Fifteen minutes before class, I prepare to leave my office. I place a stack of 25 graded student essays into my large bag, wrap my soft red scarf around my neck, hang my small brown purse from my right shoulder, and slide my sunglasses over my regular glasses. I pick up my keys and unfold my cane. When each of my two bags is balanced on my shoulders, I tuck the final item, a thick volume of braille poetry, into the crook of my left arm. I switch off the small gray and silver lamp, lock the door, and head down the hall.
Today, I must leave the room while my students complete their instructor evaluations, double-sided scantron forms that ask them to rate my effectiveness in communication, demonstration of course concepts, and use of course time and materials. I will have fifteen minutes to enjoy—a quarter-hour to spend off the academic stage. I have decided to spend my time gift with Seamus Heaney and Louis Braille.
After designating a student to administer and collect the evaluations, I gather my things and leave the classroom. I round a corner of the short, nondescript hallway and find a secluded bench near a window. I sit and arrange my bag beside me. I spread the large, white 11 x 11 volume on my lap.
This is one of four volumes that comprise the braille transcription of Heaney’s Poems: 1965-1975. The ladies who brailled this edition for me intuitively divided the book into its four smaller collections: Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, Wintering Out, and North. I am reading North.
I open the volume and flip past the first few pages; I recognize the table of contents by the neat lines of single dots between each poem’s title and page number. I turn to the first poem in this volume and let my fingertip travel slowly over the poem’s title.
I can’t read it.
The line contains contractions I learned years ago and cannot remember. I resist the temptation to “scrub” at the dots with my forgetful finger. Instead, I retrace them, cell by cell, consoling myself when I successfully identify single letters.
My fingers travel over the rest of the poem as I balance the wide volume on my lap. I use my left hand to mark the line while my right travels across it. I recognize morphemes here and there—bits of words, like “ea,” “ch,” “ar,” or “ing.” My fingertips find many dot 5s and 6s, indicating heavily contracted words. I make amateur mistakes; I read an “m” as a “u” and think, How is that possible? I do not feel like I am reading a poem—I feel like a first-grader stumbling over a children’s book.
Four lines down, I find an unexpected treasure, a word without contractions. Sunlit. I find sunlit. I read sunlit. I can’t believe it—I retrace the word over and over, making sure I didn’t misread it. Yes, I feel the “s,” a pattern of 3 dots: dots 2 and 3 are stacked vertically while the letter reaches diagonally up to finish with dot 4. The “u,” another 3 dot pattern, begins with dot 1, skips dot 2, and ends with dots 3 and 6, side-by-side. The angular “n” starts with dots 1 and 4 side-by-side, drops below dot 4 to cover dot 5, and then drops diagonally to hit dot 3. The “l” is a straightforward pattern of 3 dots in a vertical line; it contains the left half of the braille cell. The “i” is demure and little, like its vowel in sunlit—it’s a wee 2-dot diagonal pattern between dots 2 and 4. Finally, the “t” juts across the cell like a lightening bolt, starting with dot 3, moving vertically to dots 2 and 5 on the same row, and finishing with dot 4 alone on top.
Sunlit becomes a tactile beacon on the white page before me; it seems to encourage the other cells to attention, demand that the words reveal themselves. As I read, I find wall, east, water, summer, reddening, and hands. I begin to assemble Heaney’s poem from the bottom up. Wading deep into his poetics, I discover each sound independent of other sounds. Every “st” or “ch” comes under my fingertip and floats beside me, bobbing up and down in my conscious mind. I experience his poem as a material thing, crafted from tangible particles of noise and breath. I am traveling inside the poem, my fingertip tracing its concentric rings.
At the end of fifteen minutes, I have read two pages—a handful of words and a deluge of sounds. I must close the book and return to other sensory obligations. I pull awareness from the small space where the ball of my finger meets the bright braille page and swing the large 11-inch cover across the front of the book. I carry the volume in the crook of my arm, my hand curling around the uncut pages, and contemplate the transcriptive power of the cells.