Polish Sleepers

The first of eight poems alluding to boyhood during World War II. In this first poem the sight of recycled use of railway sleepers transports the speaker back in time to the lost domain of wartime childhood. Within this context, reference to Poland and the positioning of other key-words in the narrative open the way to the period’s more chilling phenomena: wartime concentration camps.

Once: a time when Heaney’s local railway-line, now closed, was active. Railway-sleepers in situ were a common sight, block-built criss-cross and four-squared with a characteristic smell: We … breathed pure creosote, a common preservative still applied to raw timber.

Time has passed; the sleepers have proved to be ideal for the garden, laid and landscaped in a kerb/… half skirting, half stockade, overtaken by the garden growth, perhaps, but ever strong and weathered: bulwark bleached in sun and rain/ And the washed gravel pathway showed no stain.

As the speaker’s footsteps echo on the garden path parched riverbed/ Flinch and crunch his involuntary memory recalls the viscous, liquid creosote: a tarry pus/ Accruing, bearing

forward to the garden/ Wafts of events that unfolded alongside each other (conspired) at the time when, as a youngster, he would lie/ Listening for the goods (-train) from Castledawson/ Each languid, clanking wagon.

When the train had passed, Heaney italicises other essentials not just of this picture but of others set in motion by the verb ‘conspired’: rust, thistles, silence, sky.

  • Rural steam-railway lines were plentiful in 19th and early 20th century Britain, promoting access to remote areas. However as  transportation progressed in the period after 1945, as roads were built and cars became popular, the railway’s decline became a burden on the national purse; the so-called Beeching Axe of the 1960s brought the wholesale closure of unprofitable branch-lines;
  • the durability of redundant railway-sleepers made them very useful for other uses, as here; Heaney’s eye for detail is acute: primed outdoor wood often bore lumps of congealed tar where there were cracks and fissures in the timber.
  • It is in the 2nd sentence that Heaney allows his imagination to roam into associated ideas; thus reference to Holocaust-style camps, particularly as they can still be viewed half a century on, might be betrayed by specific vocabulary: Polish (where many such were located)/ block/ stockade/ bulwark/ conspired/ waggon; the final italicised phrase referring ostensibly to a stretch of disused railway-line might equally be generated by, for example, contemplation of the Birkenau site near Auschwitz in Poland where a railway track is prominent and the details of the poem’s final line still ‘conspire’;
  • sonnet based on lines of 10 syllables in 2 sentences; no rhyme scheme;
  • alliterative patterns from the start with [b] and [k] and peppered with sibilant [s]: block-built criss-cross/ squared, echoed later: kerb/ skirting/ stockade/ cover/ bulwark bleached; also [l] laid and landscaped; [gr] ground/ grass; [w] Wafts of what;
  • weave of velar plosive sounds [g] and [k] and alveolar [d]: goods/ Castledawson/ languid, clanking wagon;
  • assonant effects from the [ɒ]  and [ɪ]  compounds of line 1: brick-built criss-cross echoed in lived with; [i:] We/ breathed/ creosote/ bleached; [ɜː]   verge/ skirting; ʊ] showed no; [ai] conspired/ I’d lie/ silence/ sky; [æ] languid, clanking wagon;
  • onomatopoeia from the soft sibilant of falling water ( washed) to footsteps  on gravel  [tʃFlinch and crunch;:         
  • District and Circle does most of its work very quietly. A pair of sonnets on facing pages, “Polish Sleepers”and “Anahorish 1944”, subtly presents the competing claims of a free, contemplative consciousness and of the insistent larger world. Sean O’Brien Friday, 7 April 2006
  • the sonnet “Polish Sleepers” touches on the Holocaust ever so lightly, if a little queasily. That this violence and death are never overblown is a mark of the versification’s subtlety. Stephen Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2006