23 August 2018

Looking forward to picking
blackberries when ‘all day
my body accepts what it is’

‘When the blackberries hang swollen in the woods … the black honey of summer’ (Mary Oliver) … blackberries on brambles in Tarbert, Co Kerry, earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have been in Dublin for another consultation at Saint Vincent’s University Hospital. Although the combined bus and train journey from Askeaton through Limerick turned out to be an arduous odyssey of over six hours, there was good news today that seemed to make the journey worthwhile.

In his poem ‘Ithaka,’ the Greek poet CP Cavafy says the the beginning of the journey is as important as the end itself, and that the journey is as important as the destination. But over the past two days, the journey has been difficult, while the news at the end of the journey has been joyful to my ears.

I have been attending a clinic in the hospital almost monthly since early March 2018 for attention to an ugly-growth on my nose that also made it difficult to wear my glasses for the past six months.

My initial fear was that the growth was directly related to my sarcoidosis, and I was worried that this condition had spread from lungs to my face and my eyes.

But I was given good news today. No further procedures are needed, and despite some discolouration on my nose, the only problem now is my vanity, and I was told with confidence, ‘You’re cured.’ I don’t have to come back again … at least not for this complaint.

When we get to our 60s, we all worry unduly about our health. But in recent years both my sarcoidosis and my B12 deficiency seem to be under control, thanks to the good attention of my GP who provides frontline care and knows well which specialists are appropriate to see.

This protrusion on my nose was benign, and may have been caused by spending too much time in the sun.

Too much time in the sun? I am looking forward to tomorrow morning’s journey back to Askeaton; perhaps the blackberries are a little fuller than they were earlier this week, and there will be some more to pick from the brambles in the fields behind the rectory.

For some reason, the blackberries seem to ripen earlier in England, but there is a microclimate in West Limerick and north Kerry that seems to mean they ripen much later in the summer. Or, perhaps, this summer has been so peculiar that they have been late in coming to full fruit.

Everyone, I think, knows Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Blackberry-Picking,’ a disturbing poem that may also be a description of the rot at the heart of politics in Northern Ireland. But earlier this week I came across the poem ‘August’ by the American poet Mary Oliver. She has received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and The New York Times has described her as ‘far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.’

In this poem, Mary Oliver describes blackberries as ‘the black honey of summer.’ But in ‘August’ she also celebrates the very gift of life, which I am thankful for, especially this evening.

‘August’ by Mary Oliver

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

The chapel in Saint Vincent’s University Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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