Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a giant of Northern Irish poetry. He translated Beowulf into lively, modern language. Heaney was an immensely popular ambassador of poetry. I have read a poem about strange fruits by Heaney before, and today I read again a detailed fruity allegory of our life:
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.
I like the precision here. I remember those late Augusts of my childhood and the blackberry picking we did. The thick description of Heaney sounds almost biblical (thick wine, summer’s blood). I too went out with a bucket and my two younger brothers and picked until the bucket was full.
My hands were also peppered with thorn pricks (though later I came prepared and wore gloves). We made jam, every time, boiling it for hours to give germs no chance. Poor Seamus and his friends caught blackberries that were infected with a furry fungus and started to ferment as soon as it was picked. This is the heart of the allegory, and again I feel the proximity to the Bible. The hoarding of the fruit was in vain (oh vanity of vanities) and our hope too is in vain (“knew they would not”).