Seamus Heaney has died. I’m grieved to hear this; I’ll miss the poems he had yet to write.
We went to Balboa Park again today. This time we visited the Museum of Man, lingering particularly long in the Egyptian wing. The kids were fascinated by the mummies, but I was a little bothered by the sad remains of the Lemon Grove Mummy, the body of what seems to have been a girl around fifteen years of age, possibly pregnant, curled into a fetal position. Her skin sags loosely around her old, old bones. She was found in a cave near Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1966 by two teenagers, who stole her and smuggled her home to Lemon Grove, California. Apparently she sat in a garage for 14 years because the boys didn’t want their parents to find out what they’d done. Eventually she was discovered and donated to the Museum of Man. She’s a special part of the mummy display, but I felt uncomfortable gawking at her in her glass case: it seems like a violation of her humanity for her to be cached there in public view next to the interactive media display about how scientists determined her age and origin. She’s one of several mummies there, and all the others had struck me as simply fascinating until we got to the Lemon Grove girl. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t wrapped up in linens like the Egyptian mummies. She reminded me of the Irish Bog People, and Seamus Heaney’s poems about them.
Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach…
(—from “Tollund Man” by Seamus Heaney.)
And that made me think of grad school, where I first read Heaney’s poems, back in the early ’90s when I had no inkling that one day I would stand in a Southern California museum, recalling those lines while watching four blonde heads peer at a long Mexican teenager in a glass case…
(From a post called “Helixes.”)
In a 2009 interview, Mr. Heaney was asked about “the value of poetry was during times of economic recession.”
The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone. “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness,” Heaney said. At first, that may seem like a quaint observation — one of those poet-as-holy-fool lines. Yet an effort to “fortify your inward side,” Heaney explained to another questioner, can act as a kind of “immune system” against material difficulties.
He has certainly fortified mine…his poems like the straw you bake into bricks to make them strong. Like these lines from “Postscript”:
…You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.