In his creative imagination Heaney stands alongside anthropologists engaged with the bodiless head of a young woman similar to one retrieved (exhumed) from the Roum Fen in north Denmark in 1942.
He showcases the head with a sweep of the hand (Here is) and lists the physical properties that label it a strange fruit: large and hard skinned (gourd); oval in shape; epidermis wrinkled as a dried plum (prune-skinned), teeth retaining the stained appearance of the same fruit (prune- stones).
He watches as the hair is carefully disentangled (unswaddled … wet fern) and reset as for display (exhibition of its coil) and her features (leathery beauty) exposed to life-restoring air in preparation for display case or museum.
The waxy surface and colour (tallow) of the head form a pash (archaic hiberno-scottish word for pate) … something precious and fragile is being saved for posterity (perishable treasure).
The skull shows evidence of personal attack (broken nose) and is stained by the peat that preserved it (dark as a turf clod); the eyeholes have been deprived of their colouring and expressiveness by immersion in what was an active natural production facility (blank as pools in the old workings).
Heaney turns to the writings of Diadorus Siculus, Greek historian of the first century BC whose work chronicled the Northern European peoples of two thousand years before. Practices leading to the present circumstance (the likes of this) were so alien to him that he only adjusted to them bit by bit (gradual ease).
The piece tolls a knell of atrocity … four clapper blows indicting a society which can treat an individual in this way: subject her lawless killing (murdered), deprive her life of significance (forgotten), leave her with no memorial (nameless), make no attempt to hide its savagery (terrible beheaded girl). Heaney’s grim catalogue of adjectives ensures that the girl retains her desolate integrity (MP p138).
She will not be mythologized; she has no room for veneration, religious or poetic.
This strange fruit is defiant … a girl rising above her iron age executioners (outstaring axe) uninterested in any religious notion of spiritual elevation (beatification) indifferent to (outstaring) the admiration of her artful voyeur (what had begun to feel like reverence).
- exhume: dig up, recover from the earth;
- gourd: large, fleshy, hard-skinned fruit;
- prune: preserved plum that wrinkles up as it dries;
- unswaddle: unwrap layer by layer;
- coil: single circular twist;
- pash: Scottish word for head, pate;
- tallow: hard animal fat substance used in making candles; light cream in colouring;
- clod: lump of earth;
- workings: sections of mines, quarries from which minerals have been extracted;
- Diodorus Siculus: Greek historian of the first century BC whose work chronicled the Northern European peoples of two thousand years before;
- gradual: progressive, little by little;
- likes: things of a kind;
- outstare: look intently for longer than people can stare back;
- beatification: formal Catholic declaration of a state of bliss permitting public veneration and acting as a first step to sainthood;
- reverence: deep respect, veneration;
- a sonnet; volta after line 10; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- 5 sentence structure, the earliest move in quick succession from feature to feature; then increasing in length; the colon allows the pause that unleashes the initial roar of anger then the deeper grasp of the feelings expressed by the disembodied head;
- lines 1-5: pick up the assonant sounds in the title [ei] strange/ faced/ They/ made; [uː] Fruit/ exhumed gourd/ prune/ prune/ beauty with added flavours of [əʊ] oval/ stones and [e] wet/ hair/ exhibition/ let/ air/ leathery; alliterative effects: initial aspirate [h]; alveolar [l] of unswaddled/ coil/ let/ leathery; one enjambed line ends the staccato effect of the first lines;
- lines 5-8 ring a change [æ] pash/ tallow/ blank as combines with [əʊ]tallow/ broken nose/ eyeholes/ oldand [ɜː] her/ her/ workings; alliterative notes can be heard: voiced [b] and voiceless [p] bilabial plosives; fricatives work in tandem: [ʃ] (exhibition) Pash/ perishable, [ʒ] treasure and [z] nose/ holes/ pools/ workings; these latter carry into the next couplet from Diadorus to this;
- lines 9-10: Heaney navigates the vowel sounds of then Latin name to some assonant effect [ai] Diodorus/ likes; [ɪ] Siculus/ His/ this [ʌ] Diadorus Siculus [u] Siculus/ gradual interwoven with strong sibilant [s] presence;
- lines 11-14: the narrative is carried forward by the grim power of the adjectives (alternating syllable rhythm). Alveolar plosive [t] and bilabial [b] provide alliterative touches; assonant effect is provided by [ɜː] and Murdered/ girl and [e] terrible Beheaded/ reverence.
- A Billie Holliday song of 1956 recalling the lynching of black people in the US ‘Deep’ South confirms via its use that the theme of injustice is still running;
- 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: twelve 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;