On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.
It’s you, blackbird, I love.
I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: “I want away
To the house of death, to my father
Under the low clay roof.”
And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer –
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,
My homesick first term over.
And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks –
I said nothing at the time
But I never liked yon bird.”
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.
Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.
This beautiful, haunting poem is the last poem in Heaney’s celebrated collection District and Circle – and for a very good reason. The final words of the poem are ‘when I leave’ and thoughts of death and leaving are scattered throughout the poem. This may be a poem, therefore, where Heaney confronts his own mortality and we also know that he was very ill during the writing of the poems in this collection. He tells us elsewhere that in order to understand the North he had to leave it and after his move South, to gain a greater perspective of his home place, Glanmore became his haven, his ‘house of life’; it became, in effect, a place of inspiration to rival Mossbawn and Anahorish of his youth. The poem opens as he returns home to Glanmore in his car and as he pulls up on the driveway he sees a blackbird and he recalls lines he has translated,
I want away
To the house of death, to my father,
Under the low clay roof.
He also recalls another earlier poem Mid Term Break which tells of his young brother who died tragically in a road accident. It is as if the blackbird, presiding spirit in the background, has brought him full circle, to the last word, ‘when I leave’.
Heaney uses an ingenious structure in this poem, alternating between five-line and one-line stanzas. The single lines create a feeling of a set of refrains (repetition), although they are all different. The repeated structures also create a sense of return, so that the poem keeps coming back to the passing moment in which it is set. The first and last lines of the first stanza, “On the grass when I arrive” and “In the ivy when I leave” are also the first line and last line of the poem itself. This clever circular composition emphasises the completeness of the moment. It also suggests the cycle of life – and of course there is also an allusion to the title of the collection District and Circle, a reference to the London Underground. The tight, united form is echoed by the use of half-rhyme throughout the poem, which is particularly noticeable in the second last stanza: “talkback”, “comeback”, “goldbeak”.
This is a poem about the act of witnessing. The poet reminds us that our lives are as much about observation as action and in this poem Heaney explores the act of ‘coming home’ through the ironic presence of a blackbird, a creature sometimes associated with being a harbinger of death.
As mentioned earlier, this poem is also an echo and a remembrance of Heaney’s wonderfully poignant earlier poem Mid Term Break which specifically examined the death of the poet’s younger brother Christopher. This meeting of texts and meeting here with the blackbird who we are told, had ironically witnessed the earlier death, reveal how we are all mixed up in each other’s exits and entrances into life and death and we always try to make sense of our world less we slip down into the despairing melancholy of utter absence.
Heaney’s evocation of his brother’s absence through death, and yet continued presence through memory, is a perfectly compressed elegy to tenderness and love: ‘ A little stillness dancer’. He is always about, haunting the edge of the poet’s consciousness, at the edge of his thoughts and observations, watching him perhaps too, perfectly preserved through time.
There are places in the poem where the sound of the words suggests an influence from Old English poetry, which used alliteration and combined nouns: “Haunter-son” and “Hedge-hop” illustrate this. “Hedge-hop” is a perfect description of a blackbird, and its two-syllable alliteration mimics the bird’s movement. In places Heaney uses the sound of words to create specific effects: the car lock “clunks shut”; here assonance of the ‘uh’ sound emphasises the onomatopoeia of “clunks”.
The paradoxical (seemingly contradictory) image of the “little stillness dancer” is thought provoking, and captures the idea that the blackbird, even though it stays where it is, is filled with energy and the potential for movement. Coining metaphors like this is one way in which Heaney creates a fresh look at nature.
The imagery of the translated lines about the “house of death” also repeat the idea of a journey between life and death, confirmed in the narrator’s memory “one gone to him [God]”. The “house of death” is then mirrored and reversed by the phrase “my house of life” towards the end of the poem. Whether it’s a metaphorical or real house, this image undoes the narrator’s sadness, and is a reminder of his good fortune at living a long life. It seems to me that there are echoes here of Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground-
The Roof was scarcely visible-
The Cornice-in the Ground-
However, despite these associations with death, the poem favours the energy and life of the blackbird. There is the bird’s “ready talkback”, which suggests cheekiness, and although there is “panic” at the sound of the car lock, it is “shortlived”.
The poem seems to be a mixture of sadness and hope or pleasure in the bird, the memories and the moment. Blackbirds are often used in Irish poetry as mystical, mythical messengers (cf. Austin Clarke’s great poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn) and this is picked up by the introduction of the superstitious neighbour, but it is not supported by the pleasure of seeing the blackbird in the rest of the poem. In direct address to the bird at the end of the poem, the narrator tells him he is “absolute/for you”, linking back to the love described in the second stanza. Like the blackbird, the poem is full of suppressed movement, so that although it is only a moment in time and place, it contains much more, allowing Heaney to reflect on the passing of life, and the circularity of life.
The poem contains numerous snapshot moments of the poet’s personal experiences – some remembered moments are up to fifty years old. He refers to the reported words of a neighbour who once used ‘Yon bird’ to refer to the death (ghost) of this brother. It becomes clearer from this point that the use of the word ‘bird’ suddenly becomes redolent of death. He uses ‘a bird’s eye view of myself’ to say that he reflected on himself and on his own impending death, ‘A shadow on raked gravel’, with ‘shadow’ being a metaphor for his death or ghost.
So already at the end of District and Circle in the final poem of that collection, The Blackbird of Glanmore, we have the poet doing what poets do best, confronting one of the great elephants in the room, his own mortality. Like Dickinson, whom we referred to earlier, the poet seems to have had an intimation of sorts, it’s as if this day in Glanmore is the day,
I first surmised the Horses Heads
Were toward Eternity-
We are also somewhat disconcerted by the realisation that grieving and bereavement is a life-long process and his young brother Christopher’s memory is always but a wingbeat away. Like the earlier ‘Sunlight’ poems depicting his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn this beautiful poem is deceptive at first but like all of Heaney’s work deserving of a second look!