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Chairing Mary

June 12, 2017

Heavy, helpless, carefully manhandled
Upstairs every night in a wooden chair,
She sat in all day as the sun sundialled
Window-splays across the quiet floor…

Her body heat had entered the braced timber
Two would take hold of, by weighted leg and back,
Tilting and hoisting, the one on the lower step
Bearing the brunt, the one reversing up

Not averting eyes from her hurting bulk,
And not embarrassed, but never used to it.
I think of her warm brow we might have once
Bent to and kissed before we kissed it cold.

Seamus Heaney, 2006

COMMENTARY: This is one of a series of domestic poems from Heaney’s 2006 book District and Circle. As a “portrait d’une femme,” it is a picture of passive suffering, as Mary appears almost as a piece of furniture–a hurting bulk, heavy and helpless. The contrast between this beset invalid and the young woman who might have been bowed to and kissed (chaired, here, in the sense of enthroned) is central emotional tension of the poem. But is the poem really a ‘portrait d’une femme?’ Is it really about Mary? It seems as much a reflection on the complex unease of the young men who carry her up the stairs–(“Not averting eyes from her hurting bulk/ And not embarrassed but never used to it”) as it is on her.

In terms of technique, I like the almost rhyme on “sundialled” and “manhandled” and the way the cramped, hard-edged nouns in the opening stanza give way to the looser, more direct music of the final stanza. “Her body heat had entered the braced timber” strikes me as an especially beautiful line.

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