Heaney in an Irish Pub, Washington, DC
To reach the bar, he’s got to angle sideways—
the whooping clusters of bureaucrats and staffers
and aspiring pols don’t naturally give way,
nor do they part for him as, jostled and unnoticed
in his wilted raincoat, he ferries the Guinness back
to his table of literary riffraff and strays.
But the touring band, turning their jigs and reels,
know him by sight: as the squeeze box breathes,
the penny whistler’s fingers curl and splay,
their eyes return, through the blind crowd, to him.
Down from the stage at the break they shyly bend
to shake, to present in return, a gift, a tape.
Rare to see, here where art is kept
or held apart, how tenderly they know him
as one of theirs, a fine voice, true, trained on home,
and him asking them to sign their tape!
Later, resuming, they’re chuffed, grinning broadly.
How can the crowd know why, but joy leaks
from the band’s leavened tone and stance and touch
and up we rise—the whole room—on a tune.
His parents were doctors, Jewish refugees,
with a German-sounding name. In Des Moines,
in a time of war, he’d leave for school each day
carrying his painted metal lunchbox. Inside,
the meal his mother packed: braunschweiger
with brown bread, often—pumpernickel,
flag of foreign origin, amid
the white bread sandwiches so many
kids consumed: peanut butter or bologna
mostly. On his walk to school, he’d stop, unobserved,
to open his lunchbox above a bin
where he’d toss that day’s wax-papered
difference, so he could sit at the long table
with friends, heads together over baseball
or games. Thus, he favored one hunger
over the other: to remark in others’ eyes
nothing special, the casual glance only,
to know he belonged there and then with them,
not his parents with their Mein lieber Sohn,
their love wrapped in what he knew as shame.
In the Bishop’s Garden: Hide and Seek
The man has trailed his daughter and son
to the roses and hoisted each in turn
to sniff a red one, more bud than bloom,
like a drop at the tap, taut with itself.
The children’s slim bodies thrum
with feeling—they chatter, giggle,
dance in orbit; the boy runs,
the way dogs race around
their master, exhilaration bodied
out. Now he pleads for Hide
and Seek among the boxwood; his father
sits on a bench to count as the kids
scatter—Ready or not—the boy
wriggles behind a hedge to hide,
as his father starts the searching game:
Where can they be? In the roses? Noooo.
The boy clamps his hand over his mouth,
his knee jiggles; shoulders twitch.
Then he blows his cover, arms
wide, ready for reassurance,
the test of love—the proof of self—
become the test of being seen.
He crows shrilly, Here I am.
But where’s his father? Down a path
still crooning, Wheeere can they beee?
The boy repeats, softly, Here;
stops, stands. Then he howls
for his father, runs to find him,
the game reversed. What comfort
his father’s hug so quickly recovered?
Look, the man kneels beside
his sobbing son to point out
swallows gliding in low swoops
for insect life above the garden.
Child, to find yourself, first
lose yourself in something else.
Lost in China
Ruchama’s gone in search of higher ground
to find our way through fields wrapped around
folds of land, all terraced, trimmed, and stacked
mostly by hand, strong legs and back.
I wait, convinced she’s wrong: our way is down
along the valley, between nut-brown paddies:
this path, made slick by oxen hitched to ploughs
followed to work each day by hundreds of feet.
A populated land, dense with purpose;
I must seem even stranger stopped mid-path.
A woman appears, across her shoulders a pole
bent between baskets piled with greens.
Mud still clumps black at their roots. She laughs—
brown teeth, missing teeth—in what seems
surprise, her eyes discreet, even kind,
as she passes, turning her load slightly sideways.
Intruder, I wait, unable to go. She seems
a mute advocate for movement—choose!
Any path, any error. As she passes,
she leaves scents of onion, disturbed earth.