

There’s the lively and varied syntax, the delight in language, its crunchiness (hardly any Latinate words), the way Heaney throws himself straight at this often dire form and plays around, one of the six end-words coming out in several different ways as a sort of descant, a couple of others changing only under the pressure of the horror; the impossible-for-non-natives-to-pronounce place name anchoring the whole thing; such humour with the dexterity.

Seamus Heaney reads the whole poem at the Poetry Archive, and the text's there too.  Oh, such a voice.

He may not have been highly innovative or experimental, but his work contains that deep fusion of the age-old with the new that is so rare.  This from Michael Schmidt in PN Review 212 (not about SH) fits perfectly: “Inherence, the poet occupying the poem rather than vacating it by means of irony or fragmentation”.  

There’s a great passage from Heaney himself, from his Nobel lectures quoted on Robert Peake’s blog: ”.. in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself”. 

Wandering along fuchsia-studded lanes in Kerry or West Cork, I’ve recalled another favourite poem, ‘The Peninsula’, and fantasised about meeting Heaney round the next bend – not because I’d want to ask him about his poetry or tap the depth and width of his learning, but just to exchange remarks on the day, the weather, the view.  I think I’ll still imagine that, next time I’m there.    

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog.

Photo from Poetry Society
The Irish Writing Blog's put up a compilation of essays on Seamus Heaney.

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