The Butts

Crossings xxxiii from Seeing Things of 1991 is closely linked to The Butts. Both poems are set specifically at The Wood farm inherited from great-uncle Hughie into which the family moved from Mossbawn following the death of the poet’s brother Christopher in 1953.

In the earlier poem the removal of his father’s personal effects from the deserted farmhouse (what had been emptied out) had completed an ‘unroofing’ process that closed the door on a chapter of Heaney’s life that had included parents (turning your back and leaving),

Those feelings have lain and matured over nearly a decade. His father’s ‘plain, big, straight ordinary’ design for the house he built and lived in as a widower are reflected in the lack of fanciness Heaney discovers in the dead man’s wardrobe literally redolent with reminders of his active existence leading his thoughts to the family’s shared pain as they cared for the dying man too sick to look after himself.

His father’s every-day wear revealed his formality, stature (suits broad and short) and body shape (slightly bandy-sleeved) hanging in orderly two-dimensional fashion (flattened back against themselves) and suggestive of Paddy Heaney’s natural aloofness (a bit stand-offish).

Moving from visual to remnant odours triggered a set of involuntary memories in Heaney who saw himself ‘invading’ his father’s wardrobe and, thereby, his privacy.

Tobacco and under-arm odours (stale smoke and oxter- sweat) had persisted and marinated in the enclosed space (came at you stirred-up brew).

Heaney allowed himself to search more closely (reached in) – the full impact of its implied intimacy will be confirmed before the poem is over.

His eyes took in the range (rake) of heavy, durable fabrics (thornproof and blue serge) required for rough Irish farming environments. The unison of their back-and-to momentum provided  Heaney with a rivery comparison (like waterweed disturbed).

His nose coped with a paradox (sniffed tonic unfreshness), something  unwholesome serving as a catalyst to poetry.

Initial observation moved via touch to intrusion (delved) as if, without scruple, he was entering spaces where private secrets might be hidden (the forbidden handfuls) only to discover that his father had nothing much to hide (empty-handedness transpired).

Pressing his nose into the clothing (suit-cloth against my face) revealed textures (layered stuff that surged and gave) and relative temperature (cold smooth pocket-lining); rummaging revealed old cigarette ends of finely ground tobacco (chaff cocoons) and a thin dryness (paperiness) recalling the feel of his father’s skin when the last days came.

The sick man’s terminal decline entailed an invasion of his privacy with which his children were unfamiliar (learn to reach well in) as they cared for his wasting body (each meagre armpit feeling his lightness). The washing process (sponge him dab and work) included very personal areas and caused them some unease (closer than anybody liked).

The process was never queried (for all that) because it fell within the children’s duty of intensive loving care to keep working.

  • bandy: curved outwards to create a ( ) shape;
  • stand-offish: aloof in manner; further link with ‘bandy ( )
  • stale: unfresh, rancid;
  • oxter: Scots armpit;
  • brew: concoction, mixture;
  • rake: sweep, stretch, expanse;
  • thornproof: resistant to puncture or tear;
  • serge: durable fabric;
  • tonic unfreshness: oxymoron unwelcome memory yet strong emotional stimulus
  • delve: reach inside to search;
  • flap: hinged cover of an opening;
  • lining: inside layer of a different material;
  • empty handed: having obtained/ achieved nothing;
  • transpire: happen, prove to be the case;
  • stuffs: materials, contents;
  • surge: increase suddenly, brim
  • chaff: scraps, bits of this and that;
  • cocoon: protective covering;
  • meagre: slight, puny;
  • dab: pat, wipe;
  • work: exert oneself;
  • 11 tercets; no rhyme scheme; 3 complete sentences ;
  • individual lines vary in length contributing  to the ebb and flow of rhythm; the plentiful use of enjambed lines and  mid-line punctuation rings the changes;
  • change of time and place is pivotal around last days when the of the first section becomes we: an individual invasion of privacy becomes a shared challenge;
  • Heaney transfers the epithet of the father’s traits to his clothes: bandy-sleeved(adapting the image of bandy legged, said of people whose knees are wide apart in normal stance); stand-offish  (both references are modified to a degree: slightly … a bit);
  • 4 of the 5 senses figure, especially smell and taste; only explicit sounds are omitted;
  • alliteration in line 1 starts with plosive [b] and [d] sounds replaced by sibilants [s] and [sh]; later echoes of the same sound: stuffs/ That surged;
  • assonance: again/ Until the last days came;
  • intrusion built into reach in/ delved/ reach well in;an emotional response built into Pressed;
  • phrases referring to unquestioned necessity, here To keep working,are to be found in other pieces e.g. That had to be put up with (Eelworks, iii)
  • 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: thirteen 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;
  • This is a book that, though as rich in the bits and pieces of the material world as any Vermeer or Metsu, also teems with other lives, whether they be family members (Heaney’s father in The Butts, his parents in Uncoupled, his granddaughter in Route 110), colleagues and friends…. Lives are conjured up through objects, so that each instance seems to offer two timelines: one to do with the remembered life, the other to do with the ongoing power of the material world to trigger memory and reclaim narrative, as evidenced by a pen, a suit, an ash-pan … As a comment on how the artistic imagination operates: it both invents, or literally recovers the past, but also requires itself to honour the details of memory; this is wise and adroit. It is also typical of a masterful and luminous collection. SBPO/ GRoarke

2 thoughts on “The Butts

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment