Three Poems

Seamus Heaney

Unwinding

If the twine unravels to the very end
the stuff gathering under my fingernails
is being picked off whitewash at the bedside.

And the stuff gathering in my ear
is their sex-pruned and unfurtherable
moss-talk, incubated under lamplight,

which will have to be unlearned
even though from there on everything
is going to be learning.

So the twine unwinds and loosely widens
backward through areas that forwarded
understandings of all I would undertake.

In the Beech

I was a lookout posted and forgotten.

On one side under me, the concrete road.
On the other, the bullocks’ covert,
the breath and plaster of a drinking place
where the school-leaver found peace to weigh
his chances with the pale thug in his fork.

And the tree itself an old one and a new one,
as much a column as a bole. The very ivy
puzzled its milk-tooth frills and tapers
over the grain: was it bark or masonry?

I watched the red brick chimney rear
its stamen course by course,
and the steeplejacks up there at their antics
like flies against the mountain.

I felt the tanks’ advance beginning
at the cynosure of the growth rings,
then winced at their imperium refreshed
in each powdered bolt-mark on the concrete.
And the pilot with his goggles back came in
so low I could see the cockpit rivets.

My hidebound boundary tree. My tree of knowledge.
My thick-tapped, soft-fledged, airy listening post.

The Old Icons

Why, when it was all over, did I hold on to them?

A patriot with folded arms in a shaft of light:
the barred cell window and his sentenced face
are the only bright spots in the little etching.

An oleograph of snowy hills, the outlawed priest’s
red vestments, with the redcoats toiling closer
and the lookout coming like a fox across the gaps.

And the old committee of the sedition-mongers,
so well turned out in their clasped brogues and waistcoats,
the legend of their names an informer’s list

prepared by neat-cuffs, third from left, at rear,
more compelling than the rest of them,
pivoting an action that was his rack

and others’ ruin, the very rhythm of his name
a register of dear-bought treacheries
grown transparent now, and inestimable.