The fishermen have returned to reap the benefits of their labours (busy in a high boat) as the vessel is carried gently north and west (stalks towards Antrim), adrift (power cut).
The thin, discoloured fishing line (filament of smut) is recovered in a rhythmical routine (drawn hand over fist), its yield exposed hook by hook … no catch (hook’s missed) … ‘eel on’ (taken). Dark, clinging fragments accumulate (smut thickens, wrist- thick). The line becomes a whiplash (flail) to dislodge the eel catch (lashed into the barrel) in a single swipe (one swing).
The treatment eels receive is described ironically(welcome) – each incoming creature becomes a piece of merchandise (hook left in gill or gum) and summarily stunned (slapped … numb).
The observer’s spirits are raised as each eel’s lone fate is overtaken by a corporate interlocking (knits itself, four-ply) of instinctive kinship (furling, slippy haul), a tight skein (knot) of dull grey bodies (back and pewter belly), inseparable (continuously one) adopting each violent arrival (catch they fling in) as one of its own (sucked home) and creating an oily togetherness (lubrication).
Can the same togetherness, the poet asks himself, be said of fishermen with wage-earning mind-sets?
The yields of the trawl (catch on the morning water) have focussed his attention on the criss-cross design of competing boats (wakes …enwound) and the deeper questions thrown up: about distinctions within the eel-fishing industry (which boat was which?) – about the industry’s existence (when did this begin?) – about the timing (this morning, last year?) – about business opportunism (when the lough first spawned?).
Lough Neagh fishermen don’t waste time with this level of intellectual curiosity – for those who earn their crust from a part-time, short-lived cyclical bonanza only the signing-on date matters (‘Once the season’s in’).
- stalk: pursue stealthily, furtively;
- Antrim: borders the west and north-west shoreline of Lough Neagh;
- Power: driving force, horse-power;
- filament: thin cable;
- smut: sooty discolouration;
- hand over fist: rapid repetitive manual operation;
- flail: violent swing;
- lash: violent blow;
- barrel: cylindrical container of wooden staves and metal rings with a bulging midriff;
- gill: fish’s respiratory organ:
- gum: firm teeth-bearing area of upper and lower jaws;
- numb: without physical sensation;
- knit: produce something made of interlocking loops of wool;
- four-ply: made of four strands, said of thick wool;
- furl: become rolled up, interwoven;
- haul: number of fish caught, yield;
- pewter: grey alloy of tin and copper;
- suck: draw in by creating a vacuum;
- lubricate: add a substance to minimise friction and allow smooth movement;
- wakes: trail of disturbed water; enwind: coil around, encircle;
- season: between June and mid-August for all fish in Lough Neagh including eel;
- Heaney learns lessons from his observations: Death of a Naturalist featured the drowning of kittens on the Mossbawn farm; Heaney-child’s instinctive revulsion at the callousness if the event was gradually replaced by a fatalistic recognition that other priorities come to prevail – not least in the case of Lough Neagh fishermen generating income to put food on the family table or pay for drinks in the public bar.
- (MP84) Part Five, ‘Lifting’, illustrates Heaney’s capacity to match Hopkins or Hughes in capturing the haecceitas (the ‘thisness’ property that uniquely identifies an object) of a creature and an event. He is able to realise in words, sounds and rhythms, the summary fate and frantic flailing of each eel, as it ‘knits itself, four-ply’ into an oily tangle of strands. The ironic parallel between victims and killers is maintained as the poet pictures the departing boats’ wakes winding into each other, indistinguishable, without a separate identity.
- 8 triplets(T) in 7 sentences (S) including colons; very variable line length between 3-10 syllables;
- discernible sometimes weak rhyme pattern aaa bbb ccc etc save for the final triplet that rhymes on 1&3 ;
- the combination of punctuation and enjambment (the short units lend themselves to enjambment) dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential, governing pace or pause (note colons and dash);
- unusual formatting includes divided compound adjective and unexpected syntactic splits this draws the verse towards prose-poem form;
- S1/ S2 enjambed; hunting imagery sustained ‘stalks’; geographical location; silence reigns ‘power cut’; discolouration suggestive of darker moments to come ‘smut’; rhythmical retrieval reveals the yield;
- T3/T4 balance of enjambments and colons; the ‘wrist-thick’ fishing line perhaps a precursor of the nightmarish ‘cable’ of ‘Vision’; violence downgraded to irony ‘welcome’; contrasts– stunned eel/conscious eel, singular/shared fate …
- (T5/ T6) largely enjambed instinctive kinship amongst ill-fated creatures –possibility of Northern Irish minority Catholic allegory at its strongest – Heaney struck by the amazing eel phenomenon – knitting imagery of shape and size ‘four-ply; Its symmetrical neatness ‘furling’, oilyness (‘slippy’, ‘lubrication’ and sticking-togetherness; motif of circularity reflecting the movement of fishing vessels, the fishing season etc;
- T7 T8 series of questions of an intellectual investigative nature meet with only a single answer from the more modest fisher intellect ‘that’s where I earn my money’;