Lick The Pencil

In a sequence that ultimately reveals a deep, underlying sorrow two shades are recalled: Heaney’s father Patrick and Colmcille.

In the 1940’s and 50’s there existed pencils that produced purplish, semi-permanent markings referred to as ‘indelible’ pencils. It was not uncommon for people to lick the point possibly, in their mind, to darken the script. The pencil and its marks come to symbolise things that do not readily fade away.

In search of nickname most suggestive of his father’s quirky ways and his farming skills Heaney establishes a shortlist.

The first a peculiar mannerism (‘Lick the pencil’)  associated with his father’s professional need to make tallies, record deals agreed in the cattle-market in which he worked. Heaney thinks back to his sharp responses (quickdeft) – both movement and inner compulsion (hand-to-mouth) – tied to a close relationship (tongue-flirt) with the butt end of his indelible pencil (stub).

The second (‘Drench the cow’ ) is triggered by Patrick Heaney’s uncompromising way (fierce nostril-grab and peel-back of her lips) of dealing with the medical needs of the cattle he owned and his imposition of medication (bottle-neck between her big, bare teeth).

Thirdly and equally valid (‘Catch the horse’): his ability to master a large animal despite his own small stature (low-set cut of him) –  the accomplishment of a complicated manoeuvre (fit winkers on) in the blink of an eye (single move).

Mmm … three candidates but only one winner: the idiosyncrasy (as much for the surprise) that best reveals the inner man (truth of it) …  the image of a wheeler and dealer father licking the end of his pencil to set a deal in stone.

  • wet: dampen with the tongue;
  • lead: graphite rod down the centre of a pencil erroneously believed to be lead (chemical Pb);
  • hand-to-mouth: clever play on both physical movement and responding to an immediate need;
  • flirt: tease;
  • stub: butt end, remnant;
  • drenching: a term used on dairy farms to indicate force-feeding of cattle with water, nutrients or medicines;
  • peel: fold;
  • low-set: short in stature with low centre of gravity;
  • cut: shape, design;
  • winkers: pieces of horse-tack with attached strapping fitted beside the horse’s eye to restrict its vision to side and rear;
  • 4 triplets; lines generally based on 10 syllables, save the last, shortened to indicate a ‘like-it-or-not’ decision!
  • assonance: lead/ deft;move/ truth; unusual compound noun used normally in other contexts: tongue-flirt; frequency of so; alliterative big bare teeth;
  • the speed and nimbleness of stanza 1 is reflected in the use of monosyllables;
  • his father’s no-nonsense approach: Heaney works the verbal actions in stanza 2 into compound nouns: nostril-grab… peel-back.

ii  Marks that cannot be erased. The knowledge and activities of rural life were natural to boy-Heaney: bird-nesting; the properties of common weeds.

Heaney might question the misleading (so called who knows why) label of ‘copying pencil’ when copying was just one of its functions.  It made a mark (inked itself) that deepened when wetted (purpled when you licked). It lived in his father’s pocket alongside other stub-ended remnants (short as the cigarette butts in his pocket) with its own sharp smell (every bit as tangy) and a soft grade core that went quickly blunt (in constant need of sharpening) and was tried out prior to use (testing on the back of his left hand).

Heaney falls back on examples from nature that left their enduring mark on him: from the livid scratches (bloodlines holly leaves might score) inflicted on the hands of youngsters who dared to venture in (the back of a bird-nester’s) to a sorry, almost ‘invisible ink’ (glum, grey pocks) left on his skin once it dried (white dandelion milk).

  • tangy: sharp flavoured;
  • sharpen: cut away the wood to reveal the writing core:
  • bloodline: scratch that shows blood where the skin is broken;
  • hollyis associated with medieval ink in Colum Cille Cecinit (i);
  • score: cut a scratch-mark;
  • glum: gloomy;
  • pock: mark, blemish;
  • 12 lines in a single sentence, lines of varying length; one ‘half’ line:about as short;
  • the poem is akin to a piece of music, with its own musical ‘dynamics’ of pause and flow, crescendo, decrescendo; staccato and legato; the placing of commas and enjambement contribute to the  possibilities open to the speaker in delivering the poem;
  • voiceless alveolar plosive [t] occurs frequently up to line 6;  later, a cluster of bilabial plosive [b] then a [d] pairing: indelible/ dandelion; finally velar plosive [g] in glum grey;
  • assonance: bright/ might; move/ truth.

iii   Heaney dramatizes a version of the last moments of a beloved Irish scholar figure in such a way as to associate it with the life of his much lamented blood father Patrick (In memory of him). The sequence that started as an In memoriam for a father dissolves into a requiem for the Saint.

The link is sealed via the indelible colourings (behold those pigmentations moisten and magnify) and markings common to those who ‘work’ outdoors, whether farmer or peripatetic monk (marks on Colmcille’s monk’s habit).

Focus concentrates on Colmcille’s dying moments. The master/faithful servant relationship is depicted movingly: the animal that came (didn’t need to catch the horse since the horse had come to him) sensing something amiss (where he sat beside the path) – Colmcille’s last moments are reported euphemistically (‘he was weary’) – and responding emotionally (‘wept on his breast so the saint’s clothes were made wet’).

Colmcille enshrines the qualities that made him saintly – recognising that his end is nigh he retains a saintly poise bidding his attendant Diarmait (‘let him  be’) not to intervene (‘til he has sorrowed for me and cried his fill’).

  • behold: see something remarkable; almost Biblical imperative;
  • pigmentation: natural colouring;
  • habit: dress, uniform;
  • the main source of information about Columba’s life is the Vita Columbaeby Adomnán (also known as Eunan). Columba died on Iona and was buried by his monks in the abbey he created. He was later disinterred and is reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St Patrick and St Brigid or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick. In the introduction to Adamnani Vita Sancti Columbae (pp lxxiii/ lxxiv) JT Fowler summarises the circumstances of Colmcille’s death and identifies his ‘attendant, Diarmait ‘…just after midnight between  June 8 and 9, 597, he was found lying before the altar in a dying state … he passed to the Lord as he lay in the arms of his attendant, Diarmit’; Heaney has already alluded to his father’s death in The Butts.
  • Stanza 1 is rich in the voiceless bi-labial nasal [m] of low-voice murmur: pigmentations/ moisten/ magnify to resemble marks/ … Colmcille’s monks ;
  • in stanza 2 the voiced alveolar plosive [d] and repetition of day emphasize its significance;
  • Stanza 3 exploits the plangent [w] sound: weary/ wept/ wet;
  • The initial 7-lines are enjambed with some mid-line commas;
  • the ‘in memoriam’ is triggered by the quasi-biblical enjoinder behold ;
  • the final line caps all that is doleful in the sequence;
  • borrowings are  shown by speech-marks.
  • 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • 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;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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