Blackberries: A Homage to Seamus Heaney

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Posted on September 2, 2013

blackberries 2Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking has been lodged in my mind from around the age of thirteen. When I read it now I can taste and smell blackberries and the quickening breeze bringing Autumn in from the north, I can feel the tingle of stingers on my feet (still bravely wearing sandals) and I can hear the urgent calls of swallows preparing for a long southward journey. Unfortunately, though, like the blackberries that Seamus Heaney mourns that rotted in the buckets, when I was younger the vitality of this poem was reduced to mush: my English teacher thought it was a good idea to study the poem in depth for more than half a term, to the exclusion of everything else. And her dull tones and absence of imagination actually managed to divert pleasure away from any piece of writing.

I'm not sure, when I think about it now, whether the poem stuck in my mind because it turned sour, or whether the repetition somehow drilled it into my being. A bit like learning times tables, it has never left me. Every time I pick blackberries I recall it. Whatever the case, I can now celebrate and love this poem. So in honour of Seamus Heaney, whose recent passing has left a sadness for so many, here it is in full.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
Seamus Heaney

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