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Station Island

Station Island

by Seamus Heaney


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The title poem of this collection, set on an Irish island, tells of a pilgrim on an inner journey that leads him back into the world that formed him, and then forward to face the crises of the present. Writing in The Washington Post Book World, Hugh Kenner called this narrative sequence "as fine a long poem as we've had in fifty years."

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374519353
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/01/1986
Pages: 124
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.29(d)

About the Author

Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Read an Excerpt

Station Island

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1985 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5579-3



    The Underground

    There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
    You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
    And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
    Upon you before you turned to a reed

    Or some new white flower japped with crimson
    As the coat flapped wild and button after button
    Sprang off and fell in a trail
    Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

    Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
    Our echoes die in that corridor and now
    I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
    Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

    To end up in a draughty lamplit station
    After the trains have gone, the wet track
    Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
    For your step following and damned if I look back.

    La Toilette

    The white towelling bathrobe
    ungirdled, the hair still wet,
    first coldness of the underbreast
    like a ciborium in the palm.

    Our bodies are the temples
    of the Holy Ghost.
    And the little, fitted, deep-slit drapes
    on and off the holy vessels

    regularly? And the chasuble
    so deftly hoisted? But vest yourself
    in the word you taught me
    and the stuff I love: slub silk.

    Sloe Gin

    The clear weather of juniper
    darkened into winter.
    She fed gin to sloes
    and sealed the glass container.

    When I unscrewed it
    I smelled the disturbed
    tart stillness of a bush
    rising through the pantry.

    When I poured it
    it had a cutting edge
    and flamed
    like Betelgeuse.

    I drink to you
    in smoke-mirled, blue-black,
    polished sloes, bitter
    and dependable.

    Away from It All

    A cold steel fork
    pried the tank water
    and forked up a lobster:
    articulated twigs, a rainy stone
    the colour of sunk munitions.

    In full view of the strand,
    the sea wind spitting on the big window,
    we plunged and reddened it,
    then sat for hours in conclave
    over the last of the claws.

    It was twilight, twilight, twilight
    as the questions hopped and rooted.
    It was oarsmen's backs and oars
    hauled against and lifting.
    And more power to us, my friend,

    hard at it over the dregs,
    laying in in earnest
    as the sea darkens
    and whitens and darkens
    and quotations start to rise

    like rehearsed alibis:
    I was stretched between contemplation
    of a motionless point
    and the command to participate
    actively in history.

What do you mean?'
    The light at the rim of the sea
    is rendered down to a fine
    graduation, somewhere between
    balance and inanition.

    And I still cannot clear my head
    of lives in their element
    on the cobbled floor of that tank
    and the hampered one, out of water,
    fortified and bewildered.

    Chekhov on Sakhalin
    for Derek Mahon

    So, he would pay his 'debt to medicine'.
    But first he drank cognac by the ocean
    With his back to all he travelled north to face.
    His head was swimming free as the troikas

    Of Tyumin, he looked down from the rail
    Of his thirty years and saw a mile
    Into himself as if he were clear water:
    Lake Baikhal from the deckrail of the steamer.

    That far north, Siberia was south.
    Should it have been an ulcer in the mouth,
    The cognac that the Moscow literati
    Packed off with him to a penal colony –

    Him, born, you may say, under the counter?
    At least that meant he knew its worth. No cantor
    In full throat by the iconostasis
    Got holier joy than he got from that glass

    That shone and warmed like diamonds warming
    On some pert young cleavage in a salon,
    Inviolable and affronting.
    He felt the glass go cold in the midnight sun.

    When he staggered up and smashed it on the stones
    It rang as clearly as the convicts' chains
    That haunted him. In the months to come
    It rang on like the burden of his freedom

    To try for the right tone – not tract, not thesis –
    And walk away from floggings. He who thought to squeeze
    His slave's blood out and waken the free man
    Shadowed a convict guide through Sakhalin.

    Sandstone Keepsake

    It is a kind of chalky russet
    solidified gourd, sedimentary
    and so reliably dense and bricky
    I often clasp it and throw it from hand to hand.

