The Nod

A disturbing sonnet set in Heaney’s adolescence pursues the themes of suspicion and hidden threat, reflects on the implications of being ‘recognised’ when a community is unstable and requires an armed police reserve presence  … and asks who exactly one’s ‘neighbour’ is.

A slight inclination of the head, ostensibly one of unspoken recognition, is not always what it seems.

The poem recalls uncomfortable sectarian moments akin to the final piece of Senior Infants.

Routine meat shopping for Sunday lunch (we would stand in line) with his father in a Saturday evening queue of folk with similar aims in mind. Young Heaney was struck by the vivid colours: red for the meat, white string and standard brown-paper ripped from a roll for packaging.

The no-frills transaction is described – Sunday joint and a shin cut for the week beyond are unceremoniously plonked down then wrapped as if in ceremonial evening-wear: bow-tied neat and clean.

Emerging vocabulary turns ominous: phrases become associated with firearms and casualties: seeping blooddead weight in a sling (rifles have slings; dead bodies are transported in slings!). Heaney’s father shelled out, paid up in cash, a colloquial usage that extends the military metaphor.

Out in the street are uniformed civilians (local B-men), in number (thronged, lax in discipline (unbuttoned but on duty), carrying arms (neighbours with guns), flaunting  their authority (parading up and down).

 The shrewd youngster picked up the vibes  – the ostensibly sociable ‘nod’, levelled by some of them at my father and yet, as if deliberately, avoiding eye to eye contact, past him.

Any suggestion of paranoia on the youngster’s behalf has a rational explanation in fact: Catholics never quite knew what the B-men were thinking or how they stood; some B-men avoided public shows of warmth, even between neighbours, in case they themselves were being watched; others who volunteered harboured within them real prejudice.  Their nod could resemble a weapon (as if deliberately they’d aimed and missed him) or they simply forgot accidentally on purpose to know him (neighbours, yes, but couldn’t seem to place him, not just then). 

  • rip: tear forcibly;
  • rib roast: a joint of beef for Sunday lunch;
  • shin: beef cut from the lower leg;
  • plonk: place, lay carelessly
  • bow-tie: a formal necktie with two loops; bow-tied: tied with a two looped knot;
  • seep: leak slowly;
  • dead weight: the weight of something inert (like a dead body!)
  • sling: string arranged to help carry something
  • shell out: pay, hand over money;
  • B-Men: The Ulster Special Constabulary (USC; commonly called the “B-Specials” or “B Men”) was a reserve police force in Northern Ireland. It was set up in October 1920, shortly before the founding of Northern Ireland. It was an armed corps, organised partially on military lines and called out in times of emergency, such as war or insurgency. It performed this in the 1950s, during the IRA Border Campaign. The force was almost exclusively Protestant and Unionist and as a result was viewed with great mistrust by Catholics and nationalists who suspected it of carrying out revenge killings and reprisals against Catholics. It was disbanded in May 1970,
  • unbuttoned: with buttons undone, a sign of laxity amongst people in uniform;
  • aim: target;
  • place: recognize
  • Sonnet form; lines based on 10 syllables; volta after line 8; no formal rhyme scheme beyond two pairs in the later lines;
  • Three sentences: a location; a process; social ambivalence;
  • assonant effects: the early couplets combine [i:] evenings/ we/ beef  with [ai] line/ white/ bow-tied and [au]  Loudans/ brown/counter/ down; alliterative effects based on variants of [s] particularly [st] stand/ string/ straight/ roast/ shin and so on;
  • [i:]  is added: neat/ clean/ seeping/ been with [e] dead/ Heavier/ expecting/ shelled: alliterative effects: sibilant [s] seeping/ shelled; labio-dental fricative [f] plus vowel [ɑː] far/ father;
  • after line 8 there are pairs or chains of assonant [uː] too/ duty; [ei] parading/ aimed/ place  and [ʌ]  unbuttoned but/ guns/ up/ couldn’t/ just; echoes of consonant [t] and [b];  

  • 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: fourteen 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 four lines are rich in  nasals [m] [n] and alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w], aspirant [h] and sibilant variants [s] [z];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;