I recently thought of an Alan Bennet’s quote, which I first came across in a column by Laura Barton, music writer at The Guardian: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” The reason for that moment of reflection? Seamus Heaney.
The Irish poet, who died in 2013, left behind an extensive and rich body of work. Yet, I had never “got” Seamus. No matter how many articles and essays I read, including a nostalgia-tinted eulogy by his fellow poet and long-time admirer, Andrew Motion, I failed to connect with his poems.
Until “his hand came out and took mine” some years ago. We had our annual Christmas Bazaar at my school at the time which, as a fund-raising opportunity, always delivered the goods. This time I was put in charge of the teddies’ tombola. Next to me was the “second-hand bookshop” stall. During one of our breaks I nipped over for a quick browse and left with a copy of Contemporary British Poetry. And which author was the first one to be featured? Our Seamus.
There was a lot of tidying-up to do so I copped off later than usual. By the time I got home it was dark. With my bike still outside and my helmet on, I read the first poem in the collection.
Reader, I married Seamus Heaney that night. And no, I don’t care that I am nicking from and misquoting Charlotte. Figurative language should leave no feelings of shame or embarrassment. The first three lines of Churning Day have stuck with me since: 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.
I thought of the hand that was being offered to me that evening. I took it. I dared not hesitate, nor reject it. The fullness of those three lines hit me like a heavyweight boxer’s uppercut in my sternum. They spoke not only of the alchemy-like process of making butter in a farm. They became melodic madeleines that took me back to the Havana of my childhood. No, we didn’t make butter at home. But we did do our washing on a Saturday and called out to our neighbours who lived in the flat below ours to warn them that our clothes might drip a bit and “would it be all right if they could put out their washing after?”. Of course, we would let them know when we were done. The delight of feeling this connection with a culture — the Irish — that is as strange to mine as mine is to it is the familiarity Seamus’ verses breed. Churning Day was not the only poem of his that made me feel this way but it is the one that has stayed with me the longest.
Connection, familiarity. These feelings are the advantages of middle age. It is a theory of mine and mine only, but there is a lack of rush and abundance of patience as we cross the threshold of our mature years. We stop and look more. I am not in the habit of chasing after the latest bestseller or the newest music releases. It is almost a rule by which I live my life that the more people hype up an author or musician, the less I want to know about their work.
The literature I read, the music I listen to, the art I enjoy, they all come from a similar place: closeness, intimacy. I want to believe that Churning Day was written for me. In fact, I believe it was. Poems like this nuzzle up to your ribs. They fill the space in which you are.
In times of ugliness, as the ones I believe we have been living through recently, I take refuge in art, be it literature or cinema. Art connects me to other human beings, hopefully less interested in pussy-grabbing and keener on in bridge-building. Art knows no boundaries, arrives unbidden and undemanding. But once you acquaint yourself with it, it asks to be fed. Your brain, it wants your brain, your full attention, your senses, your feelings and emotions. Seamus showed me this that evening. I did not “get” him at first because I was looking for him. Sometimes it is better to let that which we are trying to understand, find you instead. Even if it means that your house will “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.” As for my hand, that night it felt a bit greasy. It must have been the butter.