Home Help

Poems recalling the memory of two of Heaney’s father’s sisters.

  1. Helping Sarah

A woman working in the garden in springtime: ageing, perhaps, but annually rejuvenated at this moment in time, young/  Again as the year; neat and demure with tuck and tightening of blouse; active and untroubled by stiffness of the joints: with vigorous advance of knee; busy weeding rigs; frugalIn the same old skirt and brogues; both well-organised and physically strong, on top of things;in all, a credit to her kind

Her clothing: tweed skirt With pinpoints of red haw and yellow whin; well used and fit-for-purpose: Its threadbare workadayness hard and common.

The woman herself: her decisive quick step; her dry hand; her organisation and efficiency: all things well sped; her uncompromising views about creation: Her open and closed relations with earth’s work. Heaney leaves us, who do not know her, to decide whether natural reserve, discretion, inhibition or simply living alone is at the bottom of her silence: everything passed on without a word.

  • Heaney visited his aunt Sarah regularly as an 11 or 12 year old to help in the garden; she was his godmother, unmarried,  a school-teacher and tee total, instrumental in getting the young Heaney in his ‘teens’ to sign a pledge not to drink alcohol; he recalled her gardening competence;
  • O.E. sped  suggested the success of undertakings, also, prosperity, advancement;
  • brogue: a shoe tracing its roots to Ireland; made of leather, recognisable for the decorative perforations and embossments of its uppers;
  • oatmeal: a light brownish cream colour;
  • haw: orange/ red fruit of the hawthorn tree; whin: yellow flowered plant; also named gorse, furze or broom;
  • 2 stanzas; 11 lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • The enjambments and contingent flow of the first sentence contrast with multiple semi-colons in stanza (2); the end of (1) sums up the value of the woman to self, family and gender: And a credit;
  • Stanza (1) begins with alliterative pairings: tuck and tightening; vigorous advance; young year; these give way to sibilants: rigs/ same/ skirt/ brogues/ she straightened; limited assonant effects[au] blouse/ out; [e] every credit;
  • In (2) [e] is carried through: red/ yellow/ thread/ step/ sped; injection of paired [i:] oatmeal tweed, ʊopen/ closed  and [ɜː] earth’s work/ word; minor alliterative effects using [t] oatmeal tweed/ pinpoints               

2. Chairing Mary

A chair is crucial to the quality of life of an old, disabled woman recalled in her declining years.

As an invalid Mary required total care: Heavy, helpless, carefully manhandled/ Upstairs every night in a wooden chair. Thanks to both chair and porters her daytime could be spent downstairs, watching time passing as the sun sundialled/ Window-splays across the quiet floor. Mary and her chair went together: Her body heat had entered the braced timber.

The manoeuvre required to get her upstairs was onerous: Two…/ Tilting and hoisting, the one on the lower step/ Bearing the brunt, taking the deadweight. The bearers were sensitive to her pain: Not averting eyes from her hurting bulk, never quite at ease with the task but, for all that, compassionate and not embarrassed.

Mary is dead now. The affection and respect she enjoyed are recalled in a touchingly euphemistic way: I think of her warm brow we might have once/ Bent to and kissed before we kissed it cold.

  • Popular figures might once have been chaired, that is, held aloft in salute. Mary Heaney might have fitted the bill; she shared the family home for a long period of time, joining in with the work and activities; as she aged she suffered more and more from arthritis and Heaney explained to Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones (v Index)) how he and his brothers carried her up and downstairs before they left home;

sundial: a sun-clock; as the sun moves its shadow moves; this can be plotted on a horizontal surface using a sharp edge called a gnomon; braced: the design of a chair requires extra struts of wood at joints to ensure the stiffness of the structure ; brunt: the meaning “chief force” was first attested in the1570s;

  • 3 quatrains; lines based around 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • sound effects: assonant [eə]  Chairing Mary/ carefully/ upstairs; [e] heavy, helpless/ every; [ʌ] carefully/ Upstairs/ sun sundialled; [ei] day/ splays; alliterative touches: aspirated start heavy helpless; cluster of sibilants: she sat/ sun sundialled/ splays across; [ai] sundialled/ quiet;
  • poetic licence: Heaney uses the noun to create the verb ‘to sundial’;
  • in (2) aspirates return: Her/ heat had/ hold/ hoisting alongside assonant [ei] braced/ take/ weighted; bilabial pairing [b] bearing the brunt also[w] weighted/ one/ lower/ one; stages marked by use of present participles –ing; these verbs can be extended in time to mimic the deliberate care of the stages;
  • stanza (3) is in two poetic halves: the first focuses on the emotional interchange of an otherwise physical challenge using [ɜː] averting/ hurting; the final couplet contains the personal affection Mary was held in and the Heaney family’s respect (Bent to) and sadness at her passing;
  • vocabulary of life and death: warm/ cold; final alliterative [k] kissed/ kissed/ cold;    
  • The real meat on the bone comes in poems such as “Nonce Words,” “Home Help” and “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” where the pain of loss disarms the decencies and decorum of Heaney’s style to go beyond nostalgia to genuine pathos. David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review.