Not Quite a Poem a Day, but… It’s a good one!

When all the others were away at Mass’

[from Clearances in memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984]

by Seamus Heaney


When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

From New Selected Poems 1966-1987 © Estate of Seamus Heaney and reprinted by kind permission of the Heaney family and Faber and Faber Ltd.

About the poem

A sonnet is, according to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a ‘moment’s monument’ and the moment captured here, in fourteen lines, is from Seamus Heaney’s boyhood. This poem is the third sonnet in an eight-sonnet sequence in which Heaney remembers with deep fondness his dead mother.

In the first section, the setting, that of a country farmhouse kitchen, is simple. A mother and her son are sitting in companionable silence, peeling potatoes. It is domestic, familiar, everyday and very special. In the second section the years have passed, his mother is dying and Heaney and his family are with her during those final moments. But the poem returns to that kitchen, years earlier, in the closing lines, which allows the poem to be framed by happy memories.

Read more at a poem for Ireland

I woke up at 5:30am with a migraine, took some pills and went back to bed. Continuing with the theme my dreams are taking these days, of being homeless, only this time I was meeting my son and his friend at a pub with an outdoor patio and me with boxes and boxes of stuff. I asked them to help me carry all these boxes home but each had somewhere to be and indeed had hoped I would pay for the cab we would share part way. There was something else too, I was barely able to walk, perhaps I was drunk or sick. We started leaving the boxes on the curb at intervals and people who were the colour of paper bags started appearing, hauling them away. (I had noticed at some point how there is a colour that is no-colour that takes over the appearance of those who are homeless, it seems to affect even their skin and hair. I don’t know if this is the crazy reverse  synesthesia I suffer from at times or if they actually do become grey/biege). We raised our glasses in celebration of our solution. Leaving, I took the arm of his friend to steady myself, at this point he was a much older man who looked like a writer I had known a long time ago. He said, “I have too much to do, my apartment is always a mess. I should do more to tend to my soul.” “Aren’t you your soul?” “I don’t know. That’s something to think about.” “Perhaps while you wash your dishes?”

When I read the poem I started to cry. For me a migraine can be the cause or the result of emotion. This time it is both.  And other things of course.

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