"To have written a line about 'hope and history' rhyming for Mr. Mandela in 1990 is one thing . . . to have the man who made them rhyme accept the Award inspired by my poem is something else again."
Back in June, I imagine Seamus Heaney was vexed over the thought of a world without Mandela. I think we all were. I remember my husband and I talking about his charisma, the "Madiba magic" that changed the world. We were sad that Mandela's time with us was coming to an end, and I remember turning to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the way I always do in times of sorrow.
And now, just six months later, I am writing that Nelson Mandela is gone. Seamus Heaney is gone. My husband is gone. Gone. All three like shooting stars.
If I didn't know better, I'd say it feels like the world might end.
"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 hang
swaddled 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.