Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’

Death of a NaturalistSome books are so thin and light, yet they carry so much weight, like Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist. Each poem in this collection is a work of art, a masterpiece. There is neither pretentiousness nor symbolism here. Each poem is a story in itself and in this, Heaney has mesmerized me. I just imagined someone who had written an entire collection of short stories and then thought: “Let’s see how we can strip away all the unnecessary words and images to just capture the essence of the tale in as few words as possible”.

The autobiographical nature of these poems adds further weight, and exhibits the emotional investment that Heaney imparts on his reader, like in ‘Digging’ where we see the Heaney descended from a lineage of famers who takes the path of the writer (an excerpt):

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

A befitting opening poem to let us know where he comes from and his tool of choice. The poems to follow reflect on his childhood growing up in a farm, elaborating on all kinds of experiences from the classroom to the slaughterhouse to first love; speaking of which, ‘Twice Shy’, the poem on first love was my favorite (an excerpt):

Her scarf a la Bardot,
In suede flats for the walk,
She came with me one evening
For air and friendly talk.
We crossed the quiet river,
Took the embankment walk.

Traffic holding its breath,
Sky a tense diaphragm:
Dusk hung like a blackcloth
That shook where a swan swam,
Tremulous as a hawk
Hanging deadly, calm.

Then there was the sober and moving poem about the loss of his four year old brother in the poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, with a last line so powerful it leaves an affecting resonance (an excerpt):

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, one foot for every year.

Heaney is a writer whose work I look forward to exploring in more depth in the future.

Samir

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