CINEMA 2013: What Seamus Heaney Taught Me About Movies

I was in Belfast when I read the news that Seamus Heaney, our national poet, singer of hope, and a spiritual father, had died. It's hard to think of a more significant, and certainly there was no more widely loved, cultural figure in my homeland of northern Ireland than Heaney. If by invention we mean the process of taking two or more things that had not previously been mingled, and leading them into alchemy, then Seamus Heaney didn't just speak my language, he invented it. He took the raw material of the Ulster culture, the landscape, the sorrow amidst political struggle, and fashioned a lexicon of desire: to be heard, to make sense of, to wonder why, to define boundaries and to commit to a life of service to the unique vocation to which each of us is invited. 

Cinema is poetry, not prose, so there is no contradiction about invoking Heaney in an article about the movies. Indeed, I wish his voice had been put to direct use in film criticism; I would have loved to read his thoughts on what Norman Mailer called the 'spooky art' (so called for the resemblance of the recorded human image to memories of the dead). But poems we have, and they will be read forever - I learned about mortality from his 'Mid-Term Break', of the story of his wee brother's death at four years old; I was comforted by the melancholic prescience of 'whatever you say, say nothing' as applied to the secrecy ironically acknowledged by everyone in my country's civil conflict; I received an icon through which to interpret the very world in 'The Skylight'.

'The Skylight' is the best poem I've read about cinema that isn't about cinema: Heaney writes about his reluctance the time his wife arranged for a hole to be cut in their roof to let the light in.  He declares himself to be grateful once the old ceiling was opened up, moving from skepticism about the project to comparing the experience to nothing less than witnessing a miracle of healing from paralysis. His work does that to readers, of course; and his death has stirred up for me the poetics of movies that leave me feeling the same way.

Read the rest at the Reel Spirituality Blog