I ate my first blackberries of the summer just a few days ago.
I’ve been eyeing them up in the hedgerow since the beginning of the month when they first started to ink up in small numbers, biding my time, waiting for the sweetness, the ripeness to set in.
Pausing on the path up Pennance hill to let someone pass, I saw them, seven, eight, maybe ten black blackberries on the edge of the field. Any thoughts of saving them for my picnic dessert evaporated as the first one hit my tongue, flooding my head with juices and flavours and purple stain, and re-drawing to the surface lines indelibly printed in the back of my mind:
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: the summer’s blood was in it
I was fourteen and I’d never heard of him. It was the end of the summer term, and having finished all our end of year exams we were in a sort of educational limbo between lower school and GCSEs. (But of course I didn’t know the word limbo yet, nor the ‘cold glitter’ and the spark of deep core grief-sadness I cannot dissociate from it.) So they gave us something to bridge the gap, a poem to look at such as we might get to study in the following school year. It was ‘Blackberry Picking’ by Seamus Heaney. I can’t remember what I made of it. I little knew then how many re-visitations it would receive, through school and beyond, so that half my lifetime later it’s ready to be reeled off at any appropriate blackberrying moment.
I remembered the poem when it reappeared a year or so later in the stapled sheets of copy that served as our text for a piece of English Lit coursework. It ran alongside ‘Death of a Naturalist’, ‘Digging’, and ‘Follower’ amongst others – including ‘Limbo’, which I didn’t fully understand but whose hooks I felt snagging at some unknown emotional part of me even then. We would read the poems round the class: a line each, a stanza each, and each reading to the next point of punctuation. There was an essay. I don’t recall what it was on but I think I got an A. Maybe even an A*. I’ve never read poetry the same since.
I’ve still got my Seamus Heaney: New Selected Poems 1966-1987 that was handed to me in the first week of A level English. I was probably supposed to have given it back in some time, maybe, oh ten years ago. Too late now. They wouldn’t want it back now anyway, covered as it is in annotations, pages folded down at the corners, battered spine and cover more than half off. We were a class of seven and our lessons ended up being long discussions that delved and deviated, almost always ending with the teacher realising we’d spent an hour on a single poem when we needed to have covered two or three. We snickered at sexual undercurrents, went off on tangents, learned more about 20th Century British history than we ever had in history class. Mrs Clayton cried reading ‘Mid Term Break’ aloud. We learned words like assonance and consonance and what exactly the bleb of an icicle really was. I began to perceived that through his poetry Heaney held up a magnifying glass to his subject, but in scrutinising each line, each stanza, we seemed to be seeing far beyond the close focus of his chosen words. I’d always enjoyed poetry, and appreciated its possibilities for saying something far larger than the equivalent word count in prose, but here was something I don’t think I’d really thought about: small poetry of the everyday, the local, the familiar, that spoke of the really big things, reaching back into history, deep into the past, out in political and philosophical angles I’d never dreamed of considering. I naturally gravitated towards Heaney’s ‘nature’ poems, but it was the way he used the natural world to delve into his personal and national identity and more general Irish history through his responses to Ireland’s physical landscapes that caught my eye. Literary critic John Carey wrote of Heaney that ‘he can make us understand that the outside world is not outside, but what we are made of’. It might be fair to say I’ve never read the same since, and not just words. Reading the natural world is always going to be somewhat intuitive.
It was some considerable time after this, and by a considerably circuitous route, that I found myself going round in circles with one of my first articles for my masters degree. I’d wangled my way at the last minute onto a course focusing on writing, nature and place, having applied on a whim after having seen the course title and thinking it might have been designed with me in mind. On the first day they gave us copies of our tutor’s nature writing magazine, an occasional literary anthology with a focus on nature and place. The first article of the first issue was a vignette by Seamus Heaney, followed hot on the heels by Derek Mahon, Michael Longley… If I weren’t studying this I’d be reading it and thinking how interesting, how much I would like to study this I thought. Once there I was less sure of myself, the imposter science student among the literature graduates. My article on holy islands, pilgrimage and wildness, which seemed like such a great idea when I planned it, had begun to shape up like a glorified guide book. I tried and failed to find Seamus Heaney’s Station Island poems in the library, only to discover them two-thirds of the way through my old school anthology on my own bookshelf.
You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures of your own frequency,
echo soundings, probes, allurements,
elver gleams in the dark of the whole sea.
(from ‘Station Island XII’)
And it worked.
I can’t claim to be grieved on a personal level when I heard of Seamus Heaney’s death today. I’ve never met him, seen him, heard him speak or even read as much of his work as I always intend to. However his literary presence has been with me in varying degrees throughout my own development as an amateur writer from my first forays into the reading of ‘grown up poetry’ to starting to work out where to go with my own work. Whether it is because I have had to read and study his work over several years that some of his beautiful truths have stuck between my teeth like bramble pips long after the blackberry’s been digested (hard to dislodge, impossible to ignore, and your can’t help but keep going back to them), or whether they have lodged there of their own merit I don’t know. I suspect it’s a bit of both.