In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
observations: Seamus Heaney has died at the age of 74. He was unquestionably a great poet, one of the greatest of his age, and one whose work will survive. He wrote lines as simple as you wanted them to be, and as complicated as you wanted them to be. You could understand them easily, and then you could take them further, look harder. And they were memorable – I think of the poem above whenever I am folding sheets, or whenever I am wondering if laundry is damp or just cool. The poem was written after his mother’s death, she being MKH.
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, turned down the Poet Laureateship, and with Ted Hughes compiled one of the best poetry anthologies ever – The Rattle Bag, supposedly for children but actually for everyone. His poems are now widely taught in schools and colleges.
The picture, from the Dutch National Archive, shows washing day at the town of Volendam in the Netherlands.