To Mick Joyce in Heaven

A sequence of 5 sonnets, set at a time when Heaney was five or six years of age, is addressed to the memory of Mick Joyce. Heaney resurrects a figure from the past, recalling him with great warmth, affection and good-humour. The man was ‘demobbed’ at the end of WW2 and, it is suggested, became part of the post-war reconstruction programme.

Personal pronouns are those of a shared relationship: you, your, we, I, me.

In a sequence that will regularly allude to life-and-death issues, the final couplet of all clarifies Heaney’s subtle choice of title: Mick Joyce now in memoriam is depicted at a moment when, on leave from his duties and very much alive, he was ‘in heaven’ in an altogether different sense.

1.

Transition from ‘soldier’ (the use of inverted commas is revealed in the narrative) to craftsman: Kit-bag to tool-bag/ Warshirt to workshirt; a man unused to his particular relocation, out of your element, related now to rural farmer-in-laws (an evident rhymed play on ‘father-in-law’).

Coping with country tasks in a conspicuously clumsy way (The talk of the country) Mick was, however, a builder in a class of his own and happy in his own company: out on your own/ When skylined on scaffolds.

Heaney borrows the identity of a Trojan War super-hero to tease the memory of an ex-‘soldier’ who never actually fought: A demobbed Achilles/ Who was never a killer, a mere ex-stretcher-bearer Turning your hand/ To the bricklaying trade on civvie-street (the contemporary reference to civilian life).

  • kit bag: carried by soldiers it contained their personal belomgings;
  • out of one’s element: in an unfamiliar situation
  • in-laws: people related by marriage;
  • sheaf: bundle of grain stalks after harvest;
  • the talk of; a topic on everyone’s lips;
  • out on your own: in a league of your own;
  • demob: release from the armed forces;
  • turn one’s hand to: demonstrate that one has the skills;

 

  • A sonnet; lines based around 6 syllables sometimes using enjambment to vary the rhythms; no rhyme scheme;
  • single compound sentence with 2 dashes;
  • the first couplet uses the assonance of repetition; [ai] skylined; [ɪ]  Achilles/ killer/ instead; [e] instead/ stretcher-bearers; [ei] bricklaying trade;
  • alliterative effects: prominent [t] sounds are  echoed in later narrative; [sk] scaffold/ Achilles/ killer; [st] instead/ strongest/ stretcher;

 

2.

Heaney pursues his good-natured references to classical history: as Achilles was a warrior-prince so Mick has an almost burlesque ‘royal’ presence on the building-site: prince of the sandpiles.

Achilles was a great military leader; in contrast, Mick resembles classical Greek military ‘heavy’ hod-hoplite commander more adept at building construction: Keeping an eye/ On the eye of the level.

He is back home from the war, a humble Medical orderly,/ Bedpanner, bandager  now dealing with post-war issues at home transferred to the home front. The spit-and-polish of army life and its uniform might have been replaced by a different, less demanding routine but Forces’ habits are not easily forgotten:  Rising and shining/ In brass-button drab.

  • building materials and techniques are strongly represented: sand used to make cement; hod: a shoulder-carried container for bricks that are to be carried up ladders in quantity; plumbing: not mending pipes in this context, rather ensuring that bricks are laid square and level and walls straight (a plumb-line of weighted string is used); pointing: removing and smoothing excess cement that emerges between courses of bricks as they are tapped level; pegged out: the shape of the building is laid out with pegs and strings at the very start of construction; foundations: these are dug out as a base for building and concrete footings are poured in to stabilise the ground; a spirit-level with a bubble in a banana-shaped  glass cylinder ensures that surfaces are vertical or horizontal; cornice: the point where wall and roof line meet;
  • medical references: bedpanner refers to the orderly who deals with the toilet needs of bedridden soldiers; the bandager dressed wounds;
  • rise and shine was the characteristic wake-up  call of repressive Regimental Sergeant Majors;
  • drab refers to the dull brownish uniform worn by medical orderlies;
  • home-front described the organisations and groups keeping Britain going on the British mainland while the WWII was being fought by soldiers abroad;
  • hoplites were the citizen soldiers of the Ancient Greek city states;

 

  • A sonnet; lines based around 6 syllables sometimes using enjambment to vary rhythm and pace; no rhyme scheme;
  • frequent use  of mainly paired alliterations: Hod-hoplite ; watching/ wall; plumbing/ pointing/ pegged; course/ cornice; cement/ set; bedpanner, bandager; brass-buttoned drab;
  • assonances: [ai]  eye/ eye; rising and shining; [au] out/ foundation; [e] cement set/ Medical;
  • oxymoron:   brass-button drab;     

3.

