Lightenings viii by Seamus Heaney (1991)
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him’. So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
I go back to this gorgeous little sonnet, time and time again. Whenever I read it I feel I am in a cinema: all dark and quiet and full of anticipatory excitement. I watch the screen up ahead and there it is: a ship hovering just meters away from me, suspended in disbelief and wonder. I love how there are traces of this imagined moment that hooks itself into my world and anchors itself there. Right there. Just above me. What am I to do?
Then out of this spectacle a sailor shimmies down the rope in a vain effort to unhook the anchor wedged deep against the altar rails. Still I do nothing. I love how I am awoken from my stupor by the abbot with an instruction to help the young sailor. Most disturbingly is the fact that the sailor will drown if he stays here in my world and that’s when I realise: I am in the sea, I am in the fathomless dark of the ocean – not him, not this magical realist moment of ship with crewman hovering mid-air.
So, help him we do. Then everything is possible: the anchor is unhooked, the ship is freed, the sailor shimmies back up the rope and the ship sails off. All this movement in one line despite the fact that all the other lines had this ship still, stuck, silent. A part of me wants to call out to the ship: Wait! Take me with you! Such is my longing for the magic of adventure. I don’t want to be abandoned, left in that quiet oratory, in the dark sea of worship.
Yet, it is at this point, the poet reminds me that all is possible in the dark fathomless sea of my imagination. It is here that liberation occurs. The poet knows that the marvellous is my world; that my world is metaphysical and wondrous; and beauty can be unbearable for some…
Extract from The Alchemy of Poetry
Elizabeth’s first book, The Alchemy of Poetry, is available now! It would make the perfect gift for someone who is interested in the world of art and poetry and history and politics and love and death and war and the sublime – because the 160 poems selected in The Alchemy of Poetry succinctly and pitch perfectly offer all this and so much more!
Get your copy and send Elizabeth your review!
The Alchemy of Poetry by Elizabeth Guy
Published by Dreaming Big Publications
Paperback; 470 pages; ISBN-13 : 978-1947381414
Genre: Ancient, Classical and Contemporary Poetry; Education and Teaching; Non fiction