While I was a student at Emory University, one of my summer jobs was working for a chain of convenience stores in my hometown of Aiken, South Carolina. I worked with Jimmy, a short, squat, red-bearded guy in his thirties who was affable enough, but tough as a lighter knot. Among our other duties, Jimmy and I made various deliveries out of a warehouse to the dozen or so little curb markets that our boss owned. It was often hot, heavy work, but it was through this job that I gained an odd little connection to the greatest Irish poet of the late twentieth century.
One afternoon, the boss, Edwin, came into the warehouse and summoned us. “Jimmy, Bill,” he said, “Load the truck up with 400 pounds of sugar. Make sure you tear those bar code strips off the packs.” He then turned to Jimmy and said, “You know where to drop it off.” I helped Jimmy load twenty packs of sugar, each of which consisted of four five-pound bags banded together with a strip of thick brown paper, into the bed of the pickup. Then, thinking I’d be needed to help offload the cargo at the other end of the line, I proceeded to climb into the passenger side of the truck. “Hold up there, college boy,” said Jimmy. “You’re gonna sit this one out.” As Jimmy pulled the truck out of the warehouse, I turned and looked at Edwin, who grinned, shook his head, and said, “Don’t even ask.”
The next day, though, I did ask Jimmy what he had done with all that sugar. He hesitated for a moment, but then told me that on these “sugar runs,” as he called them, he drove down Highway 302, past Couchton, around the bend at Eubank’s Grocery, and on past the artesian well to Kitchings Mill. There, he got off the highway, drove a short way down a county road, and turned onto a wash-boarded dirt road by an old cemetery. After a few hundred yards, he would pull over by a little run-off that cut at an angle off the road. And there, in the middle of nowhere, he would unload the sugar, get back in the truck, and drive away. “It’s kinda spooky,” he added. “I drove back by the spot once, not even twenty minutes after I made the drop. And I tell you what—every damn bit of that sugar was gone.” He shook his head. “They must be watching that spot, waiting for me.”
Even a naïve college boy knew there was only one thing you used that much sugar for. I asked Jimmy a few more questions, handed him fifteen dollars, and the next day received a plastic gallon Piggly Wiggly milk jug filled with what looked like water. And while it may have been clear as a bell, it burned like fire on the way down. Most people called it moonshine or white lightning, although a few of the older folks in town called it “blind tiger,” “bust-head,” or simply “scrap.” Later, I’d hear Seamus Heaney call it poteen.
The first time I heard Seamus Heaney read at Emory University was in 1981. One of our English professors, Ron Schuchard, had struck up a friendship with him and was able to bring him to campus with some regularity. After that first reading, Heaney became something of a literary rock star to the knot of guys that I hung out with in Dobbs Hall dormitory. He made poetry come alive, and he made it cool, and we very much wanted to be that kind of cool. Because of his influence, it became common for a group of us to hang out in someone’s dorm room and read poetry aloud to one another. (In one of Heaney’s readings, he had told us of W. H. Auden’s dictum that a poem on the page was only half a poem. One had to read a poem aloud.) We particularly liked reading Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Etheridge Knight, and Randall Jarrell, aloud. There were personal favorites, too, like Langston Hughes’ “Sylvester’s Dying Bed” and Roger McGough’s “Rabbit in Mixer Survives.” And we read Heaney aloud. One of our staples was his translation from the Middle English of a hunter’s prayer called “The Names of the Hare,” a poem that presents an exhaustive catalog of every possible name for a hare:
The creep-along, the sitter-still,
the pintail, the ring-the-hill,
the sudden start,
There was no deep message or universal truth here, just the flat-out fun of language, rhyme and rhythm. To this day, I can still recite the opening and closing stanzas from memory.
On one occasion a group of us were invited to a party after one of Heaney’s readings. This was a privilege usually reserved for faculty and graduate students, and as lowly undergraduates, we were suitably thrilled. We sat in awe as the big boys and girls talked about Irish poetry, John Millington Synge, and the Abbey Theatre. (Was there really a blind graduate student sitting on a sofa, strumming a psaltery as he chanted poems by Yeats? I swear there was.) But Heaney made a point of pulling us into the conversation, speaking directly to all of us and asking a few of us questions, to which he received stammered replies. We knew we were in the presence of greatness.
I had brought a bottle of moonshine to this affair. (A plastic gallon Piggly Wiggly milk jug was a bit gauche and unsightly, so after each purchase I would usually transfer the liquor into empty, label-less bourbon bottles.) At some point in the evening, as a group of us were standing outside, the bottle was passed around. It eventually got to Heaney, who took a long drink and, with something approaching deep reverence, raised the bottle up to the moonlight and murmured, “Ahhhh! Poteen!” Later, as we were leaving the party, Ron Schuchard came up to me and said, “You know, Seamus really likes your moonshine.” “Really?” I said. “Do you think he wants some?” He replied, “I think he’d like that very much.” So I got a full bottle and dropped it off at Ron’s office. A few days later I received a note of thanks through campus mail. “Thanks for your delivery. It might please you to know that Seamus Heaney, Richard Ellman, and William Arrowsmith got absolutely shit-faced on your moonshine last night. I have a picture of it. Best, Ron.”
I made my second and, as it turned out, last delivery on a trip to Emory in the spring of 1984, two years after I had graduated. A friend who was still in school called me and told me that Heaney would be in for a reading, and I drove down for the occasion. When I dropped the bottle off at Ron Schuchard’s office, I handed him my copy of Death of a Naturalist and asked, somewhat sheepishly, “Do you think Heaney would mind signing this for me?” Ron chuckled and said, “I’m sure he’ll do anything for his bootlegger!” A few days later, the book came back to me in a slender package, inscribed by the author. I never saw Seamus Heaney again, but kept up with his work over the years.
Early on the morning of this past August 30th, I woke to find an e-mail from one of my college friends, now a dentist in Maryland. The subject line read, “Earth, Receive an Honoured Guest,” and the first line simply said, “Seamus Heaney is dead.” He then quoted Heaney’s translation of Beowulf: “When his time came and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping…They shouldered him out to the sea’s flood, the chief they revered who had long ruled them.” My friend added, “You know, Heaney ruled us for a while.”
I went to the bookshelf, pulled down my copy of Death of a Naturalist, and read the inscription: “For Bill Garvin, with gratitude for the pure gift.” It was not yet six o’clock in the morning, but if there had been a bit of moonshine in the house, I might have been tempted to drink a toast to the poet who had ruled us for a while. Lacking poteen, though, I did the next best thing: I took my copy of The Rattle Bag from the shelf and, in the breaking light, read “The Names of the Hare,” aloud.
William Garvin is Drury University’s Archivist and current Interim Director of Olin Library.