It’s about nothing and everything.
That was my reaction the first time I read Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Clearances.”
It was, in particular, the third sonnet (of eight) that gripped me and has never quite let go.
In a small Irish cottage on Mossbawn Farm, a young, easily distracted (and presumably cheeky) Seamus Heaney found himself in the kitchen standing close to his mother. Each with a knife in one hand and a potato in the other, the only sound between them was the peel falling “like solder weeping off the soldering iron” into a common bucket of water. It was a moment of mundanity — easily overlooked, easily forgotten.
Until the young boy — now weathered, silvered, and stooped with age — stood bedside as his mother lay dying. And as family wept, and the priest anointed, the Irish son found himself suddenly in the kitchen again. Peeling, breathing, and being with her.
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
At the exquisite moment his mother’s soul is ushered to heaven, the Nobel laureate poet is, once again, a freckle-faced boy standing beside her wordlessly peeling potatoes. It is nothing and everything.
Once, Gary Saul Morson captured the essence of what it means to live in ordinary moments:
Radicals and romantics picture life in terms of dramatic events. The ordinary incidents between crises are viewed as trivial or despised as bourgeois. Tolstoy and Chekhov believed the opposite: Life is lived at ordinary moments, and what is most real is what is barely noticeable, like the tiniest movements of consciousness.
Tolstoy explains with an anecdote: The painter Bryullov once corrected a student’s sketch. “Why you only touched a tiny bit,” the student remarked, “but it is quite a different thing.” Bryullov replied: “Art begins where that tiny bit begins.” Tolstoy concludes:
That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all of life. One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins—where what seem to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place. True life is not lived where great external changes take place—where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another. It is lived only where these tiny, tiny infinitesimally small changes occur.
Poetry is charged with speaking of what is often left unsaid — the “ordinary moments,” the “tiny bit,” and the “infinitesimally small changes.” And sometimes those moments, bits, and changes are so small, so subtle, and deemed so unimportant, that we don’t see them upon our first or second (or even third) reading. Often, when we are young, distracted, and impatient, we don’t fully comprehend the significance of the moments, “the tiny bit where art begins.” But when time has passed and we are visited by age (and with it, heartache and tempered joy, weariness and chastened wisdom), perhaps we will be ready to re-approach a poem. We will not necessarily see the symbols we overlooked or the mechanics we missed. But we will, perhaps, see something very much more. Maybe in our age, patience, and humility, we will begin to hear the sweep of easy wind and downy flake, we will sense the peace come dropping slow, we will see worlds of wanwood leafmeal, and we will feel her head bent toward my head … never closer the whole rest of our lives.
And maybe, just maybe, like Seamus Heaney, we will begin to recognize that ordinary moment peeling potatoes with mother for what it really was.
Nothing and everything.