The poem is a memorial to its central figure, a warm, nostalgic rural study from the poet’s past dedicated to his Aunt Mary.
The first line introduces the motif and emotions of what follows: There was a sunlit absence. The phrase encapsulates: nostalgic feelings from childhood; the warmth of sunlight; warm relationships; irreversible time past; a scene and a person missed.
We will follow the poet’s eye as it moves from farmyard into kitchen. The initial scene is narrated in the past. In the yard stood the helmeted pump as if on sentry-duty (Heaney often lends a military bearing to the cast-iron agricultural paraphernalia of his childhood); the poet evokes the subtle colour of water drawn from the peaty water-table (honeyed) as it sits within a slung bucket.
What he is seeing is reminiscent of so many occasions (each long afternoon) dominated by the heat of the sun: like a griddle cooling against the wall.
So permits the pause that allows the eye to refocus on Mary Heaney, busy baking. Her hands were in constant rapid movement (scuffled) as she baked. The kitchen was every bit as hot as the yard outside, with its reddening stove/ plaque of heat creating a force-field against her.
Aunt Mary revealed her main cookery ingredient via floury apron and whitened nails.
For a moment she stood as if motionless; then the verb-tense changes from past recollection to an animated present: what were ‘still-life’ compositions, first a sizzling farmyard then Aunt Mary, posed and side-lit by the window as in a Vermeer canvas, are suddenly injected with life.
Mary is working in the old-fashioned, traditional way, dusting her board with a goose-wing. Heaney indicates an ageing person’s need to take rests and alludes to her stocky build in a kindly way: broad-lapped. Her measling shins are described by use of a metallurgic term describing the flaws and blemishes visible on metal surfaces that resemble the pigmentation of ageing skin.
After the bustle, the cooking process allows a second lull in proceedings: a space, measured on two clocks permitting pastry to rise and sweetmeat to cook.
The piece is more than just a picture of a woman at work: the physical space is accompanied by a deeply emotional one: here is love made tangible by reference to an old-fashioned kitchen tool: the metal tinsmith’s scoop that bears flour from meal-bin to mixing-bowl at the outset of Aunt Mary’s loving and sustenant process.
- Heaney was brought up on the family farm at Mossbawn until his brother’s death in a car accident in 1953 (the poet was 14 at the time); his aunt, Mary, lived with the family;
- slung: used particularly of items thrown carelessly around the neck here that of the personified pump;
- scuffled suggests both nervy movement and tiny scratching sounds;
- measling: describing skin texture using a metallurgic concept itself echoing the children’s ailment measles with its red rash effect;
- scoop: tin beaten into half cylinder shape with wooden handle added as an extension;
- addressing an audience at 92nd Street Y on September 26th 2011 Heaney clarified the circumstances of the moment; in 1939 or 40 he was the ‘infans’, the young child, watching his Aunt Mary, ‘non-speaking but absorbing the atmosphere’;
- DOD (pp171-2) Heaney assesses his relationship with his father’s sister: ‘There was something/ that stood still’ and ‘Something in her remained constant, like the past gazing at you calmly, without blame/ I suppose all I’m saying is that I loved her dearly’.
- MP (pp 16/7) refers to the beautiful invocation of ‘the spirit of Mossbawn’; describes the pump as ‘physical and mythic … guardian of the territory … a symbol or icon for the subterranean energies of the place and its people’; he also suggests a religious transubstantiation of the water; tools are representative of ‘an earlier age’; Heaney, he suggests’ experiences ‘a sense of fullness, not of loss’ its presentness confirmed by the repeated use of ‘here;
- NC (p55) refers to the piece’s ‘composed stillness and almost-archaism’;
- SH is an outstanding word-painter, capable of the finest of brush-strokes, here as lyrical as later intricate natural descriptions of the bog poems and in contrast, for example, with the brash, colourful cartoon-poster-poem Orange Drums.
- 7 quatrains; variable line length: longest 8 syllables, the shortest 4; no rhyme scheme but rich use of assonant and alliterative sound effects;
- the short initial sentence sets out what is in play; the long second sentence provide an exterior still-life scene; the third depicts a posed figure; the fourth combines human activity and rest; the final sentence stresses the strong emotional memories that accompany the scene;
- sentences 1, 2 and 3 combine the following assonant effects: [ai] Sunlight/ iron; [ʌ]sunlit/ pump/ honeyed/ slung bucket/ sun stood[ɪ] sunlit/ in/ griddle/ its; [uː] cooling/ afternoon and later scoop [ɔː] water/ wall; [əʊ] So/ over/ stove [ei] bakeboard/ apron; consonant effects come in larger and smaller clusters: [s] [z] of (1) recurring in (3); alveolar nasal [n] and velar plosive [k] in (2);
- sentence 2 and 3 are almost totally enjambed;
- in (4) and (5) the [ɪ] of window is strongly echoed: wing/ sits/ shins/ tick/ tinsmith’s/ its/ in/ bin; [ʌ] recurs: dusts/ love/ sunk; [ɔː] board/ broad; [ɒ] scone/ clocks; [ei] nails/ space again; [i:] measling/ here/gleam/ meal; alliteration is not marked: some bi-labial [w]; more plentiful sibilants [s] [z]; tick of two offers an onomatopoeic pendulum effect;
- continued rich use of enjambment;
- 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;