Seamus at 70

How embarrassing to have missed the chance to mark Seamus Heaney’s 70th birthday yesterday. Let me make up for it with some poetry. Here’s a video montage set to Heaney’s reading of “The Tollund Man.” I’m not sure what makes images from the civil-rights era compatible with a poem about an ancient body drawn from the peat bogs of northern Europe, but our reponses to poetry are as personal as our choices of poems, and all I can do is honor the effort: 


Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

If you want to hear Heaney read the poem without musical accompaniment, click on this link. Some readers may only know Heaney from his translation of Beowulf, the audio version of which lent a note of mythic struggle to many of my morning commutes. Just about all of his books are in print, but I think the career retrospective Opened Ground is an ideal introduction to the man’s work.   
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