Seamus Heaney’s Poetry Workshop
(Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979)
I found years on that my Birth Certificate
And Christening Documents spelt out a nominal fate
Of which I was totally unaware,
Dragging in English, Irish, German lines of past blood,
Like good stock,
Corriedales and merinos of good fleece.
So thus I read,
“Sheamus Peter Brock Gebhardt”
Curious that I was never told,
Just expected to inhale the linguistic fold,
“Curiouser” still that Sheamus was “Irish for James”
But misspelt. Scotch Whiskey perhaps …
One line used to say, “We are pioneers you know.”
Another would take the branch-line that came
In England’s south: Drakes and Brockmans coupled;
And then that brave girl Grace Bussell riding the surf
To pull out the colonists in their pretty flounces.
It was no wonder that a signal-man was needed,
Someone to make meaning of all the intersection and junctions,
A points’ muse would do.
Mid-life I found him. Poetry.
And Seamus accepted Sheamus,
I never uttered
I listened deep
We ate oysters
at “One Potato, Two Potato”
(very Irish when you think about it)
The girls were intense
He gave me an “A”,
So I went away and began
To do what he had called me to do,
Seize the word and make palpable
The lives and lines we take,
All different but all joined.
“What’s in a name?” you may ask,
I don’t really know,
But for the time being, for now,
I’ll go along with what I was given,
Contradictions, complexities, conundrums and all.
Identity is, as clichés make clear, a journey,
From beginning to end.
Names are but baggage, taken on
Or in the goods van.
It’s wonderful if writing is one of the tracks.
Saleyards and Hats
It was sale day
Holding his hands we would tag along.
It was all noise and smell
An auctioneer, hands, voice and hat,
cajoling and cudgelling the buyers.
“What am I bid? Fine strong two-year olds,
What am I bid? You won’t see them again.
Gimme a bid. Gimme a bid.”
Then “done, all done, done, all done
Sold to the man in the Akubra hat,
The one that the Prime Minister wears.”
We moved on from pen to pen with the mob
Sheep shit and cowpats as dung-soft carpet
Dust and sun, dogs bark, ewes bleating.
Everywhere tongues hung dryly,
Prices were up, prices were down
It didn’t make much difference,
The pub was near and the beer was cold,
“And things were always crook in the bush.”
Poor farmers, sometimes they had to struggle,
To struggle, to keep alive the ‘hard-done-by’ voice.
Of course, if you turn an Akubra upside down,
You have an open-cut mine.
“The Most Significant Day in Australian History”
Trespass is made legal
Bare footprints in the sand, toe-clear,
Crushed by heavy boot-prints.
The Governor has stepped ashore,
Powder blue powder pink
Patent leather shoes with gold buckles
Parrots twitter gaily, dragonflies zoom the silver heat
The water sparkles, the tank stream trickles.
Chivalry tamed savagery
The air was filled with petitions
day by day the axe severed
‘God save the King’
‘Well may God save the King!’
‘But what about the Governor?’
The wind begins to sing with spears
The sand blushes with blood
The language tides are changing,
The wounds are still bleeding.
Treaties are a treatment for wounds I’m told.
it’s rather silly to think we can repeat
‘The Sermon on the Mount’, but
Faith and belief in our true past - and the truth of it,
Might just help us
Get nearer the peak
And what a wonderful view!
The young man on the bicycle
When you think about it
everything was always contingent,
but now it seems so clear,
and when you see what happens,
for something always happens,
you know that you are also contingent.
No more so than when you see
riding a bike at high speed a young man
erect in the seat, helmeted, handlebars
untouched. Then you can turn
to the hope of capturing the moment
admiring the grace of what you
could not do, not envying, just relishing
that there are and have been
many occasions and beauties, art and artifice
to act as shields against doubts and despair
which only grow because we allow them.
The young man on the bike knew
where he was going and what he could do
to get there. It was the poise and grace
of a special artistry and skill,
the sun shone down on his motion.
Peter Gebhardt is a retired school principal and judge. His most recent book is Black and White Onyx: New and Selected Poems 1988–2011. These poems are being published posthumously.