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Seamus Heaney Poems Come To Life In Belfast, Ireland

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The poet Tess Taylor left her home in California last winter to spend this semester teaching in Northern Ireland. She says she's felt poetry come to life and is learning about the value of place.

TESS TAYLOR: As our plane flew low over sheep pasturing near Lough Neagh two days before New Year's, I felt the thrill of knowing I'd be matching names I'd read in poems to their places - Anahorish, Tyrone, Wicklow, Derry. This was a landscape I'd spent years reading about in Seamus Heaney poems. Outside in winter light, thick mists wove through tangled trees. In Northern Ireland, stories and histories often fork and fork again, changing depending on who's telling them.

During my first week, I heard two radically different versions of the troubles from two different cab drivers. At the very least, it's a landscape of many ghosts and many voices. As the winter rain in Belfast fell around me, I kept thinking about how Heaney uses these voices lovingly in poems that seem to belong not only to his neighbors, friends, countrymen but to bogs and trees and even to the ground itself.

As Belfast's new vowels and rainy gutters gurgled past, I found myself absentmindedly reciting "Gifts Of Rain," a poem Heaney wrote about the voice of his own hometown river. The tawny guttural water spells itself - Moyola, its own score and consort, betting the locale in the utterance. Betting the locale in the utterance, I thought admiring, how Heaney makes stories belong to a landscape and a landscape belong to its stories.

And yet, a few weeks later while studying drafts of the poem in Dublin, I learned that Heaney wrote this very poem not in Belfast but in Berkeley, Calif., where I'm from and where Heaney actually lived, having his own adventure away from home in 1970 and '71 just as Belfast was beginning to explode in a series of consecutive bombings.

It seems that Heaney first composed "Gifts Of Rain" on a rainy Berkeley morning over 5,000 miles away from the memory of the river he was writing about. He used the distance and the space of California to craft the sound of home. During these months looking back towards America from a long distance, during what seems to be a critical juncture for our country, I've been thinking too about our complicated stories, our tangled paths, about what our sounds of belonging might be.

In Belfast, I think about what it means to try to root in a place that has, for the moment at least, come through rough and unsettled days to forge its own fiercely one still delicate piece.

I wonder what voices I am hearing, what poems I need to write. I wonder what my river sounds like, and I wonder what home I might make out of its flowing.

SHAPIRO: Tess Taylor is teaching at Queen's University in Northern Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLEN HANSARD AND MARKETA IRGLOVA'S, "SWELL SEASON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.