Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

As I clawed my way free of the grip of Modernism early in my literary life, Seamus Heaney was one of the first post-Modern, contemporary poets whose work I fell in love with the moment I began reading it. Heaney died today in Dublin at the age of 74. As fellow Irish poet Michael Longley said today, “I feel like I’ve lost a brother and there are tens of thousands of people today who will be feeling personally bereaved…”

I write a lot about “connections” — how archaeology connects us through our shared human heritage, but also how one can discover unexpected connections with a beloved poet. Having cast aside the New Criticism of the Modernists, I fully embrace the power that a sense of personal connection brings to the reading of poetry.

And yet, any sense of personal connection to Heaney was always tangential at best. I bought my copy of Human Chain at a bookstore in Dublin a block away from Trinity College, and I harbored a brief, secret hope that I would run into the poet taking a walk in St. Stephen’s Green. Earlier, I picked up District and Circle in London. In other words, my only connection to Seamus Heaney in life was through my purchase history — not really the stuff of inspiration.

What, then, about Heaney’s poetry do I find so personally attractive? It’s simple, really — and more than a little obvious, if you’ve read anything I’ve written: It’s the words.

Watch this beautiful compilation from footage over the years of Seamus Heaney reading his iconic ars poetica “Digging.”

Though I can assure you that the influence was entirely unconscious, astute readers will observe a straight line from “Digging” to my own “Waiting for Work to Begin” (which I wrote more than a decade after I first read Heaney).

There is an inevitable shared language among poets of the Pacific Northwest and of Ireland. From W.B. Yeats to William Stafford and from Seamus Heaney to myself, we set our poetry against the same backdrop of wind and rain, of moss and soil. We flit back and forth between the city and the wilderness; the interplay between fellow humans figures as prominently in our work as the balance between ourselves and the natural world around us.

Yeats, Joyce, MacNeice, Roethke, Stafford, Hugo, Wagoner, Kinsella, Longley, Heaney, Muldoon, and so many more — perhaps there is a “green” school of poetry that spans centuries, literary movements, and continents. If there is such a school of poets, count me among them.

Newgrange – sunlight in Neolithic darkness

Despite two business trips to Ireland in the past three years, I hadn’t ever left Dublin when I headed there again this past June for a third time. I swore I wouldn’t make that mistake again, so booked transportation in advance to get out of the city and see a bit of Ireland’s deeper past. My goal was the Brú na Bóinne complex of megalithic monuments in County Meath, about 45 minutes north of Dublin. The centerpiece of this complex is Newgrange, a passage tomb dating from 3,200 BCE — 500 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Like pilgrims more than 5,000 years ago, my first view of Newgrange came between the trees, atop its hill across the River Boyne. Of course, I was standing in the quite modern Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre, but the effect was still awe-inspiring.

Newgrange across the Boyne

I waited for my assigned time slot (tours of Newgrange are only available through the Visitors Centre) and walked across the river to the shuttle bus stop, pausing on the bridge to look downriver, the Boyne meandering toward the Irish Sea. It began to rain.

Boyne

The edifice dominates the hill Newgrange stands on, overlooking the Boyne valley with dozens of smaller unexcavated tombs dotting farmers’ fields below. (The reconstructed exterior is somewhat controversial — did Neolithic builders have the technology to create that white vertical wall? — though what’s visible today uses all original materials.) The front of the mound is faced by a circle of standing stones that cast shadows on the entrance at key times of the year.

Newgrange and standing stones

One of the most impressive — and photographed — external features of Newgrange is the entrance stone, carved with abstract designs such as swirls and lozenges. In the Neolithic, the stone forced ancient visitors to climb over to cross the threshold into the sacred space within. Modern visitors are afforded wooden stairs (replete with metal handrails for “health and safety”).

Entrance stone at Newgrange

Photography isn’t allowed inside. This sketch from 1903 gives a sense of the passage’s general dimensions, with the main chamber at the end.

Newgrange cross-section

As I stepped inside, the passage floor twisted upward toward the chamber. After squeezing past stones crushed out of alignment in their walls by the pressure from 5,000 years of the mound’s weight above, I stood in the chamber. Looking up, lines of corbelled stones stepped steeply upward toward the the vaulted ceiling in the darkness.

Each Winter Solstice, the rising sun shines through an opening above the entrance and illuminates the chamber. A rainy mid-afternoon in mid-June doesn’t have quite the same light, but thanks to a little modern technology (and just a hint of blarney from our guide), I stood in the interior of a 5,000-year-old passage tomb and saw light creep across the floor and touch the rear of the chamber as it did so long ago.

