Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One


Death of a Naturalist



Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner's bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

    Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy-headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window-sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst into nimble

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mint grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

    The Barn

Threshed corn lay piled like grit of ivory

Or solid as cement in two-lugged sacks.

The musky dark hoarded an armoury

Of farmyard implements, harness, plough-socks.

The floor was mouse-grey, smooth, chilly concrete.

There were no windows, just two narrow shafts

Of gilded motes, crossing, from air-holes slit

High in each gable. The one door meant no draughts

All summer when the zinc burned like an oven.

A scythe's edge, a clean spade, a pitchfork's prongs:

Slowly bright objects formed when you went in.

Then you felt cobwebs clogging up your lungs

And scuttled fast into the sunlit yard--

And into nights when bats were on the wing

Over the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared

From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking.

The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff

To be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits.

I lay face-down to shun the fear above.

The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats.


    for Philip Hobsbaum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun

For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.

At first, just one, a glossy purple clot

Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet

Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it

Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Picking. Then red ones inked tip and that hunger

Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills

We trekked and picked until the cans were full,

Until the tinkling bottom had been covered

With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned

Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered

With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre

But when the bath was filled we found a fur,

A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.

The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.

I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

    Churning Day

A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast,

hardened gradually on top of the four crocks

that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.

After the hot brewery of gland, cud and udder,

cool porous earthenware fermented the butter milk

for churning day, when the hooped churn was scoured

with plumping kettles and the busy scrubber

echoed daintily on the seasoned wood.

It stood then, purified, on the flagged kitchen floor.

Out came the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip

of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn.

The staff, like a great whiskey muddler fashioned

in deal wood, was plunged in, the lid fitted.

My mother took first turn, set up rhythms

that, slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached.

Hands blistered. Cheeks and clothes were spattered

with flabby milk.

Where finally gold flecks

began to dance. They poured hot water then,

sterilized a birchwood bowl

and little corrugated butter-spades.

Their short stroke quickened, suddenly

a yellow curd was weighting the churned-up white,

heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight

that they fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer,

heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl.

The house would stink long after churning day,

acrid as a sulphur mine. The empty crocks

were ranged along the wall again, the butter

in soft printed slabs was piled on pantry shelves.

And in the house we moved with gravid ease,

our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns,

the plash and gurgle of the sour-breathed milk,

the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.


My father worked with a horse-plough,

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow.

The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

The sod rolled over without breaking.

At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round

And back into the land. His eye

Narrowed and angled at the ground,

Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,

Fell sometimes on the polished sod;

Sometimes he rode me on his back

Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,

To close one eye, stiffen my arm.

All I ever did was follow

In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always. But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

    Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying--

He had always taken funerals in his stride--

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were `sorry for my trouble'.

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.

At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived

With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops

And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

    The Diviner

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck

Of water, nervous, but professionally

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.

The rod jerked with precise convulsions.

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green hazel its secret stations.

The bystanders would ask to have a try.

He handed them the rod without a word.

It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,

He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.


    for Marie

Love, I shall perfect for you the child

Who diligently potters in my brain

Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled

Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.

Yearly I would sow my yard-long garden.

I'd strip a layer of sods to build the wall

That was to keep out sow and pecking hen.

Yearly, admitting these, the sods would fall.

Or in the sucking clabber I would splash

Delightedly and dam the flowing drain

But always my bastions of clay and mush

Would burst before the rising autumn rain.

Love, you shall perfect for me this child

Whose small imperfect limits would keep breaking:

Within new limits now, arrange the world

And square the circle: four walls and a ring.

    Personal Helicon

    for Micheal Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.

I savoured the rich crash when a bucket

Plummeted down at the end of a rope.

So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch

Fructified like any aquarium.

When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch

A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it. And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.


When I lie on the ground

I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.

In fights I arrange a fall on the ring

To rub myself with sand

That is operative

As an elixir. I cannot be weaned

Off the earth's long contour, her river-veins.

Down here in my cave

Girdered with root and rock

I am cradled in the dark that wombed me

And nurtured in every artery

Like a small hillock.

Let each new hero come,

Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:

He must wrestle with me before he pass

Into that realm of fame

Among sky-born and royal.

He may well throw me and renew my birth

But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,

My elevation, my fall.

Copyright © 1998 Seamus Heaney. All rights reserved.