Heaney recalls listening (You spoke) and from distance compares the heroic, boy’s comic stories he heard (served in the desert/ Been strafed and been saved) with Mick’s non- combatant reality: the medical orderly who enjoyed a softer option, saved from being shot, perhaps but by courses of blankets/ Fresh folded and piled in the open air (like bales on a field) and not in a trench : no sandbags that time. 

In hindsight Heaney suggests that Mick’s deliberate distance from the front-line  might have helped him to survive: a softness preserved you. 

Despite their considerable age difference, Mick’s relationship with the youngster was pitched man to man  and based on some kind of unwonted familiarity (You/ Took me for granted) that allowed a man of military age to talk about  sex with a three or four year old  as a pretext for mocking the ‘outrageous’ even un-Christian sexual habits of the English: who you said/ Would do it on Sundays/ Upstairs in the daytime.

  • wartime references: all men of conscription age were expected to serve in Army, Air Force or Navy, referred to collectively as the forces; strafed: low-flying aircraft sprayed battle zones with bullets and shells; sandbags acted as a shield against bullets;
  • bale: large, heavy bundles of hay tied with twine;
  • ‘to take someone for granted’ is to assume via familiarity that anything is permitted; here the suggestion is that Mick felt safe to pass on adult confidences to a boy;

 

  • sonnet, break at line 8; lines based between 4 and 6 syllables; four consecutive enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 5 complete sentences;
  • assonant effects: [əʊ] spoke/ folded/ No; spoke/ also [ei] strafed/ saved; bales; [ai]  piled/ time; [æ] blankets/ sandbags/ man to man;
  • alliterative use of [k] courses/ blankets/ like; [f] Fresh-folded; sexual allegations are whispered in a flurry of sibilants; 

4. 

Man or superman? The young boy reveals he was awed by Mick’s strength (the weight of the trowel/ … surprised me and by his dexterity –  a bricklayer able to sever a brick in a flash and then do tricks (twirl the trowel Fondly and lightly).

Acting as Mick’s right-hand man,  sent to wash the trowel during a break, it took all his strength to meet the challenge (needed two hands) of handling the thick-spanned/ daunting implement. 

  • lozenge: diamond shaped (think playing-cards)
  • sever: cut suddenly in two;
  • twirl: spin in the hand;
  • in a flash: very quickly; the word flas also has connotations of showing off;
  • sloped angle handle: jointed in the middle to create an angle for best use;
  • thick-spanned: with a large grip;
  • daunting: intimidating;
  • A sonnet; lines based on 6 syllables; three complete sentences; break after line 7 contrasts their relative strengths;
  • sound effects: alliterative [w] weight/ what; [l] lift/ lozenges/ blade/ flash/ twirl/  -Fondly/ lightly; assonant:[ei] weight/ shaped/ Blade; [e] sever/ whenever/ sent, [æ] either nasal or not: had/ angle handle/ spanned/ hands;
  • In a flash offers a dual possibility: instantaneously; as if by magic

5.

We are suddenly next to Heaney as his poem takes shape: he has found a title for the sequence and explains his choice.

The distance his memories have had to travel leaves some of them hazy: his friendship, the day when Mick was first seen at the Heaney home on his first leave, is partly blurred: started if not quite from nowhere, then somewhere far off.

However he recalls the first meeting in great detail – the time, the place, those involved, the ambient conditions, the particular circumstances: a bedroom, bright morning …  Mick not alone (woman) …  his first leave … a first sighting  a stranger arrived   a house with no upstairs.

Title explained: the relief and respite that war-leave brought to soldiers apply specifically to Mick Joyce, now dead (euphemistically ‘in heaven’) as he and they enjoy a moment of pleasure heaven enough/ To be going on with. 

  • leave: period of permitted absence;
  • a sonnet; lines based on 6/7 syllables; three complete sentences; break after line 9 brings the sequence full circle;
  • In Heaven: in one sense ‘things could not be better’;
  • before the colon the alveolar [t] sound is frequent followed by the [ɑː] [ɒ] combination of far off. The middle section brings a sonic weave of [æ] bilabial plosive [b] and alveolar plosive [d]: bedroom, bright/ A man and a woman/ backs/ bedhead;
  • Heaney reveals some  aspects of his childhood setting: a house with no upstairs;                 

 

  • 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: fifteen 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 sentence brings together sibilant variants [s] [z], alveolar nasal [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

 

  • Characteristically, Heaney balances violence with healing … “To Mick Joyce in Heaven”, affectionately recalls a demobbed soldier who served as a stretcher-bearer. The next considers the post-war erasure from the landscape of an aerodrome, while the following poem returns to destruction with a version of Horace echoing the attack on the World Trade Center: “Anything can happen, /the tallest towers / Be overturned.” An example of Heaney’s care in shaping a book, this strategy replaces surprise with deliberation. Stephen Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2006