It was by pressing hard against a pen, and not guitar strings, that his fingers bled.
If seasons reflect moods, then the summer of 1969 was exceptional in producing works that mirrored a particular moment in time. Or rather, many moments in time, as the web that now spreads between world corners had not been woven yet; in its absence, global moods were as variable as a day containing all seasons. Whilst to one side of the ocean, a hopeful Bryan Adams tried ‘real hard’ with his first six-string, to the other, the Irish in Northern Ireland hopelessly fought to pull their own strings; not far from them, Spaniards looked down at their wrists and pondered on what to do with ties that were no longer attached to anything other than themselves, and which, like umbilical cords, were bound to rot out of lack of need.
Seamus Heaney in Madrid
Heaney was in Madrid. In August. And he really felt the heat. His Summer 1969 poem, the fourth of a set of six under the title ‘Singing school’, is, indeed, full of that constant yearning for home that pervades the souls of so many travellers; a morriña also tinged with a fundamentally Irish trait, a deep sense of regret. Guilt can so often feel like fire burning in our eye waterline, and in Madrid’s dog days, Heaney felt the Falls burning inside his own, so close and yet so far. Wherever he went, echoes of home were present; in Madrid he breathed a conflict’s post-truth: the quietness of defeat, and he was not at home with it.
Silence was deceiving; a relieving respite as threatening as the loudest of explosions. It sat in the throat as dryly as the feeling of not belonging. And while his body tried to take refuge in the city’s night air and its attractions, his mind flew away like an ancient Greek butterfly; it did not stop psyche, however, from writing back to each one of his senses, and the fishiness of power with its stinking imposition, the black shawl of resignation, and the false sense of security of patent leather, all weighed him down.
When admiring Goya’s work, cudgels appeared as weightless as quills fighting a monster larger than a landscape, conjuring the question ‘Was the pen really mightier than the sword’? The question, that day, appeared to fall on deaf ears, drowned by the noise of a bloody-horned harvester mowing down anything tender under its revved-up hoofs. Yet, before and then, here and there, a voice had already abandoned its sepulchre and stood above ground, on a podium hill, where the dust of destruction would not reach, persisting uncomfortably like the fragment of a melody that cannot be escaped.
You can enjoy this beautiful text below:
Summer 1969 (part of ‘Singing School’, North (1975)).
While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Each afternoon, in the casserole heat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket
Rose like the reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in black shawls near open windows,
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our way home over starlit plains
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil
Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.
‘Go back,’ one said, ‘try to touch the people.’
Another conjured Lorca from his hill.
We sat through death-counts and bullfight reports
On the television, celebrities
Arrived from where the real thing still happened.
I retreated to the cool of the Prado.
Goya’s ‘Shootings of the Third of May’
Covered a wall—the thrown-up arms
And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted
And knapsacked military, the efficient
Rake of the fusillade. In the next room,
His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall—
Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn
Jewelled in the blood of his own children,
Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips
Over the world. Also, that holmgang
Where two berserks club each other to death
For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.
He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished
The stained cape of his heart as history charged.
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