Coming Out of the Bog


Earlier this year, a couple of archaeologists pulled a barrel of butter out of a peat bog in Ireland, about 25 miles west of Dublin. It wasn’t the first time this has happened–in fact, it’s not even unusual anymore–but it happens infrequently enough that when it does occur, there’s an air of the “wow, that’s weird” about it.

What these stories do for me, though, is send me back into Seamus Heaney, especially his book North. Some of Heaney’s best known and most anthologized pieces come out of this collection–“Bog Queen,” “The Grauballe Man” and “Punishment” all deal with bodies pulled out of the bog. Looking at the photos included in the Wired piece linked to above, it’s easy to see where Heaney got his inspiration.

For example, the first body in the Wired post is of the Yde Girl, and it includes the rope she was strangled with. The echoes in Heaney’s “Punishment” are unmistakable.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.

Heaney’s “The Bog Queen” takes the voice of a woman buried in the bogs and brings to life the work of the Sphagnum mosses which preserve the bodies and other objects thrown in.

I knew winter cold
like the nuzzle of fjords
at my thighs–

the soaked fledge, the heavy
swaddle of hides.
My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.

Heaney draws fuel from these archaeological finds for his poetry, and transforms these bodies into something more than curiosities. They become living beings, terrifying in a way. Heaney gazes into a past that at first seems dark and distant, but is frighteningly immediate.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →