Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
I can remember when this poem was assigned reading in my high school English class. I remember it perhaps because it was one of the first poems that I recognized as beautiful and true rather than as a bare collection of figures of speech incomprehensibly mashed into the smallest possible package of syllables.

Heaney’s despair over his rotting treasure of blackberries is at once tragic and banal, transcendently meaningful and insignificantly common. I had, at that time in my life, a yearning to take hold of something in the world that would not fade, something that would not rot or sour. But I never seemed to find it. I imagine that the impulse to horde material joys that I have observed in myself–and in most humans I have met–is the same “lust for picking” that Heaney captures so perfectly in this piece.

The poet offers little consolation for the exquisite melancholy that overtakes us when we realize that the things we prize cannot be kept. He hints only at the seasonal nature of the world to partially resolve the dilemma of decay. The blackberries will not keep, but they will be renewed “each year.”   While comforting, I find this answer only partly satisfies. It only seems to postpone the inevitable despair of a world that will not and cannot endure against the slow depletion of a universe without meaning. The fact that blackberries arrive again each spring will be little comfort if the planet and the universe itself will eventually exhaust itself in decay. I find myself still longing for a hope that will last, for a blackberry released from the curse.

This poem is part of a collection of poems that examine similar themes that I have highlighted on Moss Kingdom. Among them, Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay; my own The Rape of Tamar and the Half-life of Joy; and Gerard Manley Hopkin’s Spring.