Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Grauballe Man - Seamus Heaney

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan's foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say 'corpse'
to his vivid cast?
Who will say 'body'
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus's.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

The Grauballe Man is a bog body dating to the 3rd century BC, preserved in remarkable detail.  It was found in a peat bog in Denmark, and the man in question appears to have been a human sacrifice, based on other findings in the bog and research into the body.  As the poem notes, his throat was slit, and he was dumped in a bog.  Heaney's descriptions are raw and vivid, and while I rarely like to do this, I've included images of the body so you can see exactly what I mean.

I think calling it a 'body' is insufficient, as Heaney notes.  It's a "cast," a perfect image, resplendent in its hideous beauty and preservation.  We can feel such a strong human connection to the past on seeing his face, his gaunt form, his gnarled fingernails.  We can even see his hair, still looking soft and alive, though it is undoubtedly coarse and brittle, ready to turn to dust at a touch.  I particularly enjoy the image of his spine, "an eel arrested under a glisten of mud."

Here are the photos.  I apologize that they may be grotesque, but I think they are also captivating, weirdly beautiful, and trigger within us a massive human connection to all of our ancestry.

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