by George Kalogeris
Snow was falling fast and the poet was late
For his class in Emerson Hall, where I sat on a bench,
Without a Harvard ID or a poem to my name,
But as wildly anxious as those swirling flurries
Were holding him back—Oh fast as the falling snow
Was trying to let me know, if I caught its frantic,
Counter-clockwise drift, that poetry always
Came slow. Slow as the snowflakes melting fast
Into Seamus Heaney’s smarting, congenial eyes,
Three decades ago. So long for what I saw
To thaw into seeing things as they were at the start,
In winter light. Those open plain-spoken dilations,
Where nothing’s beneath regard: like mint that sprouts up
Fresh by some backyard trash. Near bottles a boy
Might blow a tune on. A tune for the morning dew
On the redolent tongue of the mint. Like that sprig of basil
My father would dip in a glass of faucet water,
And bless the rooms of our house on Sunday mornings,
Sprinkling our faces awake, and just in time
To see him pass down the hallway, chanting softly—
As if everything was already struck by the gleam
Of its lachrymae rerum spell. Till I’m shaken again
By a Rainstick from Epidaurus. Those blades of wet,
Aesclepian grass you sent to friends with cancer.
No healing balm for the stricken, but your poem
Strikes home, a blessing still fresh as the glitter-flick
Of a basil sprig, first thing on Sunday morning.
You were the one for shape-notes, Seamus, as sharply
Etched as the veering mark your skates could make
In a frozen lake, and each verse riding the previous
One for all its rebuffed worth; and the reel
Of it as utterly sheer and sure and maybe
Even as gravely scored as skidding Wordsworth
Stopping the orbiting world at Windermere.
Until today. When I heard the appalling news.
And the sound went off by itself when they played your voice.
Then I opened your book, and read the first thing in it:
Digging. And saw your face turn white as a sheet
Of mist in Anahorish, where those mound-dwellers
Go to break the light ice at wells and dunghills.
White as a sheet of mist in Anahorish.
White as the whitethorn hedges. But you don’t wake,
Glaze-eyed still by your place of clear water.
Centripetal ripples that start and stop at your mother
Peeling potato skins, as the galvanized bucket
Of gleaming water brims. Your breath in hers.
Mirror whose luster no posthumous tremors can shatter.
And later, like Chekhov drinking vodka at parties
(One sober eye still focused on Sákhalin,
Conducting check-ups on the skeletal convicts)
You saw right through the suck-ups, Seamus, as clear
As the half-empty glass in your hand. Now you thirst to drink
The blood that will let you speak, as you circulate
Down there, among the bloodless, brogueless throngs.
Like Hardy face to face with the witless herd.
And gleaning what from all that Orient wheat?
The dark impalpable off the husk unspeakable?
Call it the government, aye, of the tongue dispossessed.
Not tract. Not tact. Or Pasternak steeped in luck.
But plenty of Magi for every Mojave, your guide
To the Gulag might chant, if he could, between slow drags.
Sardonic pinpoints of light, unflinching as Joseph’s
Unfiltered Camel, affirm the darkness visible.
And now just Derek, last shipmate left in the craft,
Repeating how you heard the opening lines
Of Schooner Flight in the meter of Piers Ploughman.
Strophes follow the turned-up rows of the plough,
Rhythm the ring of the anvil, and in deep guffaws
Ocean’s furrows extend the wake of their sun-crops:
Omeros, telling the Chinese waiter: “Oh,
And Sweeney Astray would like some water-cress, please…”
Another oar to plant at Elpenor’s grave.
Last night it was Fed-Ex, the silhouette first to my dream-step
Door. Then my grocer father, trundling towards me
Fruit as black as the wares of your Belfast coalman.
O naked soul, cast out as commanded, on stark
Dawn roads, as the old books say, and the seabirds cry—
Is it like what you wrote: the wallstead bare, and cold
The hearth wind and rain rains into. And same-old same-old
Shaving cuts. Till the beggar stands, ashiver
In puddles of his own unregenerate clay?
And the paralytic lifted by friends to be lowered
Into the unroofed stare of the stanza’s house.
But not to take up his settle bed and walk.
And you the one skeptical of lyric skylights,
But not of the rancid, phosphorescent glisten
Of rat-poison spread across the outhouse roof.
The cell. The nest. And the open palm of St. Kevin’s
Outstretched arm, as if only excruciating
Patience secured the next brood of fledgling bards.
Closed lids. Keening voices. Darkling bright
As the bottom of Keenan’s well, or the daylight eyes
Of that blind musician, your neighbor Rosie Keenan.
And those spotless swans, unruffled as yon blackbird;
And nowhere if not adrift on the Flaggy Shore,
At County Clare, where they copulate in the poems,
Their headstrong, numbered heads a factory
For churning out milk all night—no purer than
That vacant lot’s fluorescent glare. Out back
Of the GAA club, and via hose-water splashing
Back off the asphalt, you sing through surging lines
That keep a murdered friend’s blood indelible.
All-too familial miasma. Greek mountain roads
Where a lorry overturned, and loads of apples
Went splattering under Dimitri Hadzi’s tires,
The axles greased by juicy flesh as you
Drove through the Arcadia my parents knew
By the riddled walls of whitewashed stucco houses.
Polluted wells with their brackish, tribal smells.
And if your forehead should flinch from the leafy glint
Of camouflaged guns at checkpoints, is it the windshield’s
Polished reflections flowing back into your free,
Obedient state of image and allusion?
Say the open fist is warm as an open hearth—
Do the coins of guilt still burn your palms like stove-lids?
Think generous tears, as bogwater uncongeals
At break of day—the buried slab of butter
Preserved in its salted banks, like the black-tarred flesh
You glossed from P.V. Glob, in the age of pipe-bombs.
Out of the marvelous he mistrusted enough
To never be dazzled by his own mistrust
The snowflakes are melting into Seamus Heaney’s eyes:
The tinker’s crystalline tree of glancing tin cans
Forged on a midnight anvil. Whose diamond absolute
Wince-and-sing is the heart unwilling to harden.
But also just one more mundane, guarded face
The hailstones keep pelting—unruly as Eddie Diamond’s
Unstingable hands, foraging deep in the nettles.
And me still trying to worm my way into the Poetry
Workshop… Okay, okay, I see, goes his
Good-humored, exasperated shade. But sit
In the back. And don’t ask questions. At least for some weeks.
Then he stamps off snow from his parka, his hooded face
Like one of the laboring dead in Dante. But first
That stack of books he’s lugging is gently set down
On the bench, to rest his arm. And since the books
Are also covered in snow, a glimmering square
Of defrosting water darkens the grainy wood
As my guide picks up the volumes he vanishes into.
Cover image of Seamus Heaney’s portrait by Colin Davidson, 2013. Via
About the Author:
George Kalogeris is the author of Dialogos: Paired Poems in Translation (Antilever, 2012) and of a book of poems, Camus: Carnets (Pressed Wafer, 2006).