Seamus Heaney (Photo: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

"Trust the Feel of what Nubbed Treasure your Hands have known”

The Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney died ten years ago. A Virgil in an age of uncertainty, recounted in the December issue of Tracce
Luca Fiore

Giampiero Neri, a Milanese poet who passed away this year, used to say that poetry never ends. It was his somewhat provocative way of explaining that art is not trapped in forms and canons. It is rather something wild, like a fawn crossing our path at night. Poetry is a moment of truth.

In his speech at the awarding of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, Seamus Heaney related an anecdote that has the flavour of the poetry that Neri loved. It is about one of the most harrowing events in Northern Ireland's history. On an evening in January 1976, a van full of workers returning from work was stopped by the guns of a group of masked men. The passengers were forced off and lined up at the edge of the road. "Those of you who are Catholics, come forward," said one of the terrorists. All but one were Protestants. The conviction was that they had run into a group of pro-English paramilitaries. Stand firm and save themselves or make a gesture of heroic witness? The very instant the man started to move, he felt his Protestant neighbour trying to hold him back by shaking his hand, as if to say: “No one needs to know what faith you are.” But it was now too late. The Catholic worker was not even in time to realize that his Protestant comrades were shot down by a barrage of IRA bullets. The poet concluded: “The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens. As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note.”

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