Several weeks before Seamus Heaney’s death, I made a visit to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to see the mummies there. As someone who is intensely emotional and vulnerable to my environment, I knew it would be difficult to see them: labeled and lit, their deaths slickly marketed, and the backdrop of not-so-reverent chatter. But their great mystery compelled me to come and share a silent hour beside them.
In the third chamber I encountered a woman who once met her end in a peat bog. The body’s pitch aspect was an awakening. From a dark round of hardened tar her once-human features could be picked out—’small gleams on the bank.’ Her body no longer kept its familiar edges, but seethed and spilled out from that strange cauldron, and by earthly magic became something entirely Other.
How could I not see in her the “Bog Queen” of Heaney’s poem? In the earth’s crucible of ‘heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone,’ her body indeed became ‘braille / for the creeping influences.’ Initiated by the arcane rites of Death’s sensuous magicks, the woman from the poem undergoes such transmutations that her insignificant sash becomes a ‘a black glacier / wrinkling’—and hers becomes a body that can claim intimate acquaintance with the atmosphere, with ‘winter cold/like the nuzzle of fjords / at [her] thighs—’
And her death becomes a ripening of supernatural proportions. Not supernatural in the sense of a force that is ‘beyond’ the laws of Nature, but super-natural as one of Nature’s highest, most rationally-inscrutable works:
I lay waiting
on the gravel bottom,
my brain darkening,
a jar of spawn
dreams of Baltic amber.
The dreams held in death no longer belong to a human creature; they’ve joined a vaster entity that has ‘incorporated’ her. Consider the multiple readings possible in Heaney’s use of the preposition of (in ‘dreams of baltic amber’): the dreams of the dead may be physically manifest in the world of earthly substance, as amber or otherwise; the dream may belong to the amber itself. In either case, there is the implication that the human body is become inextricable from the surrounding earth that digests it, and that life continues in the so-called ‘inanimate’ matter of organic material.
While I stared hard into the mysteries of the bog-woman, I could not shake the sense of being in the presence of some earthly revenant—some pooled force of primal and inchoate power. I could not locate her spine exactly, but could make out the suggestions of it. Here a portion of a hand rose out of the darkness. Here the face melted into the stone cradle. Beside her I felt inculpated, as though her power were to point out and turn, from her particular eternity, some great wheel in me; to drag each part of me simultaneously and achingly inward and outward. It was difficult to move on to the next specimen, the ancient mummy from Peru. Already I had gone beyond my capacity to make sense of the world; already my emotional sphere was saturated and dark, my mind fissioning. I hurried out into the air where I could let my eyes tear over for all that I had succumbed to in Her presence. As I stepped over the weeds pouring from cracks in the parking lot, I thought There is so much alive. And for a moment I saw everything around me several thousand years in the future: crushed, fermented, reborn in sleeping fossils and sand, rainwater, wind, unquiet. It is impossible not to wonder what we will become, and what was of all that is.
If Heaney were alive, I would have liked to share this experience with him—to tell him how often that terrestrial queen has risen from the dark of my being to point—again and again—to the earth, uttering with mute music the hymn of the cosmos. I cannot parse what I mean exactly. But the meanings are deep and they are endlessly bifurcating, and I thank this living planet that there are those who carry the jet gift of seeing, as Heaney did—and does still, in that heathery level where he is surely dreaming ineffable dreams.