Thursday, September 5, 2013

Noli Timere Do

Noli timere (Do not fear)

- Seamus Heaney's last words

* * *

Things are different now.

* * *

It was Heaney's book, Sweeney Astray, that brought me to his work and I never left. The first poetry I ever published was based off Sweeney and I shudder at the shoddiness of it now, but then, back then, in the way back of my memory, I thought them fine. I had no knowledge of the labor required to build a poem, only the love of sounds that tumbled out of Sweeney.  I aped. I copied. I dreamt of a life spent building sounds that tumbled out of books, of lecture halls and book shops, of wet moors and mad kings cursed to never return home. I wrote bad poetry and thought it fine. I was without guile or fear. Seamus Heaney's work gave me that. Things are different now.

Between the first blush of words and the ones I clack today fear took root in stops and starts, gaining a bit of ground each time. Doubt, faithlessness to the cause, worry over judgment all found a place in my life. But it isn't poetry I am speaking of, is it? It is the fucked life itself. To move in half-steps, to fear shadows and the feral desire inside you to live differently than you have been. Comportment, compliance, acceptance of the norms governing daily life - these are a type of assurance that all is well and all that could be done has been done and it is the birthplace of fear. We fear not being accepted. We fear isolation. We look outside our own experience for validation of that experience and it changes us. We learn to hesitate. We learn to judge. We learn we are not poets. We learn there is a payoff for coming in out of the cold: a job, a house and paid vacation. And if you come to it out of fear then happiness and peace will never know your name.

Things are different now.

* * *

A few minutes before he died, Seamus Heaney sent a text message to his wife. It was in Latin: "Noli timere" - do not fear, or don't be afraid - a final gesture of love and hard won grace.

Is this not how we must live?

Every time you feel your fears take hold of your thoughts, every time you choose to act from fear, or doubt I want you to remember Seamus Heaney: leonine, white haired, minutes from his death and there, there at the threshold between his life and his death and the one last poem he sent back - noli timere. 

Don't be afraid.
Don't be afraid to live without me.
Don't be afraid of this change.
Don't be afraid.

And so, things are different now. The world is down a poet and the wet earth is a bit richer for it. The memory of him will linger in those who knew him and then be reduced to those who read him and over time will gutter out. And that is perfect. For it is not immortality that feeds us, but touching the eternal while we are here.

Noli timere, my friends. Do not fear your life.

* * *

Published in Ceilidh, Vol IV, No. 2, 1985.

Sweeney At Home (After Seamus Heaney)

I know the crevices and cracks.
I have seen the slip and mortar
so close I know the name
of each speckled grain.

The slant of a roof,
once my home,
the pocked gable
below. Heroic relief shows
the deeds of my dead.
I recognize the weathered
faces. I knew the one
without his head.
The years and I ate
him away.

I am king.
I fly from stone wall
to brick. I peck and peer
into the surface of things.

* * *




  1. Thank you. I needed this.

    1. So very glad it found you. Noli timere, my friend. Don't be afraid. Face your life and it will be kind to you. Promise.

  2. Just what I needed today as I rise from a massive viral infection burning off the fucked life.