For World Poetry Day 2016.
The freedom and the lovely uselessness of poetry is its whole point.
~ Leontia Flynn
My parents were raised in rural County Derry, in Heaney country, where they learned to be thrifty and resourceful, and also – when all else failed – to believe in the mystical powers of “folk healers,” those individuals uniquely gifted with “the cure” or “the charm” for whatever ailed us. Consulted only after it was determined that they had flummoxed the medical doctor, the folk healer meted out charms in all forms – plasters, poultices, and in brown bottles. It was to such a man my father once turned after the local doctor told my mother there was nothing he could prescribe for her bout with jaundice. Dissatisfied with this from a man with formal medical training and a string of letters after his name, my father went deep into the Derry countryside to visit the man with “the charm.”
Observant and eager to help, my father accompanied him into the fields, but he was of no use at all in discerning which wild herbs held the curing powers. Thus, he watched and then waited in a tiny kitchen as the healer wordlessly concocted the charm. With a stone, he beat the juices from the herbs then mixed in two bottles of Guinness stout. He poured it into a Cantrell and Cochrane lemonade bottle and sent da on his way with instructions for my mother to drink every last drop. No payment. Just faith that it would work a healing magic.
I used to be skeptical of the faith healer but not of the faith at work in the transaction. In crisis, when all else fails, we might try anything. When conventional wisdom seems foolish, and the right words are in hiding, where can we go?
Not Google, I wish I could say, but after being diagnosed with cancer, I spent as much time on the Internet researching all the worst case scenarios as I did staring down a cursor that blinked on a blank Word document. A conspiracy began. Between us, the winking cursor and me, we would maybe find some words to help me adjust to my altered life. Everywhere else I found only no sense – nonsense. The words that fell from the lips of physicians and friends and people who love me, sent me scrambling into a frightening encounter with my mortality. It began with the fast and furious flurry of euphemisms about my inner fortitude. There was also silence, from those who were frustrated by not having the “right” words and crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing. There were friends and family who, unafraid and angry on my behalf, jumped in, took charge, and said the “wrong” thing anyway, made worse because I lacked the right words to explain why. I suppose it was around this time that I understood how Van Morrison’s “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart” speaks volumes. Thus,in protest,I began talking to myself, struggling to catch the best words to present my altered life, hoping to save them in a jam-jar with holes poked in the lid, knowing I would need them down the road.
The cancer had invaded my lexicon, and I could no longer count on my words. “Staging” would never again conjure only the theater and the cheap seats in the ‘gods’ at the Grand Opera House in Belfast; “fog” I would now attach to a state of cognitive loss rather than a misty morning in a Van Morrison song or the cloud that often obscures parts of Pacific Coast Highway as we head north in the summertime; “cure” no more the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a confounding and elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon; “Mets” was not just the other New York baseball team but a tragic abbreviation for metastatic breast cancer from which no one survives yet of all the millions of dollars raised for breast cancer research in this country, only 2% of it is directed to metastatic breast cancer. Even “sentinel,” which had been reserved, until cancer came calling, for a lonely cormorant perched on a post in the sleepy edges of Morro Bay was transformed, now the first node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor. “Infusion” was something done to olive oil to transform it into a gourmet gift, but because I had turned left instead of right upon leaving my oncologist’s office one day, I found myself on the threshold of the infusion suite, a room I didn’t even know was there. Feeling as though I had intruded, I fled. But not before I had registered a row of faces of people who were sicker than I. In one microscopic moment, I made eye contact with a woman and wondered if perhaps she was cold because, as I turned away, I noted a quilt on her lap. I turned away.
Inarticulate and stunned by what the cancer was doing to the efficacy of words – in need of a charm – I rediscovered County Down poet Damian Gorman. Trapped in cancer land, I found myself remembering the bombs, bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” that were part of 1980s Northern Ireland as far less deadly than the “devices of detachment” my people used to distance ourselves from it –
“I’ve come to point the finger
I’m rounding on my own
The decent cagey people
I count myself among …
We are like rows of idle hands
We are like lost or mislaid plans
We’re working under cover
We’re making in our homes
Devices of detachment
As dangerous as bombs.”
