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Your weekly poem, June 9: “Beowulf” translated by Seamus Heaney, conclusion

A poem selected by our director Nicholas Allen, Baldwin Professor in Humanities

Dear friends,

Epic poems tell the stories of heroes and their deeds. In doing so they tell us something both of the cultures that produced these figures, and of the art that casts them in poetic memory, which can be as far removed from fact as fiction. That distance is not a deficit but an opportunity to consider the things the artwork might not mean to say, or consider important. So in Beowulf, the hero kills Grendel, the monster’s mother, and a dragon, jealous of its hoard. This last is his undoing, for, to his companion Wiglaf’s regret,

Often when one man follows his own will
Many are hurt…

There is no epic, and no poetry, without our collective agreement to meet imaginatively at the work of art. In Beowulf, this requires a commitment to truth, honor and the giving of the self to others. In that society, reputation was not a fixed point but a constant readjustment, which even the most celebrated of heroes sometimes failed to make. Greatness was no end in itself, but a partner to the daily solidarities that kept a society together, from the mead hall to the shield wall. As the poem suggests, the darkest monster of all is drawn from the self-regarding specters of pride and greed, Beowulf unheeding of the advisors who bid him leave the dragon sleep, his mourning people haunted now by the vision of the Geat woman who cries “a wild litany of nightmare and lament.”

That we can read these words so many centuries later says something more optimistic about human society, which is its capacity for co-operation, that mutuality which is of the substance of that most radical practice, of reading. Beowulf comes to this ethical realization in its own way, true heroism a balance of grace and fairness, and expressed in a language the form and sound of which reminds us to keep our minds open to strangers as envoys of a greater understanding:

Swã begnornodon Gēata lēode
hlãfordes hryre, heorð-genēatas,
cwædon þæt hē wære wyruld-cyninga
manna mildust ond mon-ðwærust,
lēodum līðost ond lof-geornost.

Thank you for your good company over these past weeks. We will gather ourselves again in the mid-summer. Until then, read and be well.

Best,

Nicholas

Your weekly poem, May 19: “Eelworks” by Seamus Heaney

A poem selected by our director Nicholas Allen, Baldwin Professor in Humanities

 

Dear friends,

Seamus Heaney grew up in the flatlands by Lough Neagh, not far from the eel fishery in Toomebridge, known to those of you who like our grim ballads as the site of Roddy Corley’s execution after the 1798 rebellion. That insurgency aimed to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in one Irish republic. Corley’s demise may or may not have happened as the song has it, but it makes for a rousing ballad, which The Dubliners performed with brio.

Lough Neagh is one of Europe’s largest freshwater lakes and is fed by both the Blackwater and the Bann, which alone flows into the Atlantic. Heaney has been read for a long time as a poet of landed place, of bog and farm and townland. Less observed is his attachment to water, from the dripping pump in Mossbawn’s yard to the streams, rivers and lough that led to the world from his door.

It is fitting then that “Eelworks” is a poem of leaving and returning, a meditation on childhood, language and love (think, for example, of those lips in the last lines). In this poem, art is a selkie, a Scots word for the seal-folk, whose skins, like those of the eels in the poem, are a subject of human fascination. “Eelworks” is an elemental poem, made of the fabric of Heaney’s community, of his past, and of his life-long understanding of poetry. It is a catch too of other poems that fed Heaney’s imagination, such as the hint of Yeats in the fishing rod from “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Next week we will join Beowulf in his foray against Grendel but for now notice the kennings that braid the fourth section of the poem, those pairs of words chained together by hyphens from which the old Germanic languages made metaphor (and my favorite of these is “hron rade,” or whale’s path, which was the sea).

In the summers I regularly pass the eelworks on the road to my parents. It is an unremarkable place on the surface, a jetty of steel gantries across the Bann mouth, a gallery of herons, rusty sheds. It makes me think how magical is poetry, to summon the imagination from the everyday, clad in the hardy raiment of memory, weathered by experience and returned, as in “Eelworks,” to simple beginnings that endure.

