Casualty

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)

Writing Ideas

1. An elegy for an acquaintance, Seamus Heaney’s poem begins by describing their unlikely friendship. Write a poem about the circumstances of one of your own friendships. Describe, like Heaney, the places you meet and the things you talk about. Try to include as many visceral, telling details as possible.

 

2. Heaney’s poem is shattered by the political violence of his place and time—Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. What political events concern you, or have had an impact on your friends or family? Try writing a poem that addresses the political context in which you live while remaining focused on your own daily life.

 

3. “Casualty” is also an ars poetica—a poem about writing poetry. Heaney compares it to fishing; elsewhere he has compared writing poetry to “Digging.” <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177017> What is it like for you to write a poem? Write your own ars poetica that compares, as Heaney’s does, the activity to something else.

Discussion Questions

1. What comparisons does Heaney make between his own practice of writing poetry and his friend’s love of fishing? How do his feelings about the differences and similarities between himself and his friend change and shift throughout the poem?

 

2. Why does Heaney use sections to divide up his poem? What happens in each section of “Casualty”? How do they relate to each other?

 

3. Make a timeline of the main events in the poem: how does Heaney describe each one? What kinds of words does he use? When and where does he utilize end rhyme, and to what effect?

 

4. Trace the different “turns” the poem takes: look for examples of the word itself, as well as moments when the poem shifts topic, or location. How and why does Heaney move around so much in this poem?

 

5.What kinds of line breaks does Heaney use in “Casualty”? How do they contribute to the tone of the poem? What do—or don’t—they suggest about the speaker’s emotional state?

Teaching Tips

1. Have students read “Easter 1916” by William Butler Yeats. (Try reading Eric Selinger’s excellent introduction to teaching the poem in “Ten Poems I Love to Teach” for help with this.) Talk about any similarities they notice between Yeats’s poem and Heaney’s. Are they formally alike in any ways? Do they have a similar mood? Also discuss differences—is Yeats’s poem easier or more difficult to understand? Have students read Joshua Weiner’s poem guide, or introduce its main ideas to your class. Discuss the two poems in relation to one another again. How does Weiner suggest Heaney is responding to Yeats? Do they agree or disagree? Have students write their own responses to “Casualty.”

 

2. “Casualty” is a political poem that can’t quite decide how it feels about politics. Gather together other examples of poems that speak directly or indirectly to various political situations—you might start with Andrew Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” and end with Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” or John Beer’s “Total Information Awareness.” How do the poems treat their subjects? Is the poet or speaker’s position clear? What kinds of language do they employ or subvert? Are the poems narrative (like Heaney’s) or rhetorical (like Yeats’s)? Have students write their own political poems on a topic of the moment.

More Poems by Seamus Heaney