The collection moves from Heaney’s temporary separation from family and home as an adolescent exile in a boarding school to the pained recall of terminal severance. His Virgilian diptych focuses on his mother and father long since dead. There is an element of nightmare in both depictions.

The two figures demonstrate their personalities via the challenges they dealt with and the circumstances in which they operated.

As so often Heaney’s ingenious choice of title awakens multiple associations: his mother and father, so long a solid close-knit couple, exist now only in his memory and the eternal present of his poem; death has decoupled two links from one end of a human chain to which for the time being Heaney remains coupled.

The two vignettes are acted out like otherworldly clips of moving film: the mother’s movement slow, dignified, inexorable and orderly; the father’s fast-moving, hyper-active such as to generate insecurity in the watching youngster.

I  A rhetorical question (who is this?) introduces a revenant mother figure engaged in the tough domestic routine of a mid-Ulster  farmer’s wife for whom everything with further use is retained – erect and steady-paced (as if in a procession), with a specific purpose (ash-pit). She is coping (bearing) with a burden (slender pan) lifted from beneath the grate (firebox).

This is an excruciating chore (weighty, full to the brim) – the ash as yet not dead (flakes still sparkling hot) blown troublesomely about her person (apron bib mouth and eyes).

This woman is equal to any challenge (unwavering), alert to accident (her burden horizontal still), undeterred by heat and physical pain (hands in a tight, sore grip round the metal knob).

Heaney and his siblings (we) follow her out of shot familiar with her destination along the well-trodden (worn path) leading to the henhouse.

  • couple: two people that form a pair; link, combine, connect; pairing interconnection (‘coupling’);
  • ash-pit: container for ash retained to provide valuable trace elements upon which plants thrive;
  • ash: associated in the Catholic with penitence and death;
  • bear: both tolerate (some arduous task) and carry solemnly;
  • pan: flat metal container for ash;
  • firebox: part of the domestic grate in which the fuel is burnt;
  • brim: upper edge, lip;
  • spark: particles that are still alight;
  • bib: section of apron that protects the chest and throat;
  • unwavering: steady, resolute;
  • sore: painful;
  • worn: flattened and a touch sorry in appearance;
  • The title attunes to one of the central themes of the collection embodied in its title;
  • Heaney depicts his  mother’s qualities: industrious; conditioned to and accepting of her responsibility for running the home routine; proud and dignified; suffering discomfort without complaint; stoical even pious;
  • His deliberate choice of the ash pan provides images of pallor, sickness and death; it reminds even of Ash Wednesday, the 1stday of Lent, deriving its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of worshippers as a sign of repentance.
  • 4 three-line stanzas based around 10 syllables; free verse;
  • the piece is written as a single sentence making rich use of enjambed lines to echo the revenant’s steady unwaveringprogress;
  • the final words of each line in the first tercet add a kind of sonic punctuation by using an initial bilabial plosive [p]: pit /procession/ pan
  • use of dual meaning: walking tall –both erect and proud; bearing – both carrying and suffering;
  • we suggests the presence of poet and siblings.

II  The second poem begins with the same rhetorical question, now focussing on Heaney’s father caught up in the noise and confusion of his professional ‘wheeler-dealer’ activities. Child Heaney who was present felt relegated beneath the demands others made on his father yet a greater price would follow.

Paddy Heaney, his Dad, a man of modest stature (not much higher than the cattle) striving ultimately unsuccesfully to get to his son (working his way), punching above his weight in the market’s confined space (pen), accustomed to control and management of people (ashplant …lifted and pointing) and cattle (stick of keel).

Heaney recalls feelings of physical and emotional vulnerability (perched on top of a shaky gate) at his father’s attempts to communicate (calling waving and calling) lost in the noisy confusion (something I cannot hear).

Market sounds drown everything out – cattle (the lowing and roaring), transport (lorries revving), by cattlemen making deals (dealers shouting among themselves) or seeking advice (now to him) – to the exclusion of the powerless youngster (his eyes left mine).

Heaney’s moving conclusion offers the truths of hindsight – everything is relative and nothing is forever – whatever anguished insecurity that early episode might have caused, it did not prepare him for the price of bereavement (I know the pain of loss before I know the term).

  • pen: small enclosure;
  • ashplant: short section of an ash tree trimmed to be used as a walking stick;
  • keel: stem of the kale plant, useful for bullying cattle;
  • perch: balance unsteadily on something high and narrow;
  • shaky: unstable, unreliable;
  • low: moo sound of cattle;
  • dealer: individual who buys and sells;
  • term: at once ‘price’, cost’ ‘expression’, ‘concept’ also ‘period of time’, ‘stint’, ‘interval’;
  • Heaney goes to great lengths to compare the noisy, demanding existence of his father’s working life with the much more solitary and silent life that he suggests his mother led, devoted to children and home;
  • Heaney seems not yet to have come to terms with a father-son closeness that seems to have eluded them both;
  • Whilst acknowledging the fleeting nature of human existence the clarity of Heaney’s memories and emotions is manifest;
  • 4 tercets ; free verse, mainly 10 syllable lines with lines 3 and 6 shortened to add punch and emphasis;
  • Heaney transfers the epithet shaky from the boy’s insecurity to the gateon which he sits;
  • what started as a long-lost memory adopts a poignant immediacy through the use of the present tense in the final couplet; use of the –ing form, used verbally(revving) or as a noun (lowing) lends a dramatic present-ness to a past events;
  • Heaney makes deliberate and ingenious use of words that convey a double intent; term: on the one hand the child was too young to understand the full significanceof ‘loss’; at the same time the word acknowledges that all human life comes to an endOther poems in this section refer to term-time and Heaney’s feeling of exile in boarding-school.

The diptych:

  • Here (Northern Ireland) is portrayed as largely bucolic and wild, infused with childhood memories. “Uncoupled” … contains allusions to Caithleen ni Houlihan, a figure of Irish folklore.com, 22ndSept 2010
  • 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 or, as in the marvellous Route 110, a ‘‘votive jam pot’’. SBPO G Roarke 2010.
  • There is one poem, “Uncoupled” – a diptych in memory of his parents – that has all the placid beauty of a Dutch painting or a Schubert song. Both parts of the poem are structured in the customary four three-line stanzas, both beginning with the same three words “Who is this”, both offering a single ghostly image from memory, something hovering between what is lost and what has now been found.  Guardian review by Colm Toibin Aug 21st2010
  • In the subsequent diptych, “Uncoupled”, we infer that it is separation that has enabled Heaney to pay such tender honour to his parents. His mother, walking with a pan of ash from the fire, and his father among cattle and the noise of market, are transfigured, like inhabitants of a Virgilian underworld. … Heaney is the fortunate recipient of a Classical education. Their allusions to the characters of poetry and legend, and their adaptation of its landscapes and modes are not in the derogatory sense academic, but a claiming of an imaginative birthright the rest of us risk losing. From the Independent Review of Sept 3rd2010; Sean O’Brien
  • 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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