Next week we land with Beowulf on shores further north, “we gardena ingear dagum,” Spear Danes in days of old. But I get ahead of myself, and I’ll have a story to tell you then about those opening lines.

Keep going,

Nicholas

Seamus Heaney
from “Eelworks”

ii

Cut of diesel oil in evening air,
Tractor engines in the clinker-built
Deep-bellied boats.

Landlubbers’ craft,
Heavy in water
As a cow down in a drain,

The men straight-backed,
Standing firm
At stern and bow –

Horse-and-cart men, really,
Glad when the adze-dressed keel
Cleaved to the mud.

Rum-and-peppermint men too
At the counter later on
In her father’s pub.

iii

That skin Alifie-Kirkwood wore
At school, sweaty-lustrous, supple

And bisected into tails
For the tying of itself around itself –

For strength, according to Alfie.
Who would ease his lapped wrist

From the flap-mouthed cuff
Of a jerkin rank with eel oil,

The abounding reek of it
Among our summer desks

My first encounter with the up close
That had to be put up with.

iv

Sweaty-lustrous too
The butt of the freckled
Elderberry shoot

I made a rod of,
A-fluster when I felt
Not tugging but a trailing

On the line, not the utter
Flip-stream frolic-fish
But a foot-long

Slither of a fellow,
A young eel, greasy grey
And rightly wriggle-spined,

Not yet the blue black
Slick-backed waterwork
I’d live to reckon with.

My old familiar
Pearl-purl
Selkie-streaker.

vi

On the boarding and the signposts
‘Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative’.

But ever on our lips and at the weir
‘The eelworks’.

Your weekly poem, May 12: “The Riverbank Field” by Seamus Heaney

A poem selected by our director Nicholas Allen, Baldwin Professor in Humanities

 

Dear friends,

“The Riverbank Field” is a companion to last week’s poem, both of which are versions that Seamus Heaney made from the Aeneid, and in companion to which you may enjoy this gloss. This is my favorite of the late poems as it describes a world I have come to know very well since my family moved from Belfast to Co. Derry when I was in university and have remained there since. By odd coincidence my father was manager of the bank in Magherafelt when it was bombed, an incident described in another of Heaney’s poems, “Two Lorries.” There was no harm there and we have a photograph at home of my father standing among the ruins, smiling in his hard hat. I met Seamus several times and he was always kind, welcoming and interested that we had been in Chapel Hill (which he told me once never to leave, having a special affection for the place from his visits there, including the lucky chance of being asked to give the commencement speech the very year he won the Nobel Prize). A noble man, he turned up to all kinds of literary readings in Dublin, sitting quietly at the back, and this for years after he became so celebrated.

“The Riverbank Field” draws the early summer countryside around Lough Neagh in eternal light. It was published in Human Chain, which was Heaney’s last collection and whose title poem is dedicated to Terence Brown, my old professor in Trinity. There is still something of the poet’s gentle fortitude in that verb “confound” and I may stretch your patience one more week before we go to Beowulf and share “Eelworks” with you next as it extends this watery province back into Heaney’s early life and life-long love. For now I wish you a safe and peaceful week, under the dome of this blue Georgia sky.

As always,

Nicholas

 

Seamus Heaney
“The Riverbank Field”
After Aeneid VI, 704-15 & 748-751

Ask me to translate what Loeb gives as
‘In a retired vale… a sequestered grove’
And I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola

By coming through Back Park down from Grove Hill
Across Long Rigs on to the riverbank –
Which way, by happy chance, will take me past

The domos placidas, those ‘peaceful homes’
Of Upper Broagh. Moths then on evening water
It would have to be, not bees in sunlight,

Midge veils instead of lily beds; but stet
To all the rest: the willow leaves
Elysian-silvered, the grass so fully fledged

And unimprinted it can’t not conjure thoughts
Of passing spirit-troops, animae, quibus, altera fato
Corpora debentur, ‘spirits’, that is,

‘To whom second bodies are owned by fate.’
And now to continue, as enjoined to often,
‘In my own words’:

‘All these presences
Once they have rolled time’s wheel a thousand years
Are summoned here to drink the river water

So that memories of this underworld are shed
And soul is longing to dwell in flesh and blood
Under the dome of the sky.’

