N is for North

Seamus Heaney has a great poet name. My friend who sometimes says she doesn’t like poetry has really good taste in poetry. Currently she’s carrying around Heaney’s collection North, and I wish I could repeat for you, word for word, what she said about choosing this particular book from the poetry stacks at the Coolidge Corner Library, because it was an awesome description of the weird and glorious (mostly glorious) variety of ways we all choose what to read. My friend’s been reading the poems aloud to herself in a strange accent and I totally failed to get her to read them to me (she tells me I didn’t try and she would have done it. Damn it) but I did read a couple out loud myself, and they’re gorgeous. So’s Seamus Heaney:

Older Seamus

Young Seamus










Also gorgeous — these poems:



I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly
those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,
those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams
were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue
was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,
the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.
It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Bone Dreams


White bone found
on the grazing:
the rough, porous
language of touch

and its yellowing, ribbed
impression in the grass—
a small ship-burial.
As dead as stone,

flint-find, nugget
of chalk,
I touch it again,
I wind it in

the sling of mind
to pitch it at England
and follow its drop
to strange fields.


a skeleton
in the tongue’s
old dungeons.

I push back
through dictions,
Elizabethan canopies.
Norman devices,

the erotic mayflowers
of Provence
and the ivied latins
of churchmen

to the scop’s
twang, the iron
flash of consonants
cleaving the line.


In the coffered
riches of grammer
and declensions
I found ban-hus,

its fire, benches,
wattle and rafters,
where the soul
fluttered a while

in the roofspace.
There was a small crock
for the brain,
and a cauldron

of generation
swung at the centre:
love-den, blood-holt,


Come back past
philology and kennings,
re-enter memory
where the bone’s lair

is a love-nest
in the grass.
I hold my lady’s head
like a crystal

and ossify myself
by gazing: I am screes
on her escarpments,
a chalk giant

carved upon her downs.
Soon my hands, on the sunken
fosse of her spine
move towards the passes.


And we end up
cradling each other
between the lips
of an earthwork.

As I estimate
for pleasure
her knuckles’ paving,
the turning stiles

of the elbows,
the vallum of her brow
and the long wicket
of collar-bone,

I have begun to pace
the Hadrian’s Wall
of her shoulder, dreaming
of Maiden Castle.


One morning in Devon
I found a dead mole
with the dew still beading it.
I had thought the mole

a big-boned coulter
but there it was
small and cold
as the thick of a chisel.

I was told ‘Blow,
blow back the fur on his head.
Those little points
were the eyes.

And feel the shoulders.’
I touched small distant Pennines,
a pelt of grass and grain
running south.

Seamus Heaney


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