When celebrated poet and Raleigh native Gibbons Ruark heard that Seamus Heaney, his cherished friend of more than 30 years, had died on Aug. 30, he was bereft.
Heaney, the Irish Nobel Laureate, had been a hero, kindred spirit, and touchstone for Ruark since the two men of letters met in the late ’70s.
“I felt strongly from the very beginning that this connection was something important to me,” Ruark says. That connection stayed true over decades and thousands of miles, kept alive via letters, Ruark’s visits to Ireland, and Heaney’s trips to the States.
One of Ruark’s most memorable visits to Dublin to see his friend was on June 16, 1983. Known as Bloomsday to lovers of James Joyce, June 16 is an annual celebration of Dublin’s native son. Aficionados retrace the events of Joyce’s seminal novel Ulysses (set on June 16, 1904) through the streets and pubs of the city.
Ruark had landed on this date by happenstance, but Heaney, who loved Joyce, made sure they celebrated.
“We arranged to meet in a pub in the center of the city early in the evening,” Ruark recalls. Heaney and his wife Marie “took me on this incredible literary pilgrimage and pub tour into the Dublin twilight.”
Ruark’s poem With Thanks for a Shard from Sandycove, reprinted here, “came out of that experience.” The poem recounts the events of the evening, but also pays homage to Joyce (Sandycove is an area of Dublin where Joyce lived for a time; it is also the site of Ulysses’ opening scene). The poem also celebrates some of the sympathies and sentiments the two friends shared.
“I am fond of saying that there are only two kinds of poems, love poems and elegies,” Ruark says. “And when the people you love die, the love poem turns into an elegy. That’s how I feel about this poem. It is a poem of strongly felt affection for both of the Heaneys…and it has become an elegy, even though it was not intended as one.”
The very word “elegiac” shows up in its lines, perhaps as a kind of foreshadowing. “Guilty as charged with a faithless penchant / For the elegiac” refers to both poets, who favored that kind of verse, he says.
The phrase “shy of the quick-drawn line / In the schoolyard dust” refers in part to Heaney’s reluctance as a native Northern Irishman to be drawn into “the Troubles” that were then aflame. References to graves (“a dolmen in some field”) and to “a spade left leaning in a kitchen garden, / Shining like something prized from underground” lend “an edge of mortality” to the poem, Ruark says.
At the same time, that spade, he says, “is waiting for someone to come back and pick it up and start digging again.” Digging was a famous Heaney metaphor, most notable in one of his best-known poems, Digging, about work: that of the field and of the pen.
Ruark says his line “the dark was general / Over the suburbs” is an echo of the phrase “snow was general all over Ireland” in the last paragraph of Joyce’s short story The Dead. The poet says the line came from his subconscious when he wrote it, and that he only recognized its significance later.
Other things seem significant to him now, too.
“Since we were separated by the Atlantic, there was always the chance that a farewell would be a last farewell,” Ruark says. Nevertheless, the last time he saw Heaney – last September, in Dublin – death was far from their minds. Heaney had “fully recovered” from a 2006 stroke. “He was very robust and trim and in good health, always very funny, always deferring to you, and making you feel as if you were an honored guest, and that you weren’t there paying homage to him, but that you were good company.”
They said goodbye that night on a bridge over the city’s Grand Canal in a scene that now plays out in Ruark’s mind as deeply resonant. After they had drinks at the Heaneys’ and a long dinner with their wives, their cab slightly overshot the Ruarks’ guest house. They stopped the taxi on the bridge so they could say farewell before sending the Heaneys on their way. Perhaps it was a hint of what was to come: a crossing over; a happy evening followed by an abrupt goodbye.
Today, Ruark says he laments the unexpected loss of his friend, even as he relishes the gift of their friendship. “We shared first of all, a love of poetry, and a love, often, of the same poets. I think we also took great pleasure in good company.”
WITH THANKS FOR A SHARD FROM SANDYCOVE
for Seamus Heaney
Late afternoon we idled on a bench
In memory of the man from Inniskeen,
The slow green water fluent beside us,
High clouds figured among leaves on the surface.
Then down along the strand to Sandycove
And the late-lit water, the sun emigrating
After a parting glance, the distant ferry
Disappearing soundlessly toward Holyhead.
We were laughing, riding the crest of company,
Your beautiful laughing wife and you and I,
When suddenly you tired of hammering
With a pebble at a stubborn boulder
And lifted it and dropped it on another
And handed me the chip that broke away.
I thought of the brute possibilities
In those farmer’s hands, the place they came from,
What they might have done instead of simply
Dropping one stone on another to give
This pilgrim a shard of where he’d been.
You lifted that heaviness handily,
Keeping it briefly elevated in the air
As if more nearly the weight of a bowl
Of sacramental lather than the capstone
Of a dolmen in some field near Ballyvaughan.
Guilty as charged with a faithless penchant
For the elegiac, shy of the quick-drawn line
In the schoolyard dust, we prayed for nothing
Less than calm in the predawn hours and the laughter
Of disarming women when the hangman comes.
The sea grew dark, and then the dark was general
Over the suburbs, the window where I slept
Thrown open on the moon picking out the angle
Of a spade left leaning in a kitchen garden,
Shining like something prized from underground.