Contemporary poets 10: Seamus Heaney

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The Independent Culture
Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1939. Since Death of a Naturalist in 1966 he has published nine further collections of poetry (Seeing Things, 1991, is the latest), and is widely regarded as one of the best poets writing in English today. He is Bolyston Professor at Harvard, and has been Professor of Poetry at Oxford since 1989. This new poem is based on an Igbo story and is dedicated to the memory of the Nigerian scholar and critic Donatus Nwoga, who was a student with Heaney at Queen's University, Belfast, in the 1950s.


In memory of Donatus Nwoga

When human beings found out about death

They sent the dog to Chukwu with a message:

They wanted to be let back to the house of life.

They didn't want to end up lost forever

Like burnt wood disappearing into smoke

And ashes that get blown away to nothing.

Instead, they saw their souls in a flock at twilight

Cawing and headed back for the same old roosts

(The dog was meant to tell all this to Chukwu).

But death and human beings took second place

When he trotted off the path and started barking

At another dog in broad daylight just barking

Back at him from the far bank of a river.

And that was how the toad reached Chukwu first,

The toad who'd overheard in the beginning

What the dog was meant to tell. 'Human beings' he said,

(And here the toad was trusted absolutely),

'Human beings want death to last forever.'

Then Chukwu saw the people's souls in birds

Coming towards him like black spots off the sunset

To where there were no roosts or nests or trees

And his mind reddened and darkened all at once

And nothing that the dog would tell him later

Could change that vision. Great chiefs and great loves

Obliterating light, the toad in mud,

The dog crying out all night behind the corpse house.

(Photograph omitted)