The escalating war in Syria has rightfully taken much of our attention, so it is understandable that the death of Seamus Heaney has been eclipsed by it. Still, in my mind, both events are mysteriously connected. One, a loud and horrific example of human-rights violations, the other a quiet and beautiful example of human-rights exaltation. I want to turn my attention to the second one now.
Seamus Heaney passed away last week at age 74. He is considered the greatest Irish poet of our time, and one of the greatest poets ever.
In times when we keep hurting each other over cultural and geographical differences, Heaney asks us to realize that we can learn from those differences if we perceive them not as isolating traditions, but as our collective human heritage. We can keep our differences, as long as we all become citizens of The Republic of Conscience.
No one has ever been turned away at the door of this contemplative land. All you need to enter the frugal republic is to renounce your creeping privilege. When you come back home in a ship made of ear, pen, mouth and eye, you will forever be its representative. And you will be compelled to obey an unwritten law, and express it in your own tongue.
FROM THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIENCE
By Seamus Heaney
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hangs
waddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.