Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you. And so, my fellow graduates, make the world before you a better one by going into it with all boldness. You are up to it and you are fit for it; you deserve it and if you make your own best contribution, the world before you will become a bit more deserving of you.
~ From his remarks to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduates, May 12, 1996
I cannot adequately convey the inestimable impact of Seamus Heaney‘s words on my adult life. He has been with me every day for as long as I can remember, like a pulse, his words arranged to catch my heart off-guard and blow it open. I always imagined our paths would cross on the back-roads of South Derry, and I would be able to thank him for making me brave when I needed to be, for schooling me to love from afar the language and well-trodden lanes of Castledawson and Bellaghy, for “crediting marvels,” in the unlikeliest small things, and for inspiring me to set words down on a page, to light up this screen with them, so I might one day be able, “to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” But the opportunity eluded me.
Over the years, during the bad times, times of loss for friends and relatives, when I didn’t know what to say, I would turn to that pitch-perfect poetry and wrap up my condolences in Heaney’s words. When he died on this day four years ago, it occurred to me that only he would be capable of producing the right words to assuage Ireland’s sorrow over his passing. He always had the right word right when I needed it, when I found myself in “limbo land,” uncertain – Incertus – caught between Catholic and Protestant, a rock and a hard place, fear and wonder, magic and loss – between myth and reality. Like Van Morrison’s dweller on the threshold . . .
If you have the words . . . there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.
On this fourth anniversary of our poet’s death, I am drawn to the underworld and “The Underground,” one of my favorite poems, in which he evokes a honeymoon evening in London, he and his bride running down the corridor from the underground to the Royal Albert Hall. The London Underground becomes the Underworld, and Heaney is Orpheus, refusing to look back and therefore keeping his wife.
There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed
Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.
Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons
To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.
In the hours after Heaney’s death, we learned his final communication with this world was in the form of a text – just two words for his wife from his hospital bed. Noli Timere. Two words from an ancient world illuminating a dark space – “be not afraid.” Simple, spare, and forward-looking.
You are up to it and you are fit for it.
I find myself looking forward again. For that, I am forever in his debt.