In Iowa

The first of three poems alluding to the threats posed by climate-change, this sonnet recalls a moment during Heaney’s travels in the USA. The poet’s acute observation and clarity of memory resurrect selected events from the past in fascinating detail even after time-lapse. His store of local and biblical references adds a spiritual dimension to implied dangers.
Heaney struggled in the wilderness In Iowa once, among the Mennonites; not alone, conveyed all afternoon. He was caught in a blizzard remembered for its Slathering, an ingenious porte-manteau word conveying shades of liquidity from snow to lather with its nuances of delicacy, even saliva. Light was reflected in the precipitation’s sleet-glit , heavy, unceasing and thankfully outside the vehicle.

Visual imagery gives way to hearing: an onomatopoeic phrase captures both the sound and movement of the windscreen wiper fighting in slumps and flits against the downfall. They have an absolving quality wiping the windscreen clean of snow in the way that absolution cleanses a person of guilt. This religious connotation prepares for the volta after line 9.

The ‘eye-camera’ zooms in from the wider field where wilted corn stalks flagged the snow to focus on A mowing machine disguised now by the snowfall. An intransitive verb is used transitively: snow brimmed its iron seat. Heaney personifies the rear wheel with its kindly thick white brow. He picks out a paradox: the white reflective snow takes the shine off oil in the black-toothed gears. Oil cannot be cleansed. Within the wider context of the poet’s fears for the earth’s future, this image sounds a warning.

The volta occurs at line 10: the message turns unmistakeably Old-Testament adopting its language: verily I came forth / as one unbaptised..

The pivotal word is wilderness: the term is commonly used in the USA to describe vast tracts of remote land such as described here; it refers to equally remote areas of the biblical Middle East. Moses, an important religious figure across many faiths laboured without flinching to lead the Israelites towards the Promised Land following desperate struggles against the Pharaoh.

Heaney acknowledges the moments of despair such a mission caused: the sleepless nights (darkness at the third hour); faith challenged and its veil (chosen, perhaps, because of its transparent holiness whether on a nun’s head or at the entrance to a Jewish sanctuary) in tatters.

The speaker emerged from the incident with a reinforced anxiety, suddenly a Mennonite (one unbaptized) envisaging a global fate of mankind faced with drowning: In the slush and rush and hiss/ Not of parted (reference to the miracle whereby God allowed Moses to cross the Red Sea) but as 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 [əʊopen/ 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;         
  • 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); he refers also to the Mennonites,’ a Christian sect who reject, among other things. child baptism’;
  • The sonnet also teaches us something of Heaney’s personality: the man who on this occasion ‘came’ and ‘saw’, leaving us with an abiding feeling of his and by extension our vulnerability. 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.