Your weekly poem, Apr. 21: “The Odyssey” by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles

A poem selected by our director Nicholas Allen, Baldwin Professor in Humanities

 

Dear friends,

Years ago we used to go to the Greek islands in the May time. From that other Athens we broke for Piraeus and the ferry to Naxos, from where we sailed to Koufonisia, Schoinousa, Folegandros. I remember a sunny day on the ferry deck with a Swiss lady who shrieked with delight at her first sight of a dolphin clear out of the water, and the ramble of a farmer on his donkey down the stone steps of Amorgos, perched before the evening’s hay harvest, peppered with red poppies. Now I grow rosemary and basil in my front garden for the people who walk by, an Aegean transport, the herbs a perfume the island youth wear on their own evening promenades.

For all that I found myself becalmed this wet and grey Sunday. As I daydreamed about other places I remembered the Kolymbetra Gardens in the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento in Sicily. This Mediterranean outpost bears the influence of many cultures, of Carthage, Akragas and Syracuse, and Arab and Christian later. Watered by tanks and channels that are millennia old, the garden, shaded with the leaves of olives, lemons and limes, is an echo of the garden that great Greek sea-farer Odysseus finds when he comes upon Calypso. Odysseus, that man of tactics, fox sly and hardy, is a hero for his unrelenting intelligence. As I turned to Robert Fagles’s translation, which was the first that ever made these old words sing to me, I thought of the determination we need, like Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, to make the long journey through. The Odyssey is the work of other worlds than ours. But its qualities of ingenuity and refuge remain, nurtured as they are in the first entrance to Calypso’s garden, verdant and lush.

As always,

Nicholas

‘… A great fire
blazed on the hearth and the smell of cedar
cleanly split and sweetwood burning bright
wafted a cloud of fragrance down the island.
Deep inside she sang, the goddess Calypso, lifting
her breathtaking voice as she glided back and forth
before her loom, her golden shuttle weaving.
Thick, luxuriant woods grew round the cave,
alders and black poplars, pungent cyprus too,
and there birds roosted, folding their long wings,
owls and hawks and the spread-beaked ravens of the sea,
black skimmers who make their living off the waves.
And round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine
laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes.
Four springs in a row, bubbling clear and cold,
running side-by-side, took channels left and right.
Soft meadows spreading round were starred with violets
lush with beds of parsley. Why, even a deathless god
who came upon that place would gaze in wonder,
heart entranced with pleasure…’

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles

Your weekly poem, Apr. 14: “Before the Wind” by Kathleen Jamie

A poem selected by our director Nicholas Allen, Baldwin Professor in Humanities

 

Dear friends,

I think of the sea all the time, as I know you too think of places beyond our horizon, still there and in the mind for now. We will return to these places soon, but changed. Poetry can be a preparation for the journey we are taking even now, words a bridge for us to cross the depths. Literature invites us to look up and out as we read, the mind opening to other places and times, the strange familiar, the familiar strange.

The sea I think of is the north channel between Scotland and Ireland, which is only around fifteen miles at its narrowest. It is an old province of story and myth, of Vikings, Gaels and the cross-water kingdom of Dalriada. The way-markers of this channel range from the Giant’s Causeway to Ailsa Craig, that haunt of mad Sweeney, the king cursed by a saint and turned to a bird, its inshore waters the haunt of seabirds and selkies, half-fish, half-human, in siren song.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet from this wind-blown territory in the west of Scotland. “Before the Wind” begins as a poem of observation and ends as something else. A nature poem, yes, it is also a vision, inviting and unsettling. It has always fascinated me how a short string of sentences like this can braid a world together. Jamie does it masterfully, writing the reader into a sequence of stone, branch and flower that is possessed of its own organic logic.

