…and tonight I took Seamus to the pub. We sat in the back room and compared notes on the gibberous regulars at the bar, the coals hissing in the grate and our chosen ales. And having got him suitably relaxed and disposed to chatter I asked, “Is North the last good book wot was writ of poetics, well is it…true there’s been Division Street in between…but so little else…?”
Seamus Heaney’s “North”, which (apart from the obviously great title) just wrapped me round its little finger and made me sigh…pick the book up, read a few more lines, put it down again because I can hardly bear it…take a few breaths, pick it up again…just…what a beautiful collection. So much, so well, so tightly contained and described. It is humanity condensed. It runs back and forth across centuries and seas and territories, all resolving itself back in Ireland Now (or at least, then – 1975).
I’d wondered if I was becoming jaded (“immune to poetry”!) because not much was lighting my fire…some things were “good”, others “accomplished”, “polished”? (I feel like I need tongs to handle that word in relation to poetry), some were even “admirable”…but none “burned”, none were “urgent” none defied me to stop reading to keep reading…ah boy, I’m walking places, stopping for a few moments on a bench, preferably under a tree, just to read another poem, or the same one again and again…it will keep me going for the next couple of hours…oh addiction – I was so elated that I bought Paradise Lost on a whim, because it’s a classic and I’ve never read it – North has all the vittles of life, it is bones and earth and sinew and lust and blood and death and all the things to be talked of in poetry and life and how there is nothing but the stench of it the taste its flowering and its decay and that instant between the two and what do we do to try and capture that to memorialise it – how to speak every flower and ice melt and new born and orgasm – that first time the not-yet-lover but who might become it just hasn’t been written yet runs their fingers through the gap between the buttons on your shirt across your stomach, the flinch and twist and flutter of skin…take a gulp of whisky…breathe:
the opening from Funeral Rites:
I shouldered a kind of manhood/ stepping in to lift the coffins/ of dead relations
the black glacier/ of each funeral/ pushed away
now as news comes in/ of each neighbourly murder/ we pine for ceremony,/ customary rhythms;// the temperate footsteps/ of a cortege, winding past/ each blinded home.
or from North:
I returned to a long strand/ the hammered shod of a bay/ and found only the secular/ powers of the Atlantic thundering.
or from Bone Dreams:
I am screes/ on her escarpments,/ a chalk giant// carved upon her downs./ Soon my hands, on the sunken/ fosse of her spine/ move towards the pass.
…and so enough – too much – perhaps, not enough – ecstasy is deliciously disorientating, at its best.
Solid earth poetry; blood poetry; life poetry. Buy it, borrow it, steal it. Read it…and tell me, if you dare, that this is not what poetry is.