Turkeys Observed

Turkeys Observed

Providing a master class in transposing close observation into verse Heaney laments the sorry sight of turkeys slaughtered for Christmas. Shop-window displays of traditional festive British fare generate a chain of associations in the poet’s mind linking the ‘v’ of the Diviner’s hazel stick and the ‘v’ of a turkey’s wishbone (poor forked thing)!

He paints a pitiful scene: plucked turkeys, blue-breasted in death, displayed unfeelingly in butchers’ shops (indifferent mortuary), beached like huge sea creatures on the shore, lying on cold marble slabs, stripped (bare) of their dignity save for butcher’s decoration (immodest underwear frills of feather).

 Hung beef has grandeur, retaining some of the smelly majesty of living; to Heaney the presence of a side of beef respectfully echoes spiritual Communion (blood and flesh are not ignored).

No such dignity amongst poultry: the turkey cowers in death, all too easily despatched and de-feathered, quickly consumed right down to its ‘wishbone’ just another poor forked thing. Impressively Heaney’s compositional skills weave the corpse’s shape, size, consistency and colour into fewer than ten syllables: A skin bag plumped with inky putty.

Alive, the turkey was querulous (complained extravagantly … lorded it), dominating the farm-yard’s claw-flecked mud, evoking the blinking presence of some ancient, wise philosopher (grey flick of his Confucian eye).

In death turkeys form part of the bleak Christmas dazzle, ubiquitous and as distressing as abandoned aircraft ranged in their cold squadrons, bereft of their former glory (fuselage…bare…proud wings snapped), their sorry downfall manifest in the body section that once gave it direction: The tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder.

  • breast: turkeys’ chest area;
  • mortuary: room where dead bodies are stored;
  • beached: stranded, out of water;
  • marble: smooth, hard stone;
  • slab: thick flat surface;
  • frill: decorative edging;
  • side of beef: the meat of half a butchered cow;
  • slung: suspended;
  • hook: piece of curved metal from which to hang items;
  • cower: shrink in fear;
  • plump: stuffed;
  • putty: greyish paste that goes hard;
  • overture: piece of orchestral music;
  • gobble: distinctive turkey sound;
  • lord it: act in a superior manner;
  • claw-fleck: mark made by the shape of claws, claw print;
  • flick: rapid blink;
  • Confucius: Chinese philosopher around 500BC;
  • bleak: cold, stark;
  • dazzle: brightness, shine, glare;
  • squadron: group of airplanes of the same type;
  • fuselage: main body of an aircraft;
  • snapped: broken in two;
  • tail-fan: neat adaptation of tail-fin, the rear section of an aircraft that houses the rudder;
  • rudder: part of tail-plane for steering;
  • shameful: unworthy;
  • 5 quatrains; lines of different length between 7 and 10 syllables with subsequent variations in rhythm and emphasis; free verse;
  • with its tone of feigned elegy the poem focuses on the sorry corpses of turkeys once alive now dead;
  • alliterative effects: voiceless labio-dental [f[ frills of feather …claw-flecked … flick;
  • assonant echoes: persistent use of [ʌ]: slung/ hook/ blood/ pull/ pluck/ look/ just another; [ʊə] poor/ forked/ lorded/ claw;
  • vowel and consonant sounds in tandem: indifferent mortuary/ immodest/ frills of feather; skin/ plumped/ inky/ putty;
  • persistent consonant echoes: bi-labial plosive [b] observes/ blue-breasted/ beached/ bare/ marble/ slabs; sibilant [s] and [z]: sides/ some/ smelly/ majesty/ pass/ Christmas dazzle;
  • Heaney recalls depictions of the 4c BC Chinese philosopher Confucius that perfectly match his descriptive aim: grey flick of his Confucian eye
  • paradox: bleak Christmas;
  • aviation vocabulary supports the flight imagery;
  • NC refers to insistent anthropomorphisms (3) (the attribution of human qualities to non-human objects);
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first sentence, for example, weaves together labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], a cluster of plosives (bilabial [b], alveolar [t][d])alongside sibilants [s] [z] and nasals [m] [n];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang