Casualty

By Seamus Heaney 1939–2013 Seamus Heaney
I   

He would drink by himself   
And raise a weathered thumb   
Towards the high shelf,   
Calling another rum   
And blackcurrant, without   
Having to raise his voice,   
Or order a quick stout   
By a lifting of the eyes   
And a discreet dumb-show   
Of pulling off the top;   
At closing time would go   
In waders and peaked cap   
Into the showery dark,   
A dole-kept breadwinner   
But a natural for work.   
I loved his whole manner,   
Sure-footed but too sly,   
His deadpan sidling tact,   
His fisherman’s quick eye   
And turned observant back.   

Incomprehensible   
To him, my other life.   
Sometimes, on the high stool,   
Too busy with his knife   
At a tobacco plug   
And not meeting my eye,   
In the pause after a slug   
He mentioned poetry.   
We would be on our own   
And, always politic   
And shy of condescension,   
I would manage by some trick   
To switch the talk to eels   
Or lore of the horse and cart   
Or the Provisionals.   

But my tentative art   
His turned back watches too:   
He was blown to bits   
Out drinking in a curfew   
Others obeyed, three nights   
After they shot dead   
The thirteen men in Derry.   
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,   
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday   
Everyone held   
His breath and trembled.   


                   II   

It was a day of cold   
Raw silence, wind-blown   
surplice and soutane:   
Rained-on, flower-laden   
Coffin after coffin   
Seemed to float from the door   
Of the packed cathedral   
Like blossoms on slow water.   
The common funeral   
Unrolled its swaddling band,   
Lapping, tightening   
Till we were braced and bound   
Like brothers in a ring.   

But he would not be held   
At home by his own crowd   
Whatever threats were phoned,   
Whatever black flags waved.   
I see him as he turned   
In that bombed offending place,   
Remorse fused with terror   
In his still knowable face,   
His cornered outfaced stare   
Blinding in the flash.   

He had gone miles away   
For he drank like a fish   
Nightly, naturally   
Swimming towards the lure   
Of warm lit-up places,   
The blurred mesh and murmur   
Drifting among glasses   
In the gregarious smoke.   
How culpable was he   
That last night when he broke   
Our tribe’s complicity?   
‘Now, you’re supposed to be   
An educated man,’   
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me   
The right answer to that one.’


                   III   

I missed his funeral,   
Those quiet walkers   
And sideways talkers   
Shoaling out of his lane   
To the respectable   
Purring of the hearse...   
They move in equal pace   
With the habitual   
Slow consolation   
Of a dawdling engine,   
The line lifted, hand   
Over fist, cold sunshine   
On the water, the land   
Banked under fog: that morning   
I was taken in his boat,   
The Screw purling, turning   
Indolent fathoms white,   
I tasted freedom with him.   
To get out early, haul   
Steadily off the bottom,   
Dispraise the catch, and smile   
As you find a rhythm   
Working you, slow mile by mile,   
Into your proper haunt   
Somewhere, well out, beyond...   

Dawn-sniffing revenant,   
Plodder through midnight rain,   
Question me again.

Seamus Heaney, "Casualty" from Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Field Work (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1981)

RELATED CONTENT

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Seamus Heaney 1939–2013

POET’S REGION Ireland

Subjects Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict, Heroes & Patriotism

Poetic Terms Elegy