In this virtuoso lyric Heaney adds the challenge of the sestina form (see note below) to a creative lyric routine that establishes a symbolic base, builds a structure that expresses the message it carries, makes appropriate choice of vocabulary and syntax, weaves together an interplay of senses and emotions that are essentially his own, scores the music of the poetry with assonance and alliteration and adds a ‘musical’ dynamic of light and shade, loud and soft to enhance the spoken word.
Heaney creates two short screenplays, the first a cheerful harmless flirtation in the 1940s featuring his mother in her prime, the second a horror nightmare with ghosts and images of death and destruction, requiem for a mother now passed away and a local town blown to smithereens by an IRA bomb in the 1960s; black and white cinema incorporating the ‘dust’ and ‘ashes’ of the burial service;
A youngster watches a coal delivery: It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes (Heaney’s mother appears to him now in similar terms to Steven Dedalus’s mother’s appearance in Ulysses).
The boy’s eye moves up from ground level: first tyre-marks in the yard, then painted signage: Agnew’s old lorry ; hinged side panels dropped for unloading: all its cribs down ; finally the man himself. This city boy is a flirt, With his Belfast accent’s sweet-talking my mother. He wants to show her a good time (a film in Magherafelt?) but would not have time for any coyness: it’s raining and he still has half the load / To deliver farther on.
The boy/poet reflects on the quality of coal young Agnew delivers: the lode / Our coal came from was silk-black, the very best coal that burns down to ashes of the silkiest white. Jolted out of reverie by a passing bus he eyes the half-stripped lorry / With its emptied, folded coal-bags, attentive to his mother’s reactions to flirtation as she sizes up the tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman and his cheek: conceit of a coalman .
Daydream is suddenly replaced by 1940s reality; chores to do: black lead ( ) emery paper… business round her stove, coping with the dusty residue of burning coal: half-wiping ashes/ With a backhand from her cheek. As for the methodical Agnew, the boy watches him secure the lorry’s side panels (bolt) start its engine (rev) and go on his way.
Observation of a harmless sociable exchange is replaced by a cry of anguish announcing something hugely traumatic: Oh, Magherafelt! The 1940s flirt (dream of red plush and a city coalman) gives way to the re-enactment of an event of May 23rd 1993: a different lorry/ Groans into shot, up Broad Street. Not coal this time: an IRA sourced payload / That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes …
The outrage triggered a vision of his mother (who had actually died in nine years earlier): A revenant on the bench where I wouId meet her (as a boarding school boy returning home at weekends) In that cold-floored waiting-room in Magherafelt. In his nightmare she is in the midst of mayhem: Her shopping bags full up with shovelled ashes. Agnew is playing a different role: Death walked out past her like a dust-faced coalman. His coal sacks are replaced now by body-bags in number (Empty upon empty); his actions once methodical are replaced in a flurry/ Of motes and engine-revs.
So which of the two on offer survives translation? The flirting coalman’s lorry? Or that other / Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode / In a time beyond her time in Magherafelt ?
No hesitation. The honest, non-sectarian tradesman who brought coal and banter to the Heaney home is the real thing, the tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman. Act out the role I have invented for you, the poet tells him (Listen to the rain spit in new ashes / As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt) and then come back onto the silver screen as the heartthrob my mother took a shine to: my mother’s / Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.
As he created this poem, one of Heaney’s starting points was an actual meeting with his mother at the bus-station in Magherafelt at Hallowe’en in 1951 on a journey back from boarding school.
