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Seamus Heaney’s ‘Field Work’ is the perfect travel companion

Lough Tay, a lake in County Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland. Seamus Heaney relocated to the county in 1972. (iStock)
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The ninth in an occasional series about the books that spurred our love of travel.

The writer George Saunders once called poetry “truth forced out through a restricted opening.” That makes for a pretty good description of travel, too. We glean what truths we can from where we find ourselves, whether that is the window seat of a bus, a cafe table, a riverside promenade or an unfamiliar bed. All of it from the narrow knothole that is our point of view.

I find reading novels while traveling difficult. Not impossible, just difficult. A novel is a journey in itself, a voyage into a different world that requires concentration and commitment to fully comprehend. A good novel takes me away from where I am. (Sometimes too far, sometimes to places I’d rather be.) It’s the world through a wide opening — or at least through a doorway, rather than a keyhole. It’s wonderful, but often too much to grapple with when on the road.

What makes poetry so perfect for traveling is its dense brevity. You can pull out a line — any line — and hold it up to the light for hours. Its effect is an ever-changing composite of its surroundings. The same poem, held up against whatever I’m faced with — a field, a stranger’s bare clavicle, a back alley, my own reflection in a smudged window — will give me something different every time. There’s great comfort in that, the knowledge that the things we know, when compared against the things we don’t, will grow and expand.

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Being able to draw a line between the unusual and the familiar is to walk toward understanding. Homesickness, then, can be an important part of processing what is new, and the poetry that is best for travel is that which reminds us of home. For me, that is Seamus Heaney, and within Heaney’s opus, it’s his 1979 collection, “Field Work.”

The phrase “field work” might seem stationary, bringing to mind, as it does for me, imagery of farmers, black loam, tethered oxen, shovels and plows. I come not from rural Ireland, but from a farm in rural Canada, and I can relate to the bones of Heaney’s life and work: a laboring family, a father busy with farm chores, finding oneself slightly outside the local culture, belonging neither here nor there. Farmers tend not to travel, at least not the ones I know, but they are models of small yet consequential movements. Their planting and herding alters the world around them, and thereby creates at home what the traveler seeks elsewhere: an ever-changing view and the opportunity to experiment.

“Field Work” is that rare literary creation that isn’t static. It accomplishes what actual field work does: It puts you outside, dirty, tired and happy. Like Tolstoy a century before him, Heaney changed the way humans related to themselves. He wasn’t a voice of the people, but the voice of a kind of person. In Heaney, the inarticulate, the mumblers, the provincial found a powerful well source of description to draw from. So did those who cannot explain why they continue to leave home, those traveling homebodies, of whom I am one.

The collection came about from a more observable kind of travel. In 1972, Heaney left Belfast and relocated first to County Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland, and later to Dublin. The poems in “Field Work” reflect his sense of distance from his native Northern Ireland. From the opening poem of the collection, “Oysters,” comes perhaps one of the best evocations of travel and camaraderie, which make natural bedfellows:

We had driven to that coast

Through flowers and limestone

And there we were, toasting friendship,

Laying down a perfect memory

In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Movement and stillness, softness and hardness, light and darkness, laughter and silence, memory and promise: They are all there, clattering together in those five perfect lines.

Elsewhere, he dreams of home. He receives a postcard from one friend and misses the funeral of another. So much travel can be measured by events missed. Heaney’s trick was to make something out of that loss; the consolation he found in creating poetry was worth the missing. Experience in that kind of remove — comfort and discomfort, familiarity and foreignness — is travel in a nutshell. In “Homecomings,” Heaney describes returning home, where he watches a sand martin gambol along a riverbank. Driven far afield by commitment and inner desire, Heaney is ready to blame his absenteeism on impulse. However, as he watches the bird tuck itself into its roost, he offers not excuses, but a plea for shelter.

Mould my shoulders inward to you.

Occlude me.

Be damp clay pouting.

Let me listen under your eaves.

Thematically, Heaney’s work could be contemporary to the 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth. They shared many things: rebirth found in nature, homesickness, an existence as a “dedicated spirit.” (The phrase is Wordsworth’s.) The Moyola River, which appears in “Glanmore Sonnets,” is to Heaney what the River Derwent was to Wordsworth. That “Field Work” was published in the same era that Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher was rocking his way around Ireland seems bizarre, and it speaks to the dusky, moss-grown modernism of Ireland, where artists can seem out of touch while having their fingers firmly on the button of the present.

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The landscape of “Field Work” barely leaves Ireland, yet, within its 27 poems, we’re taken to England, France and Sausalito, Calif. Up to the Faroes and down to the Dardanelles. Over the Balkans to Moscow, and back through Tuscany, Ypres and the Basque Country. Aboard the Pequod, and into the depths of Dante’s hell. This both matters and does not.

When Heaney writes of spreading a white tablecloth in a dappled woodland, “like a book of manners in the wilderness,” I’m not there with him. I’m here, where I am now, at a cafe table beside the Douro River, looking down the riverside promenade suffused by sunshine. But the shadows of that woodland pull me toward a memory, and suddenly I’m looking through a smudged bus window, my reflection mixing with the dark hole of an alley the bus is trundling past. Then, unexpectedly, I am back on the white tablecloth, only it is the sheeting of a stranger’s bed, and my eyes are following the line of her exposed collarbone, the curve of which is the same as the handle of a oxen-driven plow. Against that plow, without changing my line of sight, I see my father standing in a field of black loam, lifting and throwing down the speckled head of a shovel, digging to alter the world around him, and my world along with it.

These memories, like images etched into glass, lay one atop the other, each one blending with the next until it’s impossible to tell where each feeling — peace, heartache, gratitude, fear — sprang from. I’m looking through the keyhole, and I’m traveling into the true world before me.

Patterson is a writer based in Portugal. His website is Find him on Twitter: @JRPatterson9.

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