Death of a Naturalist – a tribute to Seamus Heaney

Only yesterday I was considering finding myself a complete copy of this anthology and reviewing it here as a tribute to my absolute favourite poet; Seamus Heaney. Now I find myself writing a tribute to his memory. Heaney was for me an inspirational man; as a literature student and self designated ‘eco-poet’ the poetry of nature has always been a medium in which I could lose myself.

It was back at the age of 15 when I first stumbled upon Heaney’s work as part of my GCSEs, and since then the Death of a Naturalist anthology has followed me as some of the most memorable poems I have ever read.

Mid Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

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, a foot for every year.

Mid Term break was written for Heaney’s brother after the four year old child was tragically killed in a car accident. For me is a solumn reminder of mortality. And now its creator has died – seventy years older than his sibling – but for me the poem still rings true. If his father were alive now I can’t help but feel someone would meet him once again crying on the porch.

But for me Heaney is much more than just a writer of sad memories. This post is called Death of a Naturalist because Heaney himself was the naturalist in his eyes:

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

The poem reflects upon the plight of growing older – the young child fascinated by nature juxtaposed with the older; wiser but repulsed. In my eyes Heaney never lost this spark of nature, his poetry always held true to it.

I remember in my university book shop; Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy visited for a reading last year. The book seller advertised this to me and I replied to him; if you get Seamus Heaney in I’ll be the first in line. He said he’d look into it – I guess I have lost that chance now.

I’ll end with some of my own work. I wrote this (admittedly rather lengthly) poem last year after buying a copy of the Opened Ground anthology – a selection of his work from 1966 to 1996, Heaney was my main inspiration – the nature entwined into the poet. It may be that the Death of the Naturalist has come; but his poems live on.

Flora and Fauna

Water

The rising and diving minnow is tossed
up and out of the pool and ripple.
Scales like chromium, sunlight caught
and returned. Concentric re-entry;
the minnow propels a droplet into the air
which settles on a sun-scorched stone.
Microscopic. Vapour rises as vague
clouds turn above. Falling into mist
infected morning. Cool air rushes
past lily pads, past the bristle
of reeds which stand firm on the bank.
A dewdrop rests upon damp grass.

Dew

A worrisome mouse, tired
from the night’s hunt drags an acorn
back to its nest as the dew drop
drops. The mouse is startled
by sudden vibrations. Stops
still as a photograph. Left,
right. Clear. He drags his prize
underground. The bead of dew quivers
at its gargantuan company.
The drip sits on the yellowing veins
of a fallen oak leaf. A thousand lensed
eye watches his nourishment.

Insects

A drunken wasp, fatigued by autumn.
Wafts through the air to the trembling
droplet. It crouches, taking its fill of water.
Stretched out legs clutch the droplet.
Mandible tears, chews and swallows.
The droplet deflates like a punctured tyre.
The predator flees. Black laced with yellow
laced with poison. Blown off course.
The tired creature falls.
Displaced dust. Lace wings torn.
Its body convulses on the cold earth.
Obscurity pulls around it.

Wings

The early bird catches the
wasp. His beak slowly closes.
Crunched exoskeleton.
Takes off on wings of air, up and out
cruising the currents. Far below
the brook meanders like a lost child.
The river runs fast here. The bird rests
in a willow tree. Ragged feathers
among the broken nest egg.
He senses danger. Takes his leave.
The willow shudders.
The entire scene falls silent.

The Invader

A pristine petticoat skips
over the morning moistened
grasses. Each impact leaving
a faint green stain on the cotton.
Her mother will be furious.
She clutches a glass jar in her hand.
Kneels at the riverbank, reaches
and scoops. The jar fills. Green water
and glass. A shell containing
skittering minnow. Sporadic
circling in the slow rotation
as the water combats its container

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