- crib: dialect word that describes hinged side and end pieces (e.g. of a lorry) that can be raised or lowered for unloading purposes;
- sweet-talk: Insincere praise used to persuade someone to do something;
- lode: vein of mineral/ metal ore in the earth;
- conceit: excessive pride;
- black lead: graphite used to polish cast iron surfaces common in the mid-20th century;
- emery paper: form of corundum used as an abrasive;
- revved: increased the engine speed (and its noise!);
- plush: rich fabric of silk, cotton, that might describe the interior or upholstery of a period cinema;
- payload: specific reference to explosive ‘warhead’ carried by the lorry;
- revenant: who has returned from beyond the grave;
- body-bags: used to contain dead bodies and conceal injuries;
- plying: 19th century sense of ‘undertake regularly’ (journey, trade);
- motes: specks, tiny pieces;
- beyond her time: Heaney’s mother died in 1984; the attack described here took place in May 1993
- tally bags: sacks used to keep a running total;
- heft: haul, tote;
- filmed: (pun) taken by movie-camera; covered in a thin layer;
- in general terms the best coal left least waste;
- sestina :a complex form seeking spectacular effects through intricate repetition;
a thirty-nine-line form attributed to Arnaut Daniel, the Provencal troubadour of the twelfth century. Troubadour songs were based upon wit as well as complexity and difficulty of style.
courtly love was often a theme of troubadour songs; Heaney offers a mild, teasing flirtation;
The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi.
lines may be of any length;
the form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words: 1. ABCDEF 2. FAEBDC 3. CFDABE 4. ECBFAD 5. DEACFB 6. BDFECA;
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE: the final three-line envoi, sometimes known as the tornada, must also include the remaining three end-words BDF; beyond homophones and slight variations (‘lode’ for ‘load’ ‘flurry’ for ‘mother’) this is the only structural variation that Heaney insists upon in a sestina that centres around his mother.
- ‘In fact, by referring apolitically to the conflict, Seamus Heaney ( ) possibly says far more about the horrors of life in civil war than any partisan statement might have done. Peace Pledge Union series;
- The lyric lilt of the poem – not only in its rhythm but also in its sounds (and repletion of sounds) (Magherafelt, ashes, lorry, coalman, mother) or parts of words (coal-bags/body-bags; payload/ plying his load) – provides a deceptively sweet background for the two kinds of action, as it were the two black-and-white movies in the programme. The first is a childhood documentary:. The second: ( ) a blend of dream and truth. (ibid)
- which lorry is it now? … is that last image – ‘dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes’ – an image of death, a ghost, or the result of burning? However often one winds and rewinds this poem, the end is pain (ibid)
- at the Tricycle Theatre in north London. Heaney ‘read from his poem “Two Lorries” – “one of the least romantic titles for a poem ever”, he drily noted – which opens with a memory of his mother having coal delivered … The last two words echoed a passage from Joyce’s Ulysses he had read out earlier, in which Stephen Dedalus’s dead mother appears in a dream smelling of “wetted ashes”. Heaney’s echo was surely deliberate. It felt like he was allowing us a private glimpse of his creative method’ Saheer Rahim in The Telegraph;
- the sestina structure is set (see above);
- line length is not regular; generally between 10 and 12 syllables
- a 17-sentence structure: insertion of reported speech mimicking speech patterns of a mother tickled by cheek of the coalman’s approach breaks up rhythms; enjambed lines help to counter-balance mid-line punctuation and create more sustained flow;
- all 5 senses figure in the first 4 lines;
- synesthaesia of ‘sweet-talking’, taste + sound; ‘silk-white’ touch + sight; further ample use of compounds as nouns and adjectives;
- everyday language and situation in the first half; interesting use of use of ‘now’ as a pause word rather than reference to a specific moment;
- vocabulary of premonition and grief: ‘groans into shot’;
- nebulous characters and references to otherworldliness; frequent reference to dust and ash;
- vocabulary of opposites: black v white; the appeal of city life to naive countrywoman; the tools required for period chores (emery) v modernisms: (fastforward, shot, payload);
- use of puns: load/lode, filmed; ‘set’: triggered by a timer;
- local place names;
- 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: twelve 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 lines of ‘Two Lorries’ for example, bring together alveolar plosives [k] and [g]alongside bilabial continuant [w] and sibilants [s] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ];
- 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]; bilabial 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/ anger.