In a newspaper interview Heaney revealed how, as a boy, he watched American troops marching by from ‘up a beech tree’. The momentous preparations for D-Day brought an international force to Britain which was to launch an assault on the Normandy beaches and free Europe from nazi oppression.
Unusually Heaney, who would have been a small boy at the time, uses a speaker working in the local abattoir and the poem is in quotation marks.
Subsequent loss of life on Normandy beaches endorses the ironic juxtaposition of butchered pigs and soldiers – at the very moment when American troops arrived we were killing pigs/ sunlight and gutter-blood/ outside the slaughterhouse, the animals squealing as they were bled,
The voice speaks as a witness (note the poem’s speech marks), one of those engaged in the slaughtering process, in our gloves and aprons, coming face to face with the American troops.
They become an object of curiosity: recognizable military worn by newcomers with Sunburnt hands and arms. Unknown/ unnamed gathering as an armed force, Hosting (from the original Latin for ‘army’).
Secrecy was a key to success – the general public, here the inhabitants of a modest Irish community, could only have guessed at the significance of the American presence standing there like youngsters.
The newly-arrived seem to confirm anecdotes from WW2 that suggested, sometimes enviously, that American soldiers were well supplied with luxuries the locals were deprived of and trained to empathise with the local population: they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets.
- Anahorish: the townland or small land division in which Heaney lived; he was a pupil at the Primary School;
- gutter: a channel that carried away the blood of slaughtered animals;
- slaughterhouse: place to which animals were sent to be killed;
- squealing: the sound of fear made by pigs whose throats have been cut;
- host: medieval reference to ‘army’ used by Heaney to describe troops arriving to form the army that would be landed in Normandy.
- gum: chewing gum;
- Sonnet length; no rhyme scheme;
- the volta occurs in line 9 moving from direct observation to the anonymity and deeper implications;
- lines of varying length form 8 complete sentences echoing the constantly shifting attention of those watching;
- assonant effects: [ɪ] and [ai] in sequence: killing pigs/ Americans/ morning/ arrived/ sunlight/ Outside; a chain of [ʌ]: us/ gloves/ coming/ guns./ Sunburnt/ Unknown, unnamed/ youngsters/ gum/ coloured interwoven with [əʊ] shoulders/ open/ Unknown/ hosting; [eə] Where/ headed/ there;
- clusters of consonants: the [t] of ll.1-3; frequent nasal [n] from line 7;
- present participles reinforce the irony: killing/ squealing alongside marching/ hosting;
- 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, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- for example, the final lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d], sibilant variants [s] [z] and bi-labial [w] and nasal [n];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
- The Homepage of Anahorish Preserves claims as follows: “For over 6 generations the Gribbin Family have lived, farmed and produced food in a place called Anahorish. In the 1930’s Malachy’s grandfather, Hugh Gribbin, established a Slaughterhouse in Anahorish. He killed pigs and exported them to Liverpool and London up until the start of World War II. Anahorish is a Townland in County Derry. The name is derived from the Irish Anach Fhior Uisce which means Place/Hill of Clear Water or Place/Hill of Excellent Water. It has featured in two Poems by Nobel Prize Winning Poet Seamus Heaney who was born on a farm called Mossbawn in the next Townland of Tamniarn. Seamus spent much of his early childhood in Anahorish and he attended Anahorish Primary School. Anahorish 1944 – The people who were killing the pigs were Malachy’s uncles ..”
- Other memories carry more serious burdens. In “Anahorish 1944,” the speaker (quote marks enclose the whole poem) remembers American soldiers stationed in Ireland but bound for Normandy, “Two lines of them, guns on their shoulders, marching.” The tableau reverses, with elegant irony, the binary of innocence and experience, or innocence and guilt, which we might expect: “We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived,” while the soldiers were “standing there like youngsters/ As they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets.” Stephen Burt reviews District and Circle by Seamus Heaney as part of the Christopher Tower poetry competition 2006