Churning Day

Heaney describes the production of farm-made butter witnessed as a youngster. The poem reveals close observations of the technical stages that accompany a ‘magical’ transformation. The process is akin to alchemy: the family produces gold from base metal, butter from milk! They are magicians

The rising cream of the milk gradually formed a thick crust with the texture and colour of building materials: coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast. The milk-containers are four crocks/ … large pottery bombs, an analogy that forecasts the explosive transformation that will ultimately take place, echoed, perhaps, in the later reference to the suffocating sulphur mine.

On its journey to the butter-churn the milk underwent a radical change, from its creation inside the cow’s hot brewery of gland, cud and udder to fermentation in cool porous earthenware 

In the Heaney kitchen cleanliness was paramount with a wooden hooped churn to be purified: first abrasively sterilised, scoured/ By plumping  kettles (the water piping-hot) then with sounds of more delicate human touch: busy scrubber echoing daintily.

An intense, manual process is launched: the contents of crocks poured out like innards (spilled their heavy lip/ of cream, their white insides) into the churn; the plunger resembling a great whisky-muddler (a kind of cocktail mixer in the drinks’ trade) and fashioned/ in deal wood was plunged in and the churn sealed

Cleanliness is replaced by the need for intense energy and stamina; the thudding reverberations echoed in onomatopoeic rhythms that slugged and thumped for hours. Muscles, skin and clothes were all affected: ached … blistered … spattered.

Gradually the milk began to thicken, turned flabby. Then, hours later, the first veins of butter began to form (gold flecks began to dance) triggering the preparation of what would be required for the finished product: sterilized ( ) birchwood bowl/ and little corrugated butter-spades.

Redoubled efforts pay dividends as suddenly/ a yellow curd was weighting the churned up white, its properties and promise altogether different: heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight. Skimming extracts the bounty: butter fished, dripping like gold nuggets panned from a river and heaped up like gilded gold

Heaney remembers equally the aftermath: the pungent odours impacting on the senses (the house would stink…/acrid as a sulphur-mine); the equipment set aside (ranged) for next time; the butter neatly stored in soft printed  slabs

The pace has slowed: fulfilled people move around with gravid ease, their minds still reflecting every facet of recent activity (our brains turned crystals) … of newly cleansed equipment, of sounds (the plash and gurgle) and smell of sour-breathed milk … of the final slab-shaping stage in the process emanating from the scullery: the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.

  • crust: tough outer art;
  • coarse-grained: with rough texture;
  • rough-cast: plastered on a wall;
  • crock: earthenware pot
  • pottery bomb: pot shaped like a WWII bomb
  • pantry: small food store;
  • gland; cud, udder; the parts of a cow that miraculously produce milk;
  • porous: allowing water to pass through;
  • fermented: broke down;
  • buttermilk: slightly sour liquid of milk extraction;
  • hooped: held together with circular bands;
  • scour: cleaned by rubbing hard;
  • plumping: steaming hot;
  • dainty: delicate;
  • seasoned: kept in a pile to adjust the moisture;
  • flagged: made of stone slabs;
  • sterile: free from bacteria, totally clean;
  • staff: long wooden rod;
  • whisky muddler: a barman’s tool to mix cocktails;
  • deal: fir or pine wood
  • slug: strike with a hard blow;
  • thump: strike with a hard blow;
  • flabby: soft and thick;
  • fleck: small patch of a different colour;
  • corrugated: with ridges and grooves;
  • curd: white substance produced as milk coagulates;
  • coagulate: change from a liquid to a semi-solid state;
  • strainer: a wired tool that separates solids and liquids;
  • gilded: gold coloured;
  • acrid: pungent, bitter;
  • sulphur: a pungent chemical;
  • printed slabs: a rectangular portion of butter inscribed with a little motif
  • gravid: pregnant, expectant;
  • plash, gurgle: onomatopoeic liquid sounds;
  • pat, slap: onomatopoeic solid sounds
  • NC refers to the ‘clamour and clang of the opening line’ (p6): ‘Heaney’s mother glimpsed’ (p 10)
  • NC describes the poem as ‘richly expressive’,  ‘gravid’ (ibid208);
  • NC (63-4) picks out the magic, miraculous moment of change after a bout that leaves them bloodied’;
  • NC salutes the ‘marrying of word to action’ (p 63)
  • NC suggests a ‘sub-text of guilt given Heaney’s rift with tradition, preferring the arguably physically less exacting labour of writing and teaching to farming’ (p 64)
  • 36 lines of poetry in 3 sub-divisions; unrhymed;
  • the punctuation is plentiful providing irregular intervals in the flow of the process;
  • multiple alliterative chains : velar plosive [k]: thick/ crust/ coarse; crocks; triplets: voiced velar [d]: daintily seasoned wood; sibilant [s]: soft/ slabs/ shelves; short/ stroke/ suddenly; in pairs: finally flecks;
  • sonic chains of varying lengths: (fours) [ʌ] scrubber/ wood/ stood/ purified; [ɪ] fished/ dripping/ in/ tin; (threes) [ʌ]  mother/ slugged/ bumped; [ai]while/ inside/ sterile; [ɜː]earthenware/ churning/ churn;(pairs) [ʌ]   cud/ udder; muddler/ plunged; [ei]            ranged/ again; [i:] clean/ deal;
  • crystal: a fascinating choice. Heaney selects a word that hints at notion of ‘crystal-clear’ referring to the mineral’s transparency; furthermore a magical process such as witnessed would have been foreseen in the ‘crystal ball’ that shows the future to the initiated
  • Heaney uses a kind of film-maker’s technique whereby the magic transformation is reflected in a kind of fairy-tale animation where crocks self-pour and gold flecks dance;
  • butter-production is a Gold Rush as gold prospectors pan for gold dust: fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer;
  • onomatopoeia: the plash and gurgle/ (assonant onomatopoeia) pat and slap; personification: sour-breathed milk;
  • 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: fourteen 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 a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b],alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant [s] and nasals [n] and [m];
  • 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


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