    It was ruddier, with an underwater
    hint of contusion, when I lifted it,
    wading a shingle beach on Inishowen.
    Across the estuary light after light

    came on silently round the perimeter
    of the camp. A stone from Phlegethon,
    bloodied on the bed of hell's hot river?
    Evening frost and the salt water

    made my hand smoke, as if I'd plucked the heart
    that damned Guy de Montfort to the boiling flood –
    but not really, though I remembered
    his victim's heart in its casket, long venerated.

    Anyhow, there I was with the wet red stone
    in my hand, staring across at the watch-towers
    from my free state of image and allusion,
    swooped on, then dropped by trained binoculars:

    a silhouette not worth bothering about,
    out for the evening in scarf and waders
    and not about to set times wrong or right,
    stooping along, one of the venerators.

    Shelf Life

    1 Granite Chip

    Houndstooth stone. Aberdeen of the mind.

    Saying An union in the cup I'll throw
    I have hurt my hand, pressing it hard around
    this bit hammered off Joyce's Martello
    Tower, this flecked insoluble brilliant

    I keep but feel little in common with –
    a kind of stone age circumcising knife,
    a Calvin edge in my complaisant pith.
    Granite is jaggy, salty, punitive

    and exacting. Come to me, it says
    all you who labour and are burdened, I
    will not refresh you.
And it adds, Seize
    the day.
And, You can take me or leave me.

    2 Old Smoothing Iron

    Often I watched her lift it
    from where its compact wedge
    rode the back of the stove
    like a tug at anchor.

    To test its heat by ear
    she spat in its iron face
    or held it up next her cheek
    to divine the stored danger.

    Soft thumps on the ironing board.
    Her dimpled angled elbow
    and intent stoop
    as she aimed the smoothing iron

    like a plane into linen,
    like the resentment of women.
    To work, her dumb lunge says,
    is to move a certain mass

    through a certain distance,
    is to pull your weight and feel
    exact and equal to it.
    Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.

    3 Old Pewter

    Not the age of silver, more a slither
    of illiteracy under rafters:
    a dented hand-me-down old smoky plate
    full of blizzards, sullied and temperate.

    I love unshowy pewter, my soft option
    when it comes to the metals – next to solder
    that weeps at the touch of a hot iron;
    doleful and placid as a gloss-barked alder

    reflected in the nebulous lid of a pool
    where they thought I had drowned one winter day
    a stone's throw from the house, when the whole
    country was mist and I hid deliberately.

    Glimmerings are what the soul's composed of.
    Fogged-up challenges, far conscience-glitters
    and hang-dog, half-truth earnests of true love.
    And a whole late-flooding thaw of ancestors.

    4 Iron Spike

    So like a harrow pin
    I hear harness creaks and the click
    of stones in a ploughed-up field.
    But it was the age of steam

    at Eagle Pond, New Hampshire,
    when this rusted spike I found there
    was aimed and driven in
    to fix a cog on the line.

    What guarantees things keeping
    if a railway can be lifted
    like a long briar out of ditch growth?
    I felt I had come on myself

    in the grassy silent path
    where I drew the iron like a thorn
    or a word I had thought my own
    out of a stranger's mouth.

    And the sledge-head that sank it
    with a last opaque report
    deep into the creosoted
    sleeper, where is that?

    And the sweat-cured haft?
    Ask the ones on the buggy,
    inaudible and upright
    and sped along without shadows.

    5 Stone from Delphi

    To be carried back to the shrine some dawn
    when the sea spreads its far sun-crops to the south
    and I make a morning offering again:
    that I may escape the miasma of spilled blood,
    govern the tongue, fear hybris, fear the god
    until he speaks in my untrammelled mouth.

    6 A Snowshoe

    The loop of a snowshoe hangs on a wall
    in my head, in a room that is drift-still:
    it is like a brushed longhand character,
    a hieroglyph for all the realms of whisper.

    It was to follow the snow goose of a word
    I left the room after an amorous blizzard
    and climbed up attic stairs like a somnambulist,
    furred and warm-blooded, scuffling the snow-crust.

