Station Island

Seamus Heaney


Everything still. The thump as the car door shut
reported like a distant quarry blast
soundproofed across miles of standing heat;

and now the heat was muttering with a boat
I searched for where it bobbed against the glare
in and out of focus like a mote.

Behind it, the black line of the island
with its dome and hostel, and all around
low hills, baled hay, whin bushes blossoming.

Sunshine. Mea culpa. I foresaw
penitents in shirtsleeves and blouses
coming barefoot from the basilica

out to an iron cross to renounce the world
that shimmered up at them
toiling among stone beds, intent and sunburned.

Ave and Gloria. I had sleepwalked
to the fold, among bead-clicks and murmurs
back into that dolorous book of hours,

the fug of confessionals, altars
where candles died insinuating slight
intimate smells of wax at body heat.

I heard the boat
clunk to and next thing was being handed down
into it where it rocked on its reflection.

As other pilgrims boarded, a wobbly
tilt and lift rose through me, crouching
on the thwarts, estranged in my own body,

my eyes shut, my arms tight round my knees.
Then the load had filled, the movement steadied,
I relaxed to casual voices,

an outboard motor sputtering, a slow
heave and slicing forward as we cast off
and spray came spitting in over the prow.

Another jetty loomed. Shadows rose
like trees burning in the sun above us,
then through a stirred-up desultory buzz

of voices a voice I recognized
shouted and swore and then apologized
for swearing, all in one breath, as I was hoisted

up off the dipping gunwale. “Get them off.”
He pointed at my shoes. “The primrose path
ends here, my boy. On behalf of

your barefoot generations, welcome, welcome!”
As ever, he was stern and humorous
and I was not even surprised to meet him

for he had always seemed a familiar
of famished, stony places, anywhere
heartfelt and desolate–wallsteads, Gaeltacht roads.

He stood there smiling as I bent down
to unlace my shoes, as if I had pleased him
at last, oblivious of the obstruction

he caused the people who were disembarking
all around us. Then he started to sing,
his head to one side, the old turned-in look

in his eyes, and the torqued sorrowing gracenotes
made a well of twilight in the afternoon
where others gathered quietly in a ring.

Everything still. They were all listening
beyond themselves. They had gone round and round
the stone circles of beds and round the island

so many times now everything was wound
in one fixed gaze ahead. But suddenly
a shout: "Is this St. Patrick's Purgatory

or is it not?" A bad-tempered, scuffed soutane
and flat biretta came hurrying down
the jetty, barking, "Come on, come on,

what do you think this is? A Dublin disco?
Back to your pilgrimage, the lot of you."
And the place was cleared, as if a warning shot

had scared the birds off fields of new-sown corn.


An old man's hands, like soft paws rowing forward,
groped for and warded off the air ahead.
Barney Murphy shuffled on the concrete.
Master Murphy. I heard the weakened voice
bulling in sudden rage all over again
and fell in behind, my eyes fixed on his heels
like a man lifting swathes at a mower's heels.
His sockless feet were like the dried broad-bean
that split its stitches in the display jar
high on a window in the old classroom,
white as shy faces at the classroom door.
“Master” those elders whispered, “I wonder, master…”
rustling envelopes, proffering them, withdrawing,
and “Master” I repeated to myself
so that he stopped but did not turn or move,
his shoulders gone quiet and small, his head'
vigilant in the wind that gusted round us.
Then I moved on and faced him, shook his hand.
Above the winged collar, his mottled face
went distant in a smile as the voice
readied itself and husked and scraped "Good man,
good man yourself, before it lapsed again
in the limbo and dry urn of the larynx.
The adam's apple in its weathered sac
worked like the plunger of a pump in drought
but yielded nothing to help the helpless smile.
Morning fields smells came past on the wind,
the sex-cut of sweetbriar after rain,
split chestnut-shells, birds' nests filled with leaves
“You'd have thought that Anahorish School
was purgatory enough for any man,"
I said, “you've done your station.”
A little trembling happened, then a breath
rushed the air softly as scythes in meadow grass:
“Birch trees have overgrown Leitrim moss,
dairy herds are grazing where the school was
and the school garden's loose black mould is grass.”
And he was gone and I was faced wrong way
into pilgrims absorbed in their exercise.
As I stood among their whispers and bare feet
the mists of all those mornings I set out
for Latin classes with him, face to face,
refreshed me. Mensa, mensa, mensam
sang in the air like busy sharping stones…
“We'll go some day to my uncle's farm at Toome–”
Another master spoke. “For what is the great
moving power and spring of verse? Feeling, and
in particular, love. When I went last year
I drank three cups of water from the well.
It was very cold. It stung me in the ears.
You should have met him–” Coming in as usual
with the rubbed quotation and his cocked bird’s eye
dabbing for detail. When you're on the road
give lifts to people, you'll always learn something.
There he went, in his belted gaberdine.


Freckle-face, fox-head, pod of the broom,
Catkin-pixie, little fern-swish:
Where did she arrive from?
Like a wish wished
And gone, her I chose at “secrets”
And whispered to. When we were playing houses.
I was sunstruck at the basilica door–
A stillness far away, a space, a dish,
A blackened tin and knocked over stool–
Like a tramped neolithic floor
Uncovered among dunes where the bent grass
Whispers on like reeds about Midas’s
Secrets, secrets. I shut my ears to the bell.
Head hugged. Eyes shut. Leaf ears. Don't tell. Don't tell.

