If the twine unravels to the very end
the stuff gathering under my fingernails
is being picked off whitewash at the bedside.
And the stuff gathering in my ear
is their sex-pruned and unfurtherable
moss-talk, incubated under lamplight,
which will have to be unlearned
even though from there on everything
is going to be learning.
So the twine unwinds and loosely widens
backward through areas that forwarded
understandings of all I would undertake.
I read this poem, named “Unwinding,” by Seamus Heaney this morning at my family’s Christmas table. The collection of poetry, Station Island, has sat next to my bed since I bought the book in May, 2011 in a bookstore in the northern California hippie town of Arcata. I was on a road trip down to San Francisco to see my cousin. I had kept the road trip a complete secret from my co-workers, as well, telling them that I had a friend in town and we were going to spend a long weekend on the southern Oregon Coast. I felt very privately obsessed with California, with my journey, and maybe with a man there that I had decided at the last minute to contact en route.
I drove southwest from Grants Pass on Highway 199 in the spring night a year and a half ago. I was alone in the redwoods for the first time in my life. I was singing hallelujah out of the window to the stars. To a river cutting through the woods, I sang about refusing to sing.
In the morning: The Pacific Ocean was battering the edge of this promised land. I was feverish with the cool palm of the ocean air pressed to my forehead. I drove to Arcata.
I remember being decidedly unimpressed by the bookstore’s cluttered interior. But I can’t resist a used bookstore and I wanted to get a graduation present for the medical student I’d met once the previous fall. I wonder if they have any Raymond Carver, I thought. They did.
I found a copy of Where I’m Calling From, a later collection of stories that is less skeletal than Carver’s early writing and contains my (and Kait’s) favorite story. A few hours later, I would walk into a redwood forest further down Highway 101 and pick wildflowers and press them into the pages. The medical student would open the book while I sat next to him and see the flowers. He would smile at me gently. I think he understood where I was calling from, but I never saw him again.
And I found Station Island, published in 1984, at that bookstore. Sometimes, I’ll riffle through the pages before bed. Heaney lusts for meaning, for contradictions, and his writing is both restrained and transcendent: “My hidebound boundary tree. My tree of knowledge. / My thick-tapped, soft-fledged, airy listening post” (In the Beech). He is often listening, watching, and rolling the world’s changes around in his perceptions, which he’ll arrange into report-like poems for the reader. Then, he vanishes.
How perfectly fitting for my road trip that the Irish-Catholic poet and medieval scholar, Heaney, published this collection of poetry on the theme of searching for spiritual meaning and purpose the same year of my birth. Station Island, the place, is the manifestation of hope, fasting, and penitence.The legend behind the place holds that in the fifth century, Christ appeared to St. Patrick on the island and revealed to him the cave through which one might pass into Purgatory. The island sits in a lake in northwest Ireland, close to the border of Northern Ireland. How St. Patrick would have gotten onto the island is, I suppose, a smaller miracle.
It was the revelation of this gateway to hell that gave St. Patrick hope to continue his mission to convert pagans to Christianity. Today, believers travel to the site to participate in a three-day pilgrimage of prayer and fasting. Heaney did not consider himself a believer when he traveled to this site, but he does not blink at the rituals of the pilgrims, even when they interrogate him on his true intentions in being there (a priest accuses him of visiting the site only in a detached curiosity). Not so: Once upon a time, Heaney had held the faith for himself. His writing is open and, as a 1985 review of the book in The New Yorker stated: “Everywhere, Heaney’s inner life gives life to outer life, attaching to it the felt inner coursings of physical and mental existence.”
This solo road trip to San Francisco was significant because the journey cracked me out of an anxiety I’d had about being in the company of other humans. With my exuberant cousin and the wonder of citrus trees, my sulky adherence to introversion evaporated on a twilight car ride in Tilden Regional Park. I realized that the unknowns, all 1,300 miles of them, might contain more joy when experienced in the company of others. I drove the penitential miles back to Portland with an open heart. I would never see that medical student again, I knew, but the road was before me. The miles.
On the penitential grounds of Station Island, Heaney imagines encounters with ghosts of Irish literature, including Patrick Kavanagh and James Joyce, as well as St. John of the Cross. Joyce appears to Heaney with a “fish-cold and bony” hand, swinging a stick and voicing cantankerous advice: “‘Your obligation / is not discharged by any common rite. / What you must do must be done on your own / so get back in harness. The main thing is to write / for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust / that imagines its haven like your hands at night / . . .Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest, / let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. / You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.'”
The PDXX Collective will launch back into its writing harness next Monday, New Year’s Eve, with its array of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photography from the women writers of our time. Until then, happy holidays!