Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

Seamus Heaney

  • Back to the Source

    spring falling down a scree
    A spring along the Linn trail in Ayrshire

    I am reading Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations, a paperback first published in 1985. Some of it was later reproduced in Finders Keepers in 2002, particularly the essays Mossbawn and the very timely Belfast, which recalls what it was like to live there at the height of the Troubles (how can we think of those days returning?), but some of the writing on Wordsworth, Yeats and Hopkins was new to me. I find that I don’t agree as much with Heaney as I thought I did, but he made me look again at the source of my poetry, and it has helped me clarify a few of the ideas swirling round in the back of my head. It has been a grounding experience, in more ways than one.

    Reading this kind of thing is a very different experience now that I have written enough poetry to have an informed opinion about the writing process. I am struck by how Heaney divides poets and poems into separate and opposing camps – poets of thought and poets of sensation, poems which seem to arrive as naturally as giving birth, and those which are forged and designed, poems which seduce and invite surrender, those which impose and convince. There is a masculine-feminine dichotomy going on in these essays, without value judgements or preferences, but clearly defined – feminine is going within, becoming inspired, responding passively to the vision granted, masculine is being captivated from without, shaping and designing.

    In the ‘feminine’ style, we aren’t talking simply about the innately gifted genius who produces without effort – it’s work, alright, but the Rilkean work on your life to get your ego out of the way and let the poem happen. And it isn’t simply about mastery in the ‘masculine’ – the effort is to liberate rather than dominate. But try as I might, I don’t get this. It doesn’t reflect my writing experience at all. The preoccupation of some writers with analysing the disparate ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ sides of their work and personality seems to me to be a very male thing. A woman, who frankly, has to take any writing life she can get, is more likely to think about being her ‘self’ – whatever that may be.

    Breaking Through Gravel
    for Deborah
    My Muses have nine children.
    They go mad, lose their jobs,
    live on rolled oats and vegetables.
    That’s how they write. In three languages,
    in trains, in kitchens, in libraries,
    on the back seat of the bus. They write
    about sex and history and fairy tales,
    the shape of a sonnet, splitting the atom,
    where the rent is coming from. Their lives
    are made of food, and soap, and meetings with strangers,
    the family china, slammed doors, a child’s stamped foot,
    the hurt silence, the stolen kiss,
    the need to write.
    The art of women is not a quest, like the whale,
    but salvage from a storm of perplexity.
    It is unlicensed, defiant, pervasive
    and inevitable as starlight,
    or the trajectory of the lily of the valley
    disregarding gravel, and breaking the tarmac
    with unapologetic, overwhelming joy.

    From the sequence Eurydice Rising, published in Wherever We Live Now

    Going ‘within’ does not seem to give me ‘vision’ or a hidden life. It is more like a gathering of strength which helps me pay attention to the world, rather than battering off the walls like a demented bluebottle, less like revealing secrets than being plugged into the mains. Considering the world ‘without’ is not to be inspired by something I must shape and master, but entering a conversation with what’s around me. Shaping a poem is more like a housewifely cherishing than forging steel. Writing, for me, is a more mutual and integrated, less polarised process than either style Heaney talks about, but this does not mean it is necessarily less strong or subtle, or on a smaller scale. It depends not on being seduced by or mastering my inspiration, but on being grounded.

    a vase of autumn flowers and berries
    rudbeckia and rosehips

  • Half a Hundred Herbs Week 45 – Hawthorn

    terrnov 016There is a belt of trees on the riverbank. Some of them are covered with ivy and intertwined with wild roses:

    terrnov 015At this time of year they are a magnificent sight. There are blackbirds and thrushes most of the year round, chaffinches, robins and wrens, and most of the time the magpies jackdaws and rooks hang about there too, watching for food opportunities in the fields around. And any day now, the winter birds – waxwings redwings and fieldfares will be joining them from northern parts.

    But hawthorn isn’t just good for wildlife. It is one of the most iconic trees in the herbals – only elder can come close for folklore references, and I think on the whole, that the hawthorn has it. They are the fairy trees of legend, and there are many roads in Ireland with an inconvenient kink in them so as not to take down particularly significant thorn bushes. If you sleep under thorn bushes the fairies may gain power over you – perhaps the famous Eildon Tree where Thomas the Rhymer met the fairy queen was a hawthorn? They are often planted at the boundaries of property – perhaps because they grow so quickly, perhaps because the thorns are a pretty good deterrent. It was a rite of passage one summer in my childhood to push through or jump over all the hawthorn hedges in front of all the houses in our street, disregarding the scratches and the irate neighbours, but those hedges were mostly clipped very short and neat. The ones that had been neglected were a different proposition.

    The tree is one of the first in leaf and the flowers are the high point of late spring, a rising tide of foam on the eye-popping green. You aren’t supposed to bring them into the house, because they bring death and misfortune, (Mrs Grieve says they were believed to smell of the Plague, others associated it with TB especially in Ireland where the disease was common) but you can hang them over the cowshed to protect the milk. In Northern Ireland a hawthorn globe made of the berries can be hung on a house to protect from fire and lightning (maybe this is Seamus Heaney’s haw lantern?). Not a tree to be messed with.

    The leaves are edible – children used to put them between bread and butter, and they must have been a good fresh bite of vitamin C in early spring. The berries are edible, too, though you are supposed to let them ‘blet’ like medlars before the taste is worth having. I’ve seen recipes for hawthorn chutney and fruit leather too.

    Medicinally, however, hawthorn is very significant. Tincture from the berries is said to be good for the heart, for the circulation and for kidney troubles. I’ve seen it recommended for Raynaud’s syndrome mood, swings, restlessness and even ADHD. And Mrs Grieve says the timber is good for small articles, having a fine grain and taking a good polish. Better ask the fairies for permission first, I should think!

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