The Butts

In conjuring up fragments of existence from his past Heaney recalls two scenes relative to his father: the fully active man revealed by the contents of his dead-man’s wardrobe; the family’s shared care for the dying man. 

Familiar odours trigger a set of involuntary memories in Heaney who sees himself ‘invading’ his father’s wardrobe and, thereby, his privacy. His father’s everyday wear reveals both his nature and his stature: suits… broad/And short; suits of familiar cut and slightly bandy-sleeved; hanging in orderly fashion: Flattened back/ Against themselves; clothes that reveal his father’s natural aloofness: A bit stand-offish.

The tobacco and under-arm odours lingering in the enclosed space (Stale smoke and oxter- sweat/Came at you, strongly, in a stirred-up brew. 

Emboldened, Heaney reached in (the phrase’s full impact will be confirmed before the poem is over).

His eyes take in the heavy, durable fabrics required for rough Irish farming environments: A whole rake of thornproof and blue serge. The swing of the clothing indicates a swaying solidity Like waterweed disturbed. His nose sniffed/ Tonic unfreshness, unwholesome yet serving as a catalyst to poetry.

Superficial observation moves from initial touch to intrusion: he delved as if sinfully into places where private secrets might be hidden (the forbidden handfuls) only to discover that his father had nothing to hide: a kind of empty-handedness transpired. Texture and temperature become the new focus: suit-cloth … pressed against my face; layered stuff that surged and gave; cold smooth pocket-lining. Whilst the yield of his rummaging might be trifling (the remnants of finely ground tobacco rolled into cigarettes with the feel ofchaff cocoons), the texture paperiness recalls the feel of his father’s skin when the last days came

Dealing with the sick man’s increasing decline entailed even greater invasion of his privacy as the family had to 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, however, because it fell within the duty of intensive loving care: having for all that,/ To keep working.

  • 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)


  • 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