POETRY: A Herbal by Seamus Heaney

A Herbal by Seamus Heaney bracken

After Guillevic’s “Herbier de Bretagne”

Everywhere plants
Flourish among graves,

Sinking their roots
In all the dynasties
Of the dead.

*
Was graveyard grass
In our place
Any different?

Different from ordinary
Field grass?

Remember how you wanted
The sound recordist
To make a loop,

Wildtrack of your feet
Through the wet
At the foot of a field?

*
Yet for all their lush
Compliant dialect
No way have plants here
Arrived at a settlement.

Not the mare’s tail,
Not the broom or whins.

It must have to do
With the wind.

*
Not that the grass itself
Ever rests in peace.

It too takes issue,
Now sets its face.

To the wind,
Now turns its back.

*
“See me?” it says.
“The wind

Has me well rehearsed
In the ways of the world.

Unstable is good.
Permission granted!

Go, then, citizen
Of the wind.
Go with the flow.”

*
The bracken
Is less boastful.

It closes and curls back
On its secrets,

The best kept
Upon earth.

*
And, to be fair,
There is sun as well.

Nowhere else
Is there sun like here,

Morning sunshine
All day long.

Which is why the plants,
Even the bracken,

Are sometimes tempted
Into trust.

*
On sunlit tarmac,
On memories of the hearse

At walking pace
Between overgrown verges,

The dead here are borne
Towards the future.

*
When the funeral bell tolls
The grass is all a-tremble.

But only then.
Not every time any old bell

Rings.

*
Broom
Is like the disregarded
And company for them,

Shows them
They have to keep going,

That the whole thing’s worth
The effort.

And sometimes
Like those same characters
When the weather’s very good

Broom sings.

*
Never, in later days,
Would fruit

So taste of earth.
There was slate

In the blackberries,
A slatey sap.

*
Run your hand into
The ditchback growth

And you’d grope roots,
Thick and thin.
But roots of what?

Once, one that we saw
Gave itself away,

The tail of a rat
We killed.

*
We had enemies,
Though why we never knew.

Among them,
Nettles,

Malignant things, letting on
To be asleep.

*
Enemies—
Part of a world

Nobody seemed able to explain
But that had to be
Put up with.

There would always be dock leaves
To cure the vicious stings.

*
There were leaves on the trees
And growth on the headrigs

You could confess
Everything to.

Even your fears
Of the night,

Of people
Even.

*
What was better then

Than to crush a leaf or a herb
Between your palms,

Then wave it slowly, soothingly
Past your mouth and nose

And breathe?

*
If you know a bit
About the universe

It’s because you’ve taken it in
Like that,

Looked as hard
As you look into yourself,

Into the rat hole,
Through the vetch and dock
That mantled it.

Because you’ve laid your cheek
Against the rush clump

And known soft stone to break
On the quarry floor.

*
Between heather and marigold,
Between spaghnum and buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

*
Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases
Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?

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