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Listen Now Again: the life and work of Seamus Heaney

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Kerrie O’Brien writes:

Listen Now Again, the new exhibition devoted to the life and work of Seamus Heaney, has officially opened in the new Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre on College Green.

The extensive archive of material was donated by Heaney to the National Library of Ireland in 2011 and has been brillantly curated by Professor Geraldine Higgins.

On arrival, the first thing that greets you is a specially commissioned sculpture by Maser titled ‘Let Go, Let Fly, Forget’; a suspended mobile of colorful paper that swirls up into the ceiling, beginning with simple flat pages that fold origami-like and transform into birds. The title is a nod to Heaney’s ‘Station Island’ and the piece beautifully represents Heaney’s ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

From there you move into the cool and spacious interior of the exhibition which aptly begins with a proof copy of ‘Digging’ sent to Heaney by the New Statesman ahead of its publication of three of his poems in 1964. It was these works that caught the eye of editors at Faber & Faber who approached the poet about a manuscript and ignited his career.

From there the archive moves chronologically, tracing Heaney’s countryside beginnings at Mossbawn, his childhood at Bellaghy and the close family relationships which informed so much of his work. I was surprised to discover that in some of Heaney’s earliest poems, which appeared in the Queens University student literary journal ‘Gorgan’, he used the pseudonym ‘Incertus’, which is Latin for ‘uncertain’. There are little gems of discovery like this scattered throughout so I recommend paying close attention to the texts that accompany the items on display.

From there you walk through an archway above which rests a turf spade and looming from the ground ahead is a video screen displaying images of the Tollund Man and other ‘bog bodies’ that were another source of huge inspiration for Heaney. It is here that the exhibition becomes wonderfully interactive; actual sods of turf stacked in the walls, magnetic ear pieces that play favourite songs of Heaney and a beautiful recitation of his poem ‘Punishment’ by Salmon Rushdie. Further on there is even a rainstick which you can twirl and hear the rush of sound as you read the poem along side it.

The space is thoughtfully laid out, with benches that encourage you to sit and reflect upon Heaney’s words which adorn the walls. It is also dimly lit and air conditioned; a welcome refuge during this heatwave.

Throughout the displays are various drafts of well known poems with handwritten marginalia and corrections that feel intimate and give you an insight into how Heaney’s mind worked; how poems are almost like equations that need to be worked out. Some of them are wonderfully unexpected; for example an early draft of ‘Bogland’ has the line ‘soft as banana’ which was later altered to ‘soft as pulp’ and in these myriad ways you get a sense of his creative process, crafting and honing to achieve the most powerful images in his work.

From there the political aspect of Heaney’s work is explored including a wall dedicated to the newspaper headlines from the era of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Heaney’s collaborations with The Field Day Theatre Company and an open letter to Penguin stating his unease at being included in their 1982 Anthology of British Poetry where he writes ‘…be advised/ My passport’s green./ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen’. Le Brocquy’s portait of Heaney is also on display alongside a copy of his Nobel Prize medal and other treasured personal items including a lamp once owned by W.B. Yeats.

What stood out most for me throughout Listen Now Again is that Heaney was truly a family man. The hundreds of family Christmas cards, some illustrated by his daughter Catherine, which were printed and sent every year adorn one of the walls along with gifts and anecdotes from his children and grandchildren who were celebrated in his work throughout his career along with love poems dedicated to his wife Marie. Towards the end of his life the importance of human connection and family became recurring themes.

Heaney’s down to earth nature is reflected in the simple, lined A4 notebooks he wrote in and particularly in his desk, a wooden board resting on two filing cabinets, humble and practical. It was Heaney himself who carried in the boxes containing his literary archives from the boot of his car to the National Library without any fanfare.

Towards the end of ‘Listen Now Again’ is a very simple video montage of tweets and tributes that came flooding out after Heaney’s unexpected death in 2013 and I found these moving and emotional to read. The influence of Heaney, the tremendous connection he had with people all over the world is staggering and the weight of his loss suddenly hits you.

But then you see something beautiful. As you approach the exit you are met with the words ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ painted in huge white letters, again by Maser, a reference to the text message Heaney sent in Latin to his wife Marie; his final words. It is a perfect ending to an exhibition that truly honours the life and work of this incredible man.

(c) Kerrie O’Brien

Photographs (c) Marc O’ Sullivan

Kerrie O’ Brien’s poetry has featured in Cyphers, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, RTE Arena, Sunday Miscellany, The RTE Bookshow, The Irish Examiner and Southword among others. She holds a BA in History of Art and Classics from Trinity College Dublin. Her debut collection of poetry Illuminate was published by Salmon Poetry in October 2016.

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