Seamus Heaney, “Sloe Gin”

With thanks to Tom Farris

Sloe Gin
Seamus Heaney

The clear weather of juniper
darkened into winter.
She fed gin to sloes
and sealed the glass container.

When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry.

When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
and flamed
like Betelgeuse.

I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-
black sloes, bitter
and dependable.


We don’t just wear our pain. We wear the painful tedium of anxiety, regret and wanting to forget that much of life ever happened. And weirdly enough, there’s a strength that can be had from this, or at least a relief of sorts.

I am wondering if the maker of the sloe gin is a former lover. She took a fruit that in clear weather has a beauty and place of its own. Sloes are picked after winter’s first frost, but “darkened into winter” isn’t really there to tell us that sloes were picked. Rather, we repurpose things to spread our misery and fatalism. Benardete has maybe the most telling comment about Antigone in Encounters and Reflections. Antigone’s tragic vision doesn’t make any sense, isn’t a noble lie that makes us happy or even comfortable. It doesn’t even found anything as much as tear apart. And yet it is something we readers want to cling to like our life depended on it.

Maybe Heaney’s speaker is on to something deeper. There’s an aesthetic to dwelling in darkness. It’s not just we think ourselves stronger for being able to deal with more than others. It’s also that we invest ourselves completely in our problems and worries. The second stanza speaks to me of something powerful, youthful and natural preserved in these awful processes. If you dive so deeply in, maybe you’re recoverable.

But all that star-like power is visible to the speaker, not the drowned. “Cutting edge” – “flamed” – “Betelgeuse:” it’s really an amazing power, as our speaker is witnessing a Creation of sorts, an origin story. I don’t know enough astronomy to follow the metaphor through; I’m just suspecting that there’s something to stars being blobs of gasses which require non-classical physics to be understood. That they’re the history of the universe, literally right in front of us – the light from their destruction takes years to reach us.

Our speaker has recovered this woman and her pain. It may be pain he caused. That last stanza might be a bitter, sarcastic nod to a life better off without her. I suspect something more noble and difficult is at play. The sloes in their marbled, bruised skin resembled her condition. In breaking them, she engaged in a kind of introspection that she herself may not have understood.

This is tricky to follow, I realize. What I’m thinking is this: when we start having regrets or doubts or just get straight up angry at ourselves or our situation, we don’t always realize we’re having those issues partly because of our strengths. This is not a hard and fast rule. There are plenty of losers who are more than willing to take any excuse to whine or rage, having no doubt about the injustice attending them. There are also plenty of people who do realize something about themselves, then promptly make the exact wrong decision, not giving a damn about others.

This comment isn’t for either of those types of people. Sometimes things happen, like breaking up with someone or failing at the simplest of tasks, and we forget we’ve done things like introduce people to books or movies or help get them out of tough spots or even save lives. It’s weird to think that maybe our worst enemy could see us for who we are at some later point. Maybe that’s why we invest ourselves in tragic nonsense: we subconsciously know that we have no idea who will see us for who we are, or under what circumstances. We don’t even see ourselves half the time.

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