Standing our ground: Contemplating Heaney’s “Anything Can Happen”

pondby Rebekah Choat

Andrew wrote eloquently last week about his memories of 9/11, and of the to-be-expected yet surprising difficulty of helping students too young to remember that day understand something of its shattering impact on those of us who stumbled through it in numb horror, and of finding a key in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Anything Can Happen.’

In an article entitled ‘Reality and Justice: Translating Horace,’ published in the 2002/2003 autumn/winter issue of Irish Pages, Heaney recounts the experience of American friends who happened to be vacationing in Europe on that infamous day. He writes that this couple found ‘the best way to deal with the desolation in America was to keep doing the things they had come to Italy to do. Their way of getting through those days was to seek out and look hard at pictures and sculptures that kept standing their ground, as it were, in spite of the shaken state of the world around them.

‘My friends were wanting art to hold up at the moment when they were being most borne down upon,’ Heaney tells us. They were not seeking to bury their heads in the sand, to escape from reality into art; rather, they were testing the power of art to ‘keep itself whole and its viewers hale, its capacity to distinguish itself from us and our needs and at the same time to make ourselves and our needs distinct and contemplatable.’

And of course that is just what this poem does, what all good art does. A translation and modification of Horace’s Ode 1.34, written some 2000 years ago, it retains and builds on the integrity of the original. It stands as a work of art on its own merit, yet has a special relevance for all who have seen towers fall and felt the earth shake to its core. It somehow distills the unspeakable into words, and in so doing gives us a clear picture of what we saw blurred, clouded, covered in ash that bright September morning.

Andrew imagined that, given one more breath, Heaney’s last words might have gone on from ‘do not fear’ to ‘anything can happen.’ I agree.  ‘Upend the rain stick,’ he says, ‘and what happens next is a music that you never would have known to listen for.’ Knock the towers down, and what happens next is a rising up of the very strength you felt had failed.

 

Anything Can Happen, by Seamus Heaney

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter

Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head

Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now

He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

 

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth

And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,

The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

 

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,

Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune

Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,

Setting it down bleeding on the next.

 

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight

Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.

Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.

Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

 

*****

Becka Choat is a reader, a writer, a lover of the printed word, dedicated to bringing people books to nourish mind, soul, and spirit. Her website is www.booksbybecka.com.

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