    Then I sat there writing, imagining in silence
    sounds like love sounds after long abstinence,
    eager and absorbed and capable
    under the sign of a snowshoe on a wall.

    The loop of the snowshoe, like an old-time kite,
    lifts away in a wind and is lost to sight.
    Now I sit blank as gradual morning brightens
    its distancing, inviolate expanse.

    A Migration

    About a mile above
    and beyond our place,
    in a house with a leaking roof
    and cracked dormer windows
    Brigid came to live
    with her mother and sisters.

    So for months after that
    she slept in a crowded bed
    under the branch-whipped slates,
    bewildered night after night
    by starts of womanhood,
    and a dream troubled her head

    of a ship's passenger lounge
    where empty bottles rolled
    at every slow plunge
    and lift, a weeping child
    kept weeping, and a strange
    flowing black taxi pulled

    into a bombed station.
    She would waken to the smell
    of baby clothes and children
    who snuggled tight, and the small
    dormer with no curtain
    beginning to go pale.

    Windfalls lay at my feet
    those days, clandestine winds
    stirred in our lyric wood:
    restive, quick and silent
    the deer of poetry stood
    in pools of lucent sound

    ready to scare,
    as morning and afternoon
    Brigid and her sisters
    came jangling along, down
    the steep hill for water,
    and laboured up again.

    Familiars! A trail
    of spillings in the dust,
    unsteady white enamel
    buckets looming. Their ghosts,
    like their names, called from the hill
    to 'Hurry', hurry past,

    a spill of syllables.
    I knew the story then.
    Ferry Glasgow-Belfast,
    then to the Dublin train
    with their cases and boxes,
    pram and cassette machine,

    and then they miss the bus,
    their last Wicklow connection –
    the young ones scared and cross
    in the lit bus station,
    the mother at a loss.
    And so in desperation

    they start out for the suburbs
    and into the small hours.
    How it sweetens and disturbs
    as they make their homesick tour,
    a moonlight flit, street arabs,
    the mother and her daughters

    walking south through the land
    past neon garages,
    night lights haloed on blinds,
    padlocked entries, bridges
    swelling over a kind
    mutter of streams, then trees

    start filling the sky
    and the estates thin out,
    lamps are spaced more widely
    until a cold moonlight
    shows Wicklow's mountainy
    black skyline, and they sit.

    They change the cassette
    but now the battery's gone.
    They cannot raise a note.
    When the first drops of rain
    spit in the dark, Brigid
    gets up and says, 'Come on.'


Excerpted from Station Island by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1985 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
The Underground,
La Toilette,
Sloe Gin,
Away from It All,
Chekhov on Sakhalin,
Sandstone Keepsake,
Shelf Life,
1. Granite Chip,
2. Old Smoothing Iron,
3. Old Pewter,
4. Iron Spike,
5. Stone from Delphi,
6. A Snowshoe,
A Migration,
Last Look,
Remembering Malibu,
Making Strange,
The Birthplace,
An Ulster Twilight,
A Bat on the Road,
A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann,
A Kite for Michael and Christopher,
The Railway Children,
An Aisling in the Burren,
Sheelagh na Gig,
The Loaning,
The Sandpit,
The King of the Ditchbacks,
Station Island,
The First Gloss,
Sweeney Redivivus,
In the Beech,
The First Kingdom,
The First Flight,
Drifting Off,
The Cleric,
The Hermit,
The Master,
The Scribes,
A Waking Dream,
In the Chestnut Tree,
Sweeney's Returns,
An Artist,
The Old Icons,
In Illo Tempore,
On the Road,
Books by Seamus Heaney,

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"Seamus Heaney is one of the most admired poets writing in English to have emerged in the last 20 years, and if you open 'Station Island' almost anywhere you will soon see why. Powerful images; compelling rhythms; a distinctive palette; phrases packed tight with meaning - Mr. Heaney has all the primary gifts of a poet."—The New York Times "Striking."—Publishers Weekly

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