A stream of pilgrims answering the bell
Trailed up the steps as I went down them
Towards the bottle-green, still
Shade of an oak. Shades of the Sabine farm
On the beds of Saint Patrick's Purgatory.
Late summer, country distance, not an air:
Loosen the toga for wine and poetry
Till Phoebus returning routs the morning star.
As a somnolent hymn to Mary rose
I felt an old pang that bags of grain
And the sloped shafts of forks and hoes
Once mocked me with, at my own long virgin
Fasts and thirsts, my nightly shadow feasts,
Haunting the granaries of words like breasts.

Once I was strung across a hurtful space.
She sat cross-legged, the fiddle to her cheek
Exclusive and tense
On the fine tightrope of a piece by Bruch.
And once at a high dormer, when I looked back,
Her face
Dragged like a bunch of blanched worms on a hook
Snagged among bushes.
The hook had marked my back but I was running
Away. Now the line had snapped
And the tables turned, she was the one trapped
And the long spell she cast, broken.
A great gulf lay between us from the first.
O dip your finger once, allay this thirst.

As if I knelt for years at a keyhole
Mad for it, and all that ever opened
was the breathed-on grill of a confessional
Until that night I saw her honey-skinned
Shoulder-blades and the wheatlands of her back
Through the wide keyhole of her keyhole dress
And a window facing the deep south of luck
Opened and I inhaled the land of kindness.
As little flowers that were all bowed and shut
By the night chills, rise on their sterns and open
As soon as they have felt the touch of sunlight
So I revived in my own wilting powers
And my heart flushed, like somebody set free.
Translated, for her, under the oak tree.


I had come to the edge of the water,
soothed by just looking, idling over it
as if it were a clear barometer

or a mirror, when his reflection
did not appear but I sensed a presence
entering into my concentration

on not being concentrated as he spoke
my name. And though I was reluctant
I turned to meet his face and the shock

is still in me what I saw. His brow
was blown open above the eye and blood
had dried on his neck and cheek. “Easy now,”

he said. “it’s only me. You’ve seen men as raw
after a football match…What time it was
when I was wakened up I still don’t know

but I heard this knocking, knocking, and it
scared me, like the phone in the small hours,
so I had the sense not to put out the light

but looked out from behind the curtain.
I saw two customers on the doorstep
and an old landrover with the doors open

parked on the street so I let the curtain drop;
but they must have been waiting for it to move
for they shouted to come down into the shop.

She started to cry then and roll round the bed,
lamenting and lamenting to herself,
not even asking who it was. ‘Is your head

astray, or what's come over you?’ I roared, more
to bring myself to my senses
than out of any real anger at her

for the knocking shook me, the way they kept it up,
and her whinging and half-screeching made it worse.
All the time they were shouting ‘Shop!

Shop!’ so I pulled on my shoes and a sportscoat
and went back to the window and called out,
‘What do you want? Could you quieten the racket

or I’ll not come down at all.’ ‘There's a child not well.
Open up and see what you have got–pills
or a powder or something in a bottle,’

one of them said. He stepped back off the footpath
so I could see his face in the streetlamp
and when the other moved I knew them both.

But bad and all as the knocking was, the quiet
hit me worse. She was quiet herself now,
lying dead still, whispering- to watch out.

At the bedroom door I switched on the light.
‘It's odd they didn't look for a chemist.
Who are they anyway at this time of the night?’

she asked me, with the eyes standing in her head.
‘I know them to see,’ I said, but something
made me reach and squeeze her hand across the bed

before I went downstairs into the aisle
of the shop. I stood there, going weak
in the legs. I remember the stale smell

of cooked meat or something coming through
as I went to open up. From then on
you know as much about it as I do.”

“Did they say nothing?” “Nothing. What would they say?”
“Were they in uniform? Not masked in any way?”
“They were barefaced as they would be in the day,

shites thinking they were the be-all and the end-all.”
“Not that it is any consolation,
but they were caught,” I told him, “and got jail.”

Big-limbed, decent, open-faced, he stood
forgetful of everything now except
whatever was welling up in his spoiled head,

beginning to smile. “You've put on weight
since you did your courting in that big Austin
you used to get the loan of every Sunday night.”

But he himself had hardly aged.
There always was an athlete's cleanliness
shining off him and except for the ravaged

forehead and the blood, he was still that same
rangy midfielder in a blue jersey
and starched pants, the one stylist on the team,

the perfect, clean, unthinkable victim.
“Forgive the way I have lived indifferent
forgive my timid circumspect involvement,"

I surprised myself by saying. “Forgive
my eye,” he said , “all that's above my head.”
And then a stun of pain seemed to go through him

and he trembled like a heatwave and faded.

*These are sections of a longer poem bearing the name of the island on Lough Derg in northern Ireland where pilgrims––following the legend of St. Patrick–perform each summer the spiritual exercises which involve fasting and praying barefoot for three days.

Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet, playwright, and translator who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
Originally published:
October 1, 1983


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