Strange Fruit

A sonnet prompted by the bodiless head of girl similar to one retrieved from a Danish bog in the 1940s.

The head is introduced with a sweep of the hand: Here is … its texture that of an exhumed gourd, an oval shaped face; skin and teeth have prune associations, the former its wrinkled exterior, the latter the smooth, stained appearance of its stones.

Her hair has been deliberately let down by those working on the head who unswaddled its wet fern, posed the exhibition of its coil and released life-giving air at her leathery beauty.

The waxy surface and colour of the face form a pash (archaic English word) of tallow. Here is an example of treasure for him to ‘trust’, this one human therefore perishable. The skull’s nose and eyeholes have lost their soft tissue and adopted the make-up of the ground from which the head was exhumed: broken nose/ dark as a turf clod, empty eye sockets blank as pools in the old workings.

Heaney turns to Siculus (Greek historian of the first century BC whose work chronicled the Northern European peoples of two thousand years before). Some practices were so alien to him (the likes of this) that the scholar-historian from a civilised society only adjusted to them with gradual ease.

The piece reaches its pinnacle of horror: four hammer-blows indicting a society where lawless killing was rife, human life was of insignificant value, and anonymous lives met a dreadful end: Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible.

The message transmitted by the Beheaded girl outstaring axe/ And beatification is one of fixed defiance towards both her indifferent stone-age executioners and her more respectful twentieth century voyeur. Equally clear is her contemptuous rejection of any spiritual feeling of veneration: outstaring/ What had begun to feel like reverence.

  • a sonnet; volta after line 10; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;

  • 5 sentence structure, the earliest move in quick succession from feature to feature; then increasing in length; the colon allows the pause that unleashes the initial roar of anger then the deeper grasp of the feelings expressed by the disembodied head;

  • lines 1-5: pick up the assonant sounds in the title [ei] strange/ faced/ They/ made; [uː] Fruit/ exhumed gourd/ prune/ prune/ beauty with added flavours of [əʊ] oval/ stones and [e] wet/ hair/ exhibition/ let/ air/ leathery; alliterative effects: initial aspirate [h]; alveolar [l] of unswaddled/ coil/ let/ leathery; one enjambed line ends the staccato effect of the first lines;

  • lines 5-8 ring a change [æ] pash/ tallow/ blank as combines with [əʊ]tallow/ broken nose/ eyeholes/ old and [ɜː] her/ her/ workings; alliterative notes can be heard: voiced [b] and voiceless [p] bilabial plosives; fricatives work in tandem: [ʃ] (exhibition) Pash/ perishable, [ʒ] treasure and [z] nose/ holes/ pools/ workings; these latter carry into the next couplet from Diadorus to this;

  • lines 9-10: Heaney navigates the vowel sounds of then Latin name to some assonant effect [ai] Diodorus/ likes; [ɪ] Siculus/ His/ this [ʌ] Diadorus Siculus [u] Siculus/ gradual interwoven with strong sibilant [s] presence;

  • lines 11-14: the narrative is carried forward by the grim power of the adjectives (alternating syllable rhythm). Alveolar plosive [t] and bilabial [b] provide alliterative touches; assonant effect is provided by [ɜː] and Murdered/ girl and [e] terrible Beheaded/ reverence.

  • A Billie Holliday song of 1956 recalling the lynching of black people in the US ‘Deep’ South confirms via its use that the theme of injustice is still running;

  • a bodiless head was exhumed from the Roum Fen in north Denmark in 1942;

  • the beheaded girl resists all poetic attempts at beatification (NCp59);

  • she will not be mythologized; there is no room for veneration, whether religious or poetic;

  • Heaney’s grim catalogue of adjectives ensures that the girl retains her desolate integrity (MP p138).