Oh my love I am afraid.
The sound has stopped in the day
And these images reel over
And over. Why all those tears,
The wild grief on his face
Outside the taxi! The sap
Of mourning has gorged
Our friends on the steps?
You sing behind the tall cake
Like a deserted bride
Who persists, demented,
And goes through the ritual.
When I went to the gents
There was a skewered heart
And a legend of love.
Let me sleep on your breast to the airport.
It’s St. Valentine’s Day. While I’m not one for bending to the slick manipulation of moneymakers, this is as good an opportunity as any to consider a love poem. There’ll be more in this series, no doubt, but this one seems to work for 14th February.
It doesn’t feel much like a love poem. ‘I am afraid’ is not what we usually associate with love. Heaney is looking back over what is considered the greatest celebration of love, the day where we spend thousands and thousands of pounds in order to tell everyone how much we love someone. Yet his feelings are ones of fear, of uncertainty. There is something strange, absurd in this ceremony. There is ‘grief’, the ‘sap/Of mourning’. Even his bride seems alien and isolated, ‘a deserted bride’. There’s no comfort either in the graffiti, a clichéd ‘skewered heart’ with its hint of violence and pain. It’s not real love, just a ‘legend’. There doesn’t seem much love here.
Heaney seems to understand something about this ceremony of love. It’s filled with absurd traditions and feelings that are more complex than we first imagine. He also realises that this wedding day isn’t the end of something but the beginning. And that’s why I love this love poem. It’s realistic about love, it understands that real love brings with it things that can’t be controlled, that love doesn’t ‘solve’ everything. Indeed, it makes him afraid.
But there is a place where that fear can be comforted. It doesn’t answer everything but there’s that dependency on another. There’s that movement from his own isolated thoughts and his wife’s own isolation to moving into each other in the final tender line, ‘Let me sleep on your breast to the airport’. Earthly love won’t conjure away our fears and worries and our grief. But there is a place where, for a moment, they can be silenced, where we can be ourselves, where there is intimacy and tenderness and security.
A romantic rose on St. Valentine’s Day won’t cut it but a life of love might make all the difference.