The music of what happens

I just caught up with the wonderful documentary Seamus Heaney and the music of what happens on BBC; I missed it when it was first broadcast but saw the repeat, with a man interpreting it in sign language. This was annoying for about half a minute, after that I didn’t notice it any more. Heaney’s wife and children appeared, also his brothers and friends like Michael Longley and Helen Vendler; they all spoke about him and read poems, often poems written for them, sometimes with his own voice taking over half way through. It was beautifully done, very simple, without any of the tricks you see nowadays in documentaries, and extremely moving.

            The title of the programme was a reference to the poem ‘Song’, which we heard read by the poet himself, and by Helen Vendler. ‘The music of what happens’ is what Fionn mac Cumhaill (one of the heroes of my English childhood, known to me then as Finn MacCool) called the most beautiful music of all. ‘There are the mud-flowers of dialect/ And the immortelles of perfect pitch/ And that moment when the bird sings very close/ To the music of what happens.’

            It struck me how political some of the poems are, as if I had never realised that before. ‘The Tollund Man’ for instance, about the body preserved in peat at Aarhus: ‘Some day I will go to Aarhus/ To see his peat-brown head,/ The mild pods of his eye-lids,/ His pointed skin cap.’ We did go to Aarhus, and saw him in the museum there, and the young woman, ‘little adulteress’, who was also found near there. Rudy wrote about her in Opgespoorde wonderen. They were both murdered, it is not known why, but it is obvious, as was shown in the film, that Heaney is referring in these poems to the Troubles in Northern Ireland: ‘Out there in Jutland/ In the old man-killing parishes/ I will feel lost,/ Unhappy and at home.’

            Rereading the poem I remembered that of course I was aware of the reference to Northern Ireland, but had forgotten it, remembered only the description of the body. Pico Iyer describes something similar in Autumn Light: Japan’s Season of Fire and Farewells, when somebody reads an observation about life in Japan to him: ‘a startling perception,’ he thought, ‘the kind I could never have come upon after all my years here.’ It turned out to be something he had written in his own first book on Japan, nearly thirty years before. If the writer can forget what he wrote himself, then a reader may also forget something read. Another poem that I had forgotten was about a cousin of Heaney’s who was shot during the Troubles, ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’.

            ‘What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?/ The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling/ Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?/ Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights/ That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down/ Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew.’

            Listening to this I remembered Andrew, who was our next-door neighbour and for many years my brother’s best friend, until he too was killed on a road near the Irish border. He was English, he had no connection with Ireland apart from coming there on holiday with us; unable to decide what to do after finishing school he went into the British army, thinking that after serving for a couple of years he would leave and start his real life. Instead of that he was blown up – ‘a faked road block?’ – and died aged 21, ‘where you weren’t known and far from what you knew.’

            I had not forgotten Andrew, but for a long time I had not thought about how he died, and this poem brought it back to me. My parents planted some trees for him, Andrew’s wood, they called it, in our garden in County Sligo, but that house does not belong to us any more. I have a few photos of him, mostly laughing, which he did a lot. When I do think of him I realise that in some other part of my mind I imagine him still alive in a different world, one in which he did not become a soldier and never went to Northern Ireland.

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