It was easy to imagine how celebrants must have felt in 3,200 BCE — that connection between something we humans have made and the nature with which we’re all still a part. But there’s also a deep sense of disconnection with that past, emphasized by one little piece of information I learned as the guide talked there in the dark with a halogen light shining up the tunnel.

The sun doesn’t shine exactly on the back of the chamber. It would be easy to dismiss this little fact as a lack of precision on the part of the Neolithic engineers or astronomers who designed Newgrange. In reality, the earth itself has shifted enough on its axis over the past 5,200 years that the passage and chamber are no longer aligned with the sun. The structure is so ancient that changes in the order of the universe itself have misaligned Newgrange from the Winter Solstice sun.

We have no idea what the carvings in and around Newgrange mean. We have no idea if it was even built as a tomb, or (quite probably) some type of solar observatory connected to religious faith. Despite all we’ve learned of their material culture and environment, the builders of Newgrange remain effectively a mystery. Nothing emphasizes this more than the failure of light from our sun to illuminate the modern darkness inside Newgrange the way it did in the Neolithic.

Axial precession will bring Newgrange back into alignment with the Winter Solstice in another 21,000 years. Will Newgrange still be standing? Will we still be around to find out?

In the footsteps of James Joyce and Leopold Bloom

Bloomsday week in DublinMy favorites of Dublin’s many layers are those that bring to life its rich literary history. Today is Bloomsday, when the strata laid down by James Joyce come to light all across the city (in the photo on the right, banners for Bloomsday on O’Connell Street).

A full day at work followed by dinner with business partners from New Zealand precluded any participation in Bloomsday — a genuine disappointment, so perhaps I can embrace Philip Larkin’s source of inspiration.

Nevertheless, I’ve found myself following Joyce and Bloom all week long, and indeed earlier during my two previous visits in August 2008 and February this year.

My flight arrived early enough that my hotel room wasn’t ready, so I headed north on Grafton Street (“gay with housed awnings”), across the O’Connell Bridge, briefly into the General Post Office, then onto the James Joyce Centre. The museum preserves the front door of Number 7 Eccles Street, where Joyce’s friend J.F. Byrne lived in 1904 and which Joyce used as the home of Leopold and Molly Bloom in the novel.

Leopold Bloom's front door

Jetlag began to catch up with me as I finished the exhibits, so I took the offer of a free lecture at the Joyce Centre to hear a great deal about Phoenix Park that I’d never have learned otherwise. It’s now on my list of places to visit next time I’m in Dublin.

South on O’Connell Street, past Trinity College and the old Irish Houses of Parliament (already the Bank of Ireland in 1904), and back toward the hotel on aching feet…

The next afternoon, I headed north on Grafton Street again, but turned right onto Duke Street, where Davy Byrnes Pub exists in all its nonfictional glory.

Davy Byrnes - "Moral pub."

He entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.

There were far more mouthwatering options on the contemporary menu, but I set aside my disdain for tourist behavior and ordered the gorgonzola sandwich.

Leopold Bloom's gorgonzola sandwich

Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.

As much as I missed doing something symbolically Joycean on Bloomsday itself, I realized that Ulysses is everywhere, all the time in modern Dublin, and the real Dublin suffuses Ulysses on every page. An evening in a Dublin restaurant with Antipodean colleagues may have been no less “Joycean” than turning the rusty knob of Leopold Bloom’s front door or eating bread topped with overwhelmingly green cheese.

You can see a more complete photo tour of Joyce and Bloom’s Dublin by Tony Thwaites of the University of Queensland, to whom I’m indebted for some of my own after-the-fact details and choice Ulysses quotes.

To Dublin, for Bloomsday!

Work takes me to Dublin again in two weeks. As it so happens, I’ll be there for Bloomsday, when the city celebrates Ulysses, James Joyce, and Irish literature in general.

James Joyce statue - Dublin

I’m not sure how much time I’ll be able to spend outside work, but Bloomsday is a weeklong event (centered on June 16th, of course), so I’m looking forward to fitting in as much Joycean goodness as I can.

Charles Darwin on grandeur

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” – final paragraph of The Origin Of Species

Swans in St. Stephen's Green

These swans in St. Stephen’s Green are of course just one form “most beautiful and most wonderful” descended from dinosaurs.