Seamus Heaney died today. I found out just before dinner, and sat in an armchair clutching Death of a Naturalist and dripping melancholy into my tomato soup.
I fell in love with Heaney on a cold October. Arriving home work-frazzled and chilly, I sent Tim off to his meeting, folded the laundry and then sat myself up in bed with a stack of books. I found a tiny copy of Death of a Naturalist, opened it up, and read ‘Digging’. He was good. Oh heavens, he was astonishing. I read ‘St Francis and the Birds’ aloud three times in a row, that joyful perfect little thing, and couldn’t tell why it was lovely but knew it unquestionably was.
For my birthday a couple of years later, I was pregnant with Henry, and had just come out of morning sickness. We went out for dinner, and to see Dr Faustus being performed in the basement of Blackwell’s Bookshop, in Oxford. Evenings like that feel like they were invented with my head in mind. Blissful. In the half-hour before the play started, we were allowed to browse the bookshop – when it was closed! Like it had opened just for us! – and I went around trying to think of a book that would be special, that would remind me of the twilit perfection of this evening, with Timothy and the promise of this new baby and Dr Faustus leaping around on bookshelves. I found Heaney’s collection Open Ground, and it fitted the occasion just right.
‘Digging’ is about parents and sons and grandparents, inheritance and inadequacy and forging on into new uncertain paths. I never read it without wanting to take what I love doing and make something of it. I might never get anywhere with writing – the audience for baby-sick stories is surely limited – but ‘Digging’ makes me think that I have a pen, so I could have a go.
I read it to Henry this evening. He was excited by the mention of potatoes.
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.
I’ve no spade to follow men like you, Mr Heaney, but with all my heart I thank you for making me want to try.