Time period: 1966-1972
Poet: Seamus Heaney
Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17kvq
Unless his hair was fine-combed
The lice, they said, would gang up
Into a mealy rope
And drag him, small, dirty, doomed
Down to the water. He was
Cautious then in riverbank
Fields. Thick as a birch trunk
That cable flexed in the grass
Every time the wind passed. Years
Later in the same fields
He stood at night when eels
Moved through the grass like hatched fears
Towards the water. To stand
In one place as the field flowed
Past, a jellied road,
To watch the eels crossing land
Re-wound his world's live girdle.
Phosphorescent, sinewed slime
Continued at his feet. Time
Confirmed the horrid cable.
A gland agitating
mud two hundred miles in-
land, a scale of water
on water sperming up
estuaries, he drifted
into motion half-way
across the Atlantic,
sure as the satellite's
in the ocean, as true
to his orbit.
ebb, current, rock, rapids
a muscled icicle
that melts itself longer
and fatter, he buries
his arrival beyond
light and tidal water,
investing silt and sand
with a sleek root. By day
only the drainmaker's
spade or the mud paddler
can make him abort. Dark
unsheathes him hungering
down each undulation.
Lamps dawdle in the field at midnight.
Three men follow their nose in the grass,
The lamps' beam their prow and compass.
The bucket's handle better not clatter now:
Silence and curious light gather bait.
Nab him, but wait
For the first shrinking, tacky on the thumb.
Let him re-settle backwards in his tunnel.
Then draw steady and he'll come.
Among the millions whorling their mud coronas
Under dewlapped leap and bowed blades
A few are bound to be rustled in these night raids,
Innocent ventilators of the ground
Making the globe a perfect fit,
A few are bound to be cheated of it
When lamps dawdle in the field at midnight,
When fishers need a garland for the bay
And have him, where he needs to come, out of the clay.
A line goes out of sight and out of mind
Down to a soft bottom of silt and sand
Past the indifferent skill of the hunting hand.
A bouquet of small hooks coiled in the stern
Is being paid out, back to its true form,
Until the bouquet's hidden in the worm.
The boat rides forward where the line slants back.
The oars in their locks go round and round.
The eel describes his arcs without a sound.
The gulls fly an umbrella overhead,
Treading air as soon as the line runs out,
Responsive acolytes above the boat.
Not sensible of any kyrie,
The fishers, who don't know and never try,
Pursue the work in hand as destiny.
They clear the bucket of the last chopped worms,
Pitching them high, good riddance, earthy shower.
The gulls encompass them before the water.
They're busy in a high boat
That stalks towards Antrim, the power cut.
The line's a filament of smut
Drawn hand over fist
Where every three yards a hook's missed
Or taken (and the smut thickens, wrist-
Thick, a flail
Lashed into the barrel
With one swing). Each eel
Comes aboard to this welcome:
The hook left in gill or gum,
It's slapped into the barrel numb
But knits itself, four-ply,
With the furling, fat, slippy
Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly
That stays continuously one
For each catch they fling in
Is sucked home like lubrication.
And wakes are enwound as the catch
On the morning water: which
Boat was which?
And when did this begin?
This morning, last year, when the lough first spawned?
The crows will answer, "Once the season's in."
In ponds, drains, dead canals
she turns her head back,
older now, following
till she's at sea in grass
and damned if she'll turn so
it's new trenches, sunk pipes,
swamps, running streams, the loch,
the river. Her stomach
shrunk, she exhilerates
in mid-water. Its throbbing
is speed through days and weeks.
I don't know if she knows
Her depth or direction;
She's passed Malin and/Tory, silent, wakeless,
a wisp, a wick that is
its own taper and light
through the weltering dark.
Where she's lost once she lays
ten thousand feet down in
her origins. The current's
a slick of orphaned spawn.
The lough will claim a victim every year.
It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.
There is a town sunk beneath its water.
It is the scar left by the Isle of Man.
At Toomebridge where it sluices towards the sea
They've set new gates and tanks against the flow.
From time to time they break the lost journey
And lift five hundred stone in one go.
But up the shore in Antrim and Tyrone
There is a sense of fair play in the game.
At two miles out, they coax them one by one,
These fishermen who've never learnt to swim.
"We'll be the quicker going down," they say -
And when you argue there are not storms here,
That one hour floating's sure to land them safely -
"The lough will claim a victim every year."