August 8, 2012
This week I’ve been listening to many versions of “Strange Fruit”: Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, Gil Evans and the Sting. I have to say: I still prefer Billie Holiday.
But I had no idea Seamus Heaney also has a poem called “Strange Fruit” – it’s in his fourth collection, North (1975). The poems here were mostly occasioned by the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, but, to grant “the religious intensity of violence its deplorable authenticity and complexity,” he went much further afield.
The discovery by Danish archeologists of a number of Iron Age bodies in the peat bogs of Jutland – thought to be ritual offerings to the fertility goddess, or victims of tribal punishment – gave Heaney a long background to contemporary events. In “Punishment”, an executed adulteress, her “shaved head/ like a stubble of black corn,” made him realize that he too had “stood dumb/ when your betraying sisters,/ cauled in tar,” that he too had been a party to the “exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge.”
“Strange Fruit” took him to America, but probably not an America any of us would recognize. Featured here is another young girl, the “wet fern of her hair” still coiled, still luxuriating in its “leathery beauty,” but sharply juxtaposed against her “broken nose… dark as a turf clod” – a girl “murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible.”
Is “Strange Fruit” American tragedy? In one of the Nina Simone discussion threads on YouTube, one viewer expressly said that. Another immediately countered that it was “world tragedy.” But there is probably no need to make these two sharply divided. As Seamus Heaney shows, tribal vengeance belongs to the “world.” Perhaps this is the most robust meaning that word would ever have.