I hope this visit finds you in good cheer. I think of you all during these uncertain days, in which we can at least be sure of poetry as a portal to freedoms that are open to every reader.

Be well,

Nicholas

 

“Before the Wind”
Kathleen Jamie

If I’m to happen upon the hill
where cherries grow wild
it better be soon, or the yellow-
eyed birds will come squabbling

claiming the fruit for their own.
Wild means stones barely
clothed in flesh, but that’s rich
coming from me.  A mouth

contains a cherry, a cherry
a stone, a stone
the flowering branch
I must find before the wind

scatters all trace of its blossom,
and the fruit comes, and the yellow-eyed birds.

Your weekly poem, Mar. 31: “The Nave” by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

A poem selected by our director Nicholas Allen, Baldwin Professor in Humanities

 

Dear friends,

I have been thinking this past week about literature in all our times of crisis, which reminded me, in usual roundabout fashion, of the time I slept with Samuel Pepys’s chair (we happened to share a room in Magdalene College in Cambridge, but more about that another time). Pepys is best remembered now for his diaries, some of which record his experience of London during a plague, and after that the great fire. If words cannot give back what life takes, they can make what lasts beyond, which is, to me, one proof of our constant, shared concern.

As I wondered then which poem to share with you this week in face of all that stands before us I thought of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s “The Nave,” which is collected in The Sun-Fish. Like many of you who keep Cortona close to heart, Eiléan has a deep love for the Italian countryside, where she has summered for many years. She is also steeped in the languages and cultures of early modern Europe, not least of which is Irish. You can hear a sample of her reading here.

“The Nave” is her account of a solitary journey through an Italian hill-town celebrating a religious procession in the summer heat. Moving through the crowds to quietude in a cool church, she has a vision of poetry that is of the light, the air, and the sea, the nave, after all, being in the Christian tradition built in the structure of a boat. I love this poem for its lift, which is hard-won and quietly joyous, for its vision, which elevates a single moment into something more and deeper, and for its solidarity, with the sick as with the celebrant.

This is one to think about for a week and more. In that time, as always, I send greetings of peace and friendship,

Nicholas

“The Nave”
by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Learning at last to see, I must begin drawing;
I cast abroad the line
That noses under stones, presses around an instep,
Threads off into distance and forward again
As it pierces and drags.  Like a daft graph it shoots
Up, like a weed falls and rises.  I am led, I find it
Looped on every crooked corbel.  Drowned in deep shadows
I catch myself in a tangle of rickety laneways,
Part of a procession.  The streets
are full of innocence, a stumbling,
Cobbled bazaar of shining bargain treasures,
Their shimmer resisting the eye,
Remotely the four-four beat of the carnival march
Pulls me aside, adrift on the stepped descent –
A fresh smell from the lemonade stall announces
The square transformed.  The trinkets dangle,
Ribbons wrap round and round the colored poles,
The air darkens, fairy lights burst out on wires;
The line calls me upwards, curving banisters,
Their metal studs too nearly worn away,
Come to a point where a little troop,
All brightly masked, waits for more companions
Before the steeper climb.
It is cooler here:
Darkish stone, slate, a marble well, a ramp
With a squashed feather stuck to one side, then old,
Clean tiles.  I am drawn, staggering –
It feels like lifting a tall, swaying ship
With wind-filled streamers –
Across the threshold.
And indeed the nave
Hums like a ship, the corded masts and spars
Are tugged by wind, and the uppermost gallery
Swings and revolves.  The hanging censer
Vibrates like a spider in his thread.  In the rigging clings
A saint whose cure is personal as a song
Performed aloud at a wake by a special call,
Or softly to a patient in her hospital ward.