I wake up in an unfamiliar unfamiliar unfamiliar unfamiliar with a light sweat that suggests I had on too much blanket. I am awakened, in confusion, by the peals of bells from an unseen cathedral. Do they play bells for 15 minutes at 2 o'clock I begin to wonder? Wireless internet, I have, and it gives me an ominous or auspicious reading. First, cryptic hints in a facebook feed from literary fans. Then, a clear news item. Seamus Heaney has passed away.

A big deal and I haven't even set foot on Queen's University yet. If this post feels tentative it's because I feel tentative. If I'm honest, I feel like a dilettante about Heaney. I've read his Beowulf translations and some of his short poem collections (that means I've read them once or twice, which isn't really reading when it comes to poetry for me). And even though I've read his criticism I don't feel I know him. But despite the fact that I'm no poet (I'm not even a poetry critic really), this moment strikes me as strangely poetic. I'm not trying to put my amateur steps on the level of a nobel laureate. I don't have the talent or wisdom that Heaney did. But this island is supposedly half of my distant ancestral home. And he registered its conflicts and flows well, by most opinions. As I come home, he both leaves and becomes a more permanent part of Ireland. I feel small. I know there will be many events this year now. Queen's has a Heaney Center, after all.

I remember now riding into Belfast I passed a long wake walking and driving in the opposite direction. Those sorts of coincidences are strange and spooky. Looking back over Heaney's work, I was struck by a quote from one of his interviews:


As you end your twelfth year at Harvard, what are your impressions of American students?


When I came here first I was very aware of their eagerness to be in contact with the professor. At home in Ireland, there's a habit of avoidance, an ironical attitude towards the authority figure. Here, there's a readiness to approach and a desire to take advantage of everything the professor has to offer. That unnerved me a bit at the start, but now I respect it. Also, the self-esteem of American students tends to be higher. They come to college with positive beliefs in their abilities, whatever they are.
The Paris Review, "The Art of Poetry No. 75"

I don't have much to say about the passing of a poet. He could say anything I would better in his own words. Even if I had the skill, I am too tired and too out-of-place to try and place someone else in their rightful context. But I think that even in his death, the poet gives me a way in to a new place with his language.

On the flight over to Belfast I read Edmund Spenser, perhaps the first English literary personage to discuss an Irish race (whatever he meant by that) at great length. I didn't re-read his pamphlet "A View of the Present State of Ireland" on the plane, but I can remember its strange and disturbing text well. And in comparing the two figures I find odd similarities between Spenser's violent text and Heaney's thoughts. Spenser never mentions Americans, especially not the eternally-youthful, post-Emersonian go-hards that made my generation--the generation that Heaney eventually calls respectable. But the approaches and the generalizations that both Spenser in his "View of the Present State of Ireland" make about the Irish almost shockingly similar. Both Spenser and Heaney make the Irish ironical, two-faced with authority. But the two poets approach this attitude with different perspectives. Spenser is an outsider and can't seem to forget that fact throughout his generally bleak presentation of a foreign and Celtic people. Heaney meanwhile calls the Irish "at home."

I want to say using this contrast, in my hesitating and bumbling foreign way, that embedded in Heaney's seemingly positive view of the people "at home" across the sea is something strange. I see in Heaney's anthropology of Americans and the Irish a relativity of home. A more complex invitation to think of the Fatherland as something defined among and between terms like American and Irish.  Though the words are very real to me, another reality floats behind them. What this means is that the Irish aren't just one way and the Americans another. As Heaney says, though off-put, learns to respect difference and even connect the two differing approaches to authority. Our language, maybe all language, has generalizations and stereotypes, while even seemingly benign categorical arbitrations can build seemingly insurmountable separations between groups, individuals, and parts of ourselves. So what do we have?

Heaney's seemingly easy and unguarded thoughts suggest the ways that individuals can put categories into conversation leads to visions of something beyond. For who is more Irish by Heaney's terms, than the average American on St. Patrick's day who transforms Irish irony into something plastic and eternal? And who was more American than my nameless, homeless, and poor ancestors? In their sincere and unironic flight they managed to sneak onto a different continent from the island of Ireland and make themselves otherwise than they were by taking full advantage of United States "authority," just like the students in Heaney's Harvard classes? As I follow Heaney's words to my home and his home, Irish and American find themselves in each other despite the difference offered by contrasting the two. In this strange mix, Heaney's words about the people "at home," find their inverse in Spenser's old and seemingly brutal text on early modern Ireland that also contains a deep and abiding love for the irony of the Irish. 

These ideas are too big and abstract to talk any more about. Because really, they're not abstract. The strangeness of national categories reflect me in my dislocation and confusion. Due to a coincidence of a death, this introduction to my next year offers a shocked and brief reflection on the complexity of a tiny piece of a poet. In ringing bells and a wake heading in another direction I see the sad passing of a voice during a happy meeting to a new place. And after working it out a bit, that seems like a good way to meet a new place. I have the inverse. I feel a pleasure tinged with the melancholy of loss for my estranged home. I couldn't help my reaction-- I reached out and said goodbye to someone who wrote words I knew and hello to Big Ideas and transformations. Maybe I did it because I'm American. But I think what I've mostly revealed to myself is that I'm drawn to categories even though I see their failure. And in that way, this is the work of a person in a new place. On reflecting on an arrival and a passing away I stoke my simple and small hope to reach out back home while also settling into a new space. I hope I can begin this year's journey by being worthy of the poetry I left behind and that has been left behind for me where I arrive.

Jennifer Folsom
08/30/2013 2:33pm

Safe travels...we look forward to making the journey soon!


Leave a Reply.