Polish Sleepers

The first of a sequence of poems alluding to boyhood during World War II.

The sight of recycled railway sleepers transports the speaker back to the lost domain of wartime childhood. Within this context, references to Poland and the positioning of other key-words in the narrative provide a potential  link with 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 sight and smell of congealed tar: 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  struck even now by its relaxed pace and the rattle of its rolling-stock: Each languid, clanking wagon.

Heaney can recall what was left once the train had passed – the essential ingredients of those cherished moments he spent by the rail tracks close to home: rust, thistles, silence, sky.

  • block: large, solid piece;
  • criss-cross: in intersecting lines;
  • four-squared: right-angled, stable and solid;
  • creosote: wood-preserving paint;
  • moulded verge: edge with a shape to it;
  • skirting: wooden board frame;
  • stockade, bulwark: defensive wall
  • ground-cover: plants that stop weeds growing;
  • bleach: grow lighter in colour;
  • flinch: connotations of fear but used to provide a an onomatopoeic effect alongside crunch – sound of footfall on stone;
  • the durability of redundant railway-sleepers made them very useful for other uses; 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 – pus: unpleasant liquid;
  • waft: air-borne smell or sensation;
  • conspire: join forces, work together;
  • goods: train carrying merchandise, not people;
  • Castledawson: nearest township to Heaney’s home
  • languid: slow-moving;
  • clank: make rattling sounds;
  • 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 and manyf unprofitable branch-lines were shut; Heaney resented losses such as this;
  • Heaney seems to move  towards more unpalatable associations with wartime, hiding  Holocaust-style camps behind specific vocabulary: Polish (where many such were located)/ block/ stockade/ bulwark/ conspired/ waggon.
  • A stretch of disused railway-line on the Birkenau site near Auschwitz in Poland echoes both the references to railway transport of Jews in cattle waggons and, now time has passed,  the same ingredients as Heaney’s  final italicized line;
  • 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; [əʊ] 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   [tʃ]  Flinch and crunch;:
  • 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: twelve 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 deploy sibilant variants [s] [z], alveolar plosives [d] [t] and nasal [n] alongside velar plosives [g] [k] and front-of-mouth [f] [v] [w];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • 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