Friday, March 9, 2012

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Seamus Heaney's Sloe Gin

I detest poetry. Shameful for an Irishman to admit, but there it is. From Virgil's soporific arma virumque cano to the contemptible J. Alfred Prufrock, I hate it all. Even as I devoured all the pages of Tolkien when I was young, my eyes went dull when he dredged out those horrible, hoary short lines. Lovecraft, so gifted with language, was at his worst when he set to rhyming. It's not that I haven't been exposed to verse; I've translated Ovid and Beowulf, memorized German poetry (yes, there is such a thing), and had an appreciation for the structure of literature crammed into my head by well-meaning Jesuits.

Poetry, though, springs from some alien mindset I simply do not possess. Perhaps this is something diagnosable ("Patient's psychopathy presents clearly in his inability to appreciate neither iambic pentameter nor dactylic hexameter...") or perhaps it's somehow connected to my weird speech.

But ~ if the lines in question pertain to food or drink, I can put aside my revulsion for the genre long enough to understand that others may enjoy it. The barbecue poems of Jake Adam York, for instance. If my eyes glazed reading them, it was at least a tangy barbecue glaze. Give me barbecue over barbecue poems any day, but the world is big enough for both.

Then there's the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. His poem Sloe Gin is one of the rare ones that caught my eye, if not my imagination. Sloes are tart, plum-like fruits culled from hedgerow bushes called blackthorn. In rural parts of the British Isles and isolated spots in North America, the berries are pricked (or sometimes frozen to break down cell walls), then immersed in sugar or syrup and gin, vodka, or other spirits for a long maturation. Regardless of the spirit used, the resulting cordial is a stillroom favorite always dubbed sloe gin.

Here's Heaney.

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 sloes, bitter
and dependable.

-- Seamus Heaney (1984) Station Island

If you've made it this far, pour yourself a glass of sweet sloe nectar and listen to the poem in Gaelic.

What is he going on about? Mortality? Sex? Lost love? Don't ask me; I just drink the stuff. 

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