When people ask me what it was like growing up in that place at that time – hoping to understand “The Troubles” – I direct them not to some digital archive that chronicles what has happened in Northern Ireland since August 1969, but to “Devices of Detachment.” And in October, when I am pummeled by pink, it is to this charm that I turn. And when people die, and I don’t know what to say to bring any comfort to their loved ones, my condolences will come wrapped up in a Seamus Heaney poem – the right words at the right time.
When Heaney died, I remember wondering which living poet would have the right words, knowing that only Heaney himself would be capable of composing the condolences to assuage Ireland’s collective sorrow over his passing. I could not imagine the landscape of my lovely, tragic homeland without him. Heaney had scored my life with poems about hanging clothes on the line and ironing, about biycyle riding or blackberry picking and of potato-peeling at the kitchen sink with his mother when “all the others were away at Mass.” Sitting at my kitchen table, in Phoenix, Arizona, a lifetime away from Anahorish, my mother once recalled him as a young man with sandy hair, riding his bicycle around Castledawson. He would probably be pleased that her recollection of him is less as renowned Nobel Laureate and more “a son of Paddy Heaney’s.”
When I open a picture book to see the complete and smiling family of which I once was a part, I break my own heart – again – and then I turn to Heaney. I start remembering. The process confounds me. I don’t know when my husband died. I only know he was pronounced dead at 1:10PM on November 15th. Posing for a photograph with Barry Devlin at the forge on the other side of The Door into The Dark, holding in my hands the anvil that made the sweeter sound, then striking it, I imagine a shower of sparks and wonder if it was at that very moment on November 15th that Ken died, alone and in our Phoenix home.
There is something soothing – and right-seeming – in believing I was maybe within Seamus Heaney’s spiritual field for just that moment and in knowing I would return to the desert with my daughter to do what we were fit for – to “take up the strain of the long tailed pull of grief.”
I have marked that time only twice, enough for it to be considered an annual ritual in the ‘un-learning’ of November. Every year, forever, on the anniversary of his death, I know I will turn over the details and hold on to what I imagine was Ken’s last moment on earth. A friend from back home tells me this is “an Irish thing,” that this kind of thinking is sewn tidily into my DNA. Once, over a cup of tea with her, we realized we do not know when we learned these rituals, or if they were explicitly taught to us.
Somehow, we just know to mark the time of death; we know to stop our clocks and wrist-watches at that hour. We know to cover the mirrors, draw the blinds, and close the curtains. We know that we know what to do when led silently up into the room where the deceased has been “laid out”; how to pay our respects in private and in public; how to offer sympathies over china cups of tea balanced on saucers that bear digestive biscuits; when to bring plates of sandwiches cut in triangles, all manner of cakes, and tray-bakes; we know to shake hands and when the time is right to whisper or cry or even to laugh as we enjoy a bit of craic about lives lived in full.
Of the stories I tell about the days after Ken died, the one that affects me most, because it left no doubt of who I am is the one about Frank, the tall neighbor who came into my parent’s Castledawson house and waited in their living room until he could shake my hand and tell me he was very “sorry for my trouble.” A man like Big Jim Evans in Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” After all these years so far away, I never imagined someone would say those words to me. In retrospect, they were the only words that mattered.
A reporter once asked me if I thought you had to be Irish to appreciate Seamus Heaney’s poetry. The way she asked it suggested she was unfamiliar with his work. Still, I responded inadequately. I meant to tell her that in the crucible of Heaney’s poetry, she would no doubt find herself represented along with everyone else; she would find “the music of what happens” then and now; she would find not what it means to be Irish, but all that it means to be human and searching, always searching – digging. She would find the charm.
Post Script by Seamus Heaney
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown, headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.
~ And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.