Blackberry-Picking – Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

I’m still mourning the loss of this great Irish poet. His talent for words and language notwithstanding, I can’t help but read his work in the Irish brogue I once grew used to. “A glossy purple clot.” How brilliant. I love blackberry poems—this, Galway Kinnell’s, Sylvia Plath’s…there seem to have been others, though maybe I’ve read those so much that they seem more numerous. At any rate, I hadn’t read this one until today and, if it is too maudlin and melodramatic to say it opened the wound Heaney’s death has left on the world, at least for me, it is nonetheless true.

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