Sharing the Strand with Seamus

My feet were always wet in Dublin. If the leather of my shoes was soaked through on the walk to work in the morning, they would remain wet all day. If I sat at the desk by the window, with a heater near the baseboard, they would be warm and wet. Otherwise, they would be cold and wet, and my fingers would turn a distinct color of dark blue, sometimes purple. My family was known for poor circulation. I did not have the money for a pair of rubber boots. I carried a steel-reinforced umbrella that my mother gave me to keep my head dry, but could do nothing for my feet. This, I did happily, in the name of poetry.

When the doorbell rang, I was the eager intern that hopped out of my chair and heaved open the heavy door, greeting whoever rang the office buzzer on the narrow laneway off central St. Stephen’s Green. One grey afternoon, when my feet were particularly soaked, I opened the door to find Seamus Heaney standing in the rain in a tan overcoat.

As a 22-year-old intern at Poetry Ireland Review, the Irish journal of record, I would stand in the corner of book launches and literary festivals, pouring wine and water, a dazed fly on the wall among literary giants. I would sometimes catch a glimpse of Mr. Heaney, before or after he would read a poem or two, while shaking hands with a contemporary.

On this rainy afternoon, I stepped back, inviting him inside with a wave of my arm. It was lunch hour, and many of my colleagues were out. The office was quiet, a half-eaten sandwich brought from home on my desk. There was a softness to his eyes and face, a gentle manner in which he spoke. I offered him tea, and put the kettle on to boil. Before he could take a seat, the director of Poetry Ireland returned, and off they went into a meeting.

I wrapped my hands around a hot mug, warmed my toes by the heater. That mop of white hair, that alleyway full of puddles—I was far from the sunny American college classroom where I filled his books with notes, spent hours debating his craft.

*

You got used to the rain in Ireland. If it was drizzling steadily all day, at a gentle pace that misted your face and formed droplets on the shoulders of your jacket, but didn’t truly soak you—this was called a soft day. On Saturday, people with plans to golf went golfing. The dogs were walked, the strollers pushed, after a while the rain didn’t even register. You go from always putting an umbrella in your bag to being one of those locals that never really bother to put the umbrella up at all.

When it would rain and the tide was out, there was one place I wanted to be. Sandymount Strand, a stretch of beach on the south side of Dublin, looking out at Dublin Bay. When the tide retreated, the sand took on a lunar landscape, the rain filling divots, creating puddles for dogs to splash through. I would sit on a bench overlooking the Strand. I had a notebook and started with a line or two. I looked out at all that cold water and wrote: You are slow to warm, like the ocean.

Somewhere along the Strand, Seamus may have been looking out at the water, too. His home in Dublin, I had heard, was down further along the Strand, his office overlooking the same scene.

*

On my first date with a handsome, scruffy Irishman, he told me of meeting Seamus Heaney in a grocery store. Part time in college, Peter had been a cash register clerk. One night he was working the express lane, with a limit on the number of items purchased. Looking up, Heaney stood in front of him with a bottle of ginger ale.

After completing the purchase, Peter quickly rolled out an extra length of receipt paper, asking for an autograph. Heaney kindly obliged, signing his name, and writing the date in Roman numerals. Peter put the piece of paper in his pocket, watched Heaney go. He started to check out the next customer. Beside him, the other Tesco workers poked fun, asking Peter: who was that? Who are you asking for a bleedin’ autograph from?

A poet.

*

The next time I saw Seamus, he wanted a glass of red wine and I was out of glasses. It was the tail end of an event in honor of a poet’s birthday—many of his colleagues had shown up to read poems and wish the honoree a happy birthday. The table with the glasses of wine was very far from the door, and I realized, that it might take Seamus Heaney some time to cross a room, that every time a glass of wine was within reach, someone would stop him for a chat.

And once he finally got to the table, and me behind it, there were plenty open bottles of red wine, and no more glasses from which to drink.

I panicked—thinking I should have set a glass aside for him. That at all future events where I am the responsible one for handing out drinks, there must be a secret stash of polished glasses for a moment exactly like this.

A colleague produced a small pile of plastic cups. I quickly filled one—it reminded me of the types of cups dentists use—with red wine and handed it to him. He thanked me with a wink, and began slowly moving his way back through the crowd.

*

One spring morning I arrived in work and the office was especially bustling. A reading series was scheduled for that afternoon, with Seamus Heaney reading at the National Gallery of Ireland. We walked over to the gallery in advance of the lunchtime reading, and I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Lines. For a lunchtime poetry reading. Every single seat was full. People requested standing-only space.

He took the stage. I watched from the second row. He was comfortable on stage, at ease behind the microphone. He spoke clearly and slowly. He knew precisely how to deliver his poems, how to let them settle, the power of silence. He read them differently than I read them in my mind, his emphasis in surprising places.

His poems can start in familiar places, along the seaside, on a farm. And the best ones, by the end, have a way of jabbing you—of poking you in this place just beneath the surface where tears live, forcing an involuntary release. People throughout the room reached for tissues, they didn’t know why they were crying—something about those words in that order was just so beautiful.

For a young writer, it’s enough to make you want to give up writing poems forever.

*

The last time I saw Seamus, it was raining again.

I had moved to New York, focused my writing on nonfiction. During a visit to Dublin I was staying in a nice hotel to celebrate a birthday. It was a summer day, perhaps 5 in the afternoon. It could have been very bright at this time of day in the summer in Dublin, but the rain was so heavy and the clouds so thick that it felt like nighttime. I was standing at the front desk of the hotel to check-in, my shoes once again drenched, my hair matted to my head.

And in walked Seamus Heaney, strolling through the lobby with his wife. Pausing by the fireplace. We both smelled the aroma of the burning peat. As quickly as he entered the room, he left.

A legend living among the regular people, sharing a city.

*

When I heard Seamus Heaney had passed away, it was a Friday morning in New York City. August, hot. I woke up and debated whether to open the windows or keep the air-conditioning on. I opened the computer. The screen was flooded with his image, with lines from his poems, with reactions from Presidents and writers and actors about his death.

The last thing he wrote was a text message to his wife in Latin: Don’t be afraid. Even when not writing poems, his words find their way into that place where tears live. My eyes are moist even thinking about it now, a year since the world lost one of its greatest writers. It was a sad day for Ireland, a true loss for anyone who loved his poems. It was said in the aftermath that only Heaney himself would have been able to articulate the loss Ireland felt in his death.

I sat down on the bed next to my Irishman, my partner of several years, who after winning the green card lottery joined me in New York City. Something about that morning, that loss, made me sure that I wanted to marry him. Sure that life was short, and love was special, and when something catches the heart off guard—you let it in.

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