In Iowa

The first of three poems alluding to the threats posed by climate-change – the piece recalls a moment from Heaney’s visit to Mennonite country in Iowa.

His powers of observation, memory and recall resurrect a scene and a moment in compelling detail. His store of local and biblical references adds a decidedly Mennonite dimension and contributes to his growing conviction that the world is under threat.

Stranded in a snowstorm beyond any sign of human presence in Iowa once, among the Mennonites and freed from the ordeal of driving (conveyed all afternoon) Heaney could concentrate on what was rubbing off on him: the sheer volume of snow (slathering – an ingenious sonic porte-manteau, perhaps conveying both the liquidity of ‘slaver’ or even saliva and the delicate nuances of lather. Such light as there was emanated from the sleet-glit pelting beyond the vehicle’s window.

Visual imagery gives way to sound you can hear in your head, the onomatopoeic slumps and flits of windscreen wiper fighting to clear the downfall. They have an absolving quality, cleansing the windscreen of snow as absolution cleanses a person of guilt. This religious input prepares for the volta after line 9.

Heaney’s ‘eye-camera’ zooms through window glass out into the lying snow, from wider (a field in which the last evidence of harvest stubble protrudes – corn stalks flagged the snow) – to narrower –a decidedly old model mowing machine disguised now by the snowfall.

An intransitive verb of plenty is used transitively: snow brimmed its iron seat.  The mower’s  spoked wheels are transformed into a kindly human face with thick white brow.

 Black-and-white produces paradox: the reflective snow takes the shine off oil lubricating the equally personified black-toothed gears. The oil has not washed away and within the wider context of the poet’s fears for the earth’s future the image sounds a warning.

 The volta occurs at line 10 and the message turns unmistakeably Biblical adopting its archaic usages as Heaney finds his way back to civilisation: verily I came forth as one unbaptized.

The link word wilderness, commonly used in the USA to describe vast tracts of remote land such as he has just experienced, transports Heaney to the biblical Middle East.

He emerges from the ordeal as one unbaptized, as one without an entrance ticket to heaven, as one experiencing similar conditions to the crucified Christ – a land deprived of daylight at three in the afternoon (darkness at the third hour) a Temple curtain (veil) rent in two (in tatters) by a wrathful God figure.

What he experienced in Iowa once exposed to the slush and rush and hiss of the elements made him feel less like Moses leader of the Israelites fleeing to the Promised Land through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea and more the herald of rising waters, the unavoidable sea-level threat facing mankind as a warming atmosphere melts polar ice.


  • Sonnet; break after line 9; discernable rhymes amongst largely free verse; lines mainly 10/11 syllables; a single sentence before the volta; 3 following it;
  • in (1) a weave of assonants [ai] Iowa/ Mennonites/ wiper’s; [ɪ] in/ blizzard/ glit/ pelting/ windscreen/ flits amidst voiced and unvoiced alveolar fricatives [s] once/ Mennonites … and [z] blizzard/ wiper’s/ absolving;
  • (2) introduces [əʊ] open/ snow/ mowing/ spoked and [i:] field/ seat/ heaped each/ wheel alongside previous assonances; alliterative effects: bilabial [w] where wilted/ snow/ mowing// wheel/ brow and velar plosive [k] corn stalks/ spoked/ thick/ took/ black;
  • following the break,  a cluster of words with archaic ‘biblical’ cachet: verily (13th century Middle English verray – true real, from Latin ‘verus); came forth/ wilderness/ unbaptised/ darkness/ third hour (3 am);
  • final couplet voiced and unvoiced alveolar fricatives [s] and [ʃ]in tandem with assonant [ʌ]: once/ slush/ rush/ hiss/ but/ as of rising waters;
  • Mennonites: a Christian sect of broadly European origin which rejects, among other things. child baptism’; they cling to traditional practices and avoid contact with modernity; farm equipment is not up to date and the internet forbidden in the more radical communities;
  • slather: US usage large amount of; idea of thick layer
  • blizzard: severe wind-driven snowstorm;
  • conveyed: transported by another driver;
  • absolve: liberating ( often from responsibility);
  • slump: flop, collapse, sink;
  • flit: move, skim swiftly,
  • slumps and flits: describing the sound modulations of windscreen wipers moving back and to ;
  • wilt: droop, sag;
  • corn stalks left in the ground as stubble after harvest
  • flag: draw attention to oneself;
  • mow: cut down with a blade;
  • brimmed: filled to overflowing;
  • spoke: bar connecting the centre of a wheel to its outer edge;
  • brow: eyebrow, forehead;
  • black-toothed gears:
  • verily: archaic quasi-biblical truly
  • come forth: adverb adds an archaic tone emerge, return
  • wilderness: uninhabited region:
  • unbaptized: unchristened , churchless so not able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven;
  • darkness, third hour, tattered veil: strong references to the darkness that accompanied Christ’s crucifixion, the moment of his death at 3pm and God’s wrathful ripping of the Temple curtain at that very instant;
  • slush: partly melted snow and ice
  • parted: a page in the Mennonite children’s Bible features Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt across the red sea, its waters parted by God;


  • Whereas his earlier books gave a voice to the most violent phases of “the Troubles”, District and Circle casts wary glances at the peace, and associates its fragility with other and even larger issues. His “adoring” of the natural world is intensified by worry about the planet – about “rising waters” in “In Iowa”, and about a melting glacier in “Höfn. Digging deep.  Andrew Motion The Guardian, Saturday 1 April 2006
  • Heaney refers (Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones (p.496 ) to ‘a sight I saw’ while motoring through Iowa (a Midwest state on a level with and to the west of the Great Lakes);
  • What is also striking is the detail and food-for-thought transmitted via the richness and inventiveness (glit combining shine and grit-like impact) of the poet’s message within a short structure amounting to 4 complete sentences.
  • as Heaney seeks to transmit his spiritual /emotional responses to the moment and what rubbed off on him he insists we search amongst the words and analogies if we are to begin to understand.
  • 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: thirteen 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 five lines are rich in  nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bilabial [p] [b], continuant [w] aspirant [h];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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