Five years have passed
And chat, and have you there,
With a thought, or a prayer.
Five years have passed
Seamus Heaney died five years ago, on August 30, 2013. I remember hearing about his passing as I drove from Dublin to the small nursing home in Co. Wexford where my mother lay grievously ill. She passed away five weeks later.
At the time the two events didn’t seem connected. Then, a month after my mother’s death, I bought a copy of Heaney’s “Selected Poems”. In it, I came across “Clearances”, a set of sonnets the poet wrote following the death of his own mother.
One – sonnet 8 – stood out, and came to be an evocation of my own mother, an elegant summation of grief, and a confirmation, a reassurance. (I now think of Patrick Kavanagh’s lines, “others have been here and know, griefs we thought our special own”.)
It needs little exposition, or none, in fact. It should simply be read, as I now do on occasion, when I want to remember, return, or be thankful.
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
Rock swirls and moss green
Surrounds chatter and cell phones –
Someone’s missed the point.
When I think of L.A. I think of things that are no longer there.
John Fante’s Bunker Hill boarding house,
The crumpled slips between the wooden seats at Santa Anita racetrack,
Where Bukowski cursed his way through another weekday afternoon.
The marble fireplace where Scott Fitzgerald stood,
In the rented Hollywood home where he tried to recharge his life – and where he lost it.
That strange bright emptiness – a great unease – that Joan Didion lived in and wrote about.
The last is still there, high above Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I walk, remembering.
All of these people wrote, and lived and drank and fought, against it. And for what?
The dust, the heat, the dry air, the lure and the promise and the tiredness, are too great to overcome.
Not that we should stop trying.
I’ve just told my wife
That we need to visit Clatskanie, Oregon, your birthplace.
And I often think to myself “I should take a trip to Port Angeles
And see the great, gray light on the Pacific and visit his grave site”.
But then I think “What’s the point?”
Why bother with places, the faint traces of memory on streets and buildings, with plaques on walls?
All we have is the words, you wrote,
And they better be the right ones.
As an Irishman, it’s rare to find a fresh take on emigration. The culture of leave-taking and return, post-Christmas news reports from the departure gates at Dublin Airport, regularly thinking eight hours ahead, finding yourself in an Irish bar at 6 a.m. watching a sports game “from home” – most of these are familiar to the Irish emigrant.
Along with the songs and stories of course – from John Healy’s “The Grass Arena”, to Ronnie Drew’s recording of “McAlpine’s Fusiliers“, to the granddaddy of them all, James Joyce’s “Ulysses’, written in three continental cities but a chronicle of only one.
Historically the message has usually, ultimately, been one of exile – whether by force or choice. This ‘push’ story has often obscured the ‘pull’ narrative, the story of the return to Ireland: there are not as many songs about the prodigal Irishmen and women who came back.
This “pull” is the subject of a short, early poem of Seamus Heaney’s. “Gravities” appeared in Heaney’s first collection, “Death of a Naturalist”. It’s a poem that examines the “strict and invisible” force that pulls people back, to relationships and to countries.
Reading it also reminds me that even some of Ireland’s most famous exiles, Joyce and the monk Colmcille, for all their achievements in other countries, never escaped the pull of the home. (Even if, in Joyce’s case, they would never return.)
High-riding kites appear to range quite freely
Though reined by strings, strict and invisible.
The pigeon that deserts you suddenly
Is heading home, instinctively faithful.
Lovers with barrages of hot insult
Often cut off their nose to spite their face,
Endure a hopeless day, declare their guilt,
Re-enter the native port of their embrace.
Blinding in Paris, for his party-piece
Joyce named the shops along O’Connell Street
And on Iona Colmcille sought ease
by wearing Irish mould next to his feet.
In a black box, glass-faced, placed in a room on the top floor of a Georgian house.
Little sign of the ulcer that killed him, or the stress of the years unpublished in exile,
Or the pain of the eye operations.
It’s not the original death mask – instead the product of revisions and iterations.
But it’s his parting glance to the world.
Smaller than his stature suggests, and gentler,
James Joyce sleeps in a quiet room, four storeys up, between Eccles Street and Nighttown.
Oddly, he looks at home.
We arrived the night after a hurricane’s last winds
Had whipped their way over South Carolina.
The beach and the trees were still and empty – the summer washed away,
A clean slate for Autumn.
We had driven from California, three weeks across the country,
And this driftwood beach and empty tourist town was ‘it’, the moment we reached the other coast.
We had arrived.
In 24 hours we would move on. For now, all was clear and endless.
The years of college were over, ahead lay possibility, calm water, storms, inconceivable events,
We ate by a beach campfire, and slept heavily that night, unburdened.
Every morning: gray and speed and signal lights and merging.
Hundreds of cars entering the tunnel every minute.
Thousands of stories, worries, illnesses, joys, and fears –
Speeding through a hillside at 60 miles per hour.
Most of us doing it to earn enough to
Do it all again tomorrow.
Back to the place where I first set foot, 20 years ago,
And feeling as tired today as I was then, and bearing the weight of the years too.
But it’s always good to be back, even briefly, to a city of ghosts and memories.
These days it’s just for a short time, en route to somewhere else.
But wasn’t that the way it was then too?
San Francisco is always there, though. It’s where it began.