Heaney’s title refers to the piles of sand in which youngsters were delighted to play. His four-poem sequence expands the idea to reveal the impact made on the impressionable young Heaney by the post WWII construction period. The speaker, now an adult, provides retrospective insights and judgements; the child he was is omnipresent. The poem offers a further dimension: both poet and bricklayer are constructing things that will survive them.
A 7 year old recalls the symbolic first spadeful of earth of post-war building development on rural farmland: The first hole neat as a trapdoor/ cut into grazing. Each hole is a double spade action (cut again)followed by the physical exertion of heft and lift.
The metal blade hits rocks, scrabs field-stones, but the shock-wave of collision loses its reverberation as it mounts the spade-handle: a tremor blunts in the shaft. Such minor obstacles would not stand in the way of huge post-war initiatives: small come-uppances meeting/ the driven edge.
Unwonted activity has disturbed the balance of Nature: unearthed worms not normally associated with starlight; a pasty splash of loose earth on passers-by:mould-balm on a passing cyclist’s face; a rodent peeking through the thick layer of mud deposited by labourers’ footwear: rat’s nose in the plastered verge/ where they walked to clean their boots.
- scrab: an onomatopoeic neologism suggestive of sounds that ‘scrape’, ‘scrabble’ and ‘scratch”;
- come-uppance: Heaney selects a neat double intent: the colloquial phrase indicating ‘deserved fate ‘ or ‘just deserts’ when people undertake something unprecedented is given an added subtlety : the infix adverb ‘up‘ introduces an opposing force to the spade digging ‘down’;
- though disturbed, nature tries to adapt;
- 10 lines in two stanzas, the first a single sentence then 2 more in the final quartet;
- variable line length between 4 and 8 syllables; unrhymed;
- the manual process and its metaphorical significance in stanza 1 are delivered in a single flow using enjambed lines;
- simile comparing hole dug and trapdoor; word omission: grazing ‘land’ omitted;
- adjective ‘blunt’ transformed into a verb;
- compound ‘mould-balm’ adds the idea of clinging stickiness to the soil;
- the music of the poem: nine 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: listen for: [ɪ] pit/ into/ grazing/ lift/ begin; [ʌ] cut/ cut/ blunts/ come-uppances; [i:] neat/ field/ meeting; clean; [æ] sand/ as a trapdoor; again/ as; scrabs/ shaft; rat’s/ plastered [e] again/heft; tremor/ edge; [əʊ] hole/ stones; mould/ nose; [ei] grazing/ plate; face; [ɑː] starlight/ balm; [ɜː] worms/ verge
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: initial voiceless alveolar plosive [t] is interrupted by labio -dental fricative [f] and (s) variant sounds: alveolar [s] [z] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (shaft);V2 uses trill [r] between [s] and voiceless velar plosive [k] of the final line;
2. The Demobbed Bricklayer
Twenty years on in District and Circle Heaney will compose a sequence of 5 sonnets in memory of Mick Joyce, a named figure from his childhood. The man was ‘demobbed’ at the end of WWII and became part of the post-war reconstruction programme. The (anonymous) Demobbed Bricklayer is unmistakeably the same person.
The first sign demarcating the building-site appears: A fence post trimmed. Local people are not used to this restriction: the post is packed/ into place but out of place. The anonymous Mick Joyce figure(the soldier/ not a soldier any more)finds the scene difficult to comprehend: what has he/ walked into?
He had spent his ‘war’ as a non-combatant stretcher bearer(never/ quite a soldier) in the desert/night among cold ambulances of Saharan North Africa accustomed to desert sand, thedry, granular absolute sand of the world andto the feel against the skin of superheated wind-blown sand: the sun’s whip and grid.
Now he is using building-sand and he understands what it promises local builders: it has put a financial ‘shine’ on things: a lustre in their heavy land; it has becomea wage-earning topic of conversation: greedy coppers hammered/ in the wishing tree of their talk, a vein of gold extracted by the sweat of their brows: the damp ore of money.
Returned from sun-drenched desert war the Freckled bricklayer, a home-grown product of the soil/ he is inhaling picks up the skills of his former trade and the tools he used: the song of his trowel (that applied cement to each brick: dressing a brickbat) and its wooden grip that adjusted each brick’s position (the tock and tap of its butt); the unerring way of ensuring a vertical wall: the plumb-/ line’s certitude; the levelling process: the merriment/ in the spirit level’s eye suggesting that he, too, has found a new optimism.
- absolute : ‘in a class of its own’, ‘unlike any other’;
- grid: a shortened form of gridiron upon which items were placed to cook over heat;
- brickbat: originally used to refer to a piece of brick rather than the whole;
- butt: the rounded wooden handle of the builder’s trowel;
- tock and tap: onomatopoeic words that mimic the sound of wood against brick;
- plumb- line: weighted string that hangs vertically and reveals badly laid bricks;
- spirit level: a straight-edged instrument with a banana-shaped glass tube inset that contains a bubble in liquid; the position of the bubble indicates accurate horizontal (and vertical) position;
- four stanzas of irregular length bonded to one another by half lines like brickwork;
- full lines of 7/8 syllables; unrhymed;
- a balance of enjambed lines and punctuation; 1 question;
- ‘place’: literal and idiomatic; both it and the bricklayer are out of their element;
- personification: the sun uses a whip;
- transferred epithet: the men are greedy not the coins; talk of wages becomes a wishing-tree; coins actually arrive already minted; the men’s anticipation is likened to minting their own coins;
- personification: the trowel sings, the spirit level has an eye, is never infallible;
- the music of the poem: ten 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: listen for: [ei] bricklayer/ place/ place; inhaling/ trade; [ɪ] bricklayer/ trimmed/ into; This is; grid/ this/ in/ wishing; inhaling/ brick; brickbat/ merriment/ spirit; [əʊ] post/ soldier/ soldier/ cold; [ai] quite/ night [æ] absolute/ sand; sand/ land/ hammered/ damp; stands/ bat/ tap;[e/eə:] fence/ never; freckled/ remembering/ dressing; merriment/ level; [ʌ] sun’s/ lustre; butt/ plumb [ɔː] walked/ talk/ more/ ore; [ɜː] world/ worked; [ɒ] demobbed/ coppers/ song/ tock;
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: the first couplet interweaves alveolar [t] [d] and bilabial [p] [b] plosives; from 3-10 nasals [m] [n] echo through the text before a return to alveolar [t] [d] and bilabial [p] [b] plosives; 11-15 follows initial alveolar [l] pair with echoes of nasal [m] that will carry into the next section and alveolar plosives [t] [d]; 16 to the end: initial velar [k] and continuant [h] superseded by taps of alveolar [t] (with onomatopoeic ‘tock’) and a cluster of nasals [m][n];
3. The Sand Boom
Heaney is adept at titles. Here he borrows a term from Economics that indicates the explosion of prosperity that accompanies sudden demand.
There was money to be made from the massive expansion of the post-WWII construction programme: A fortune in sand then.
The speaker pictures the sites on which construction took place with their Sandpits and sandbeds and River gravel drying. From boyhood he recalls the sights and textures of Clay-scabbed flints, skimming stones of slate/ sandstone pebbles and the streaked colouration of birds’ eggs of flecked granite. These were combined to mix concrete on the building-site: all rattled in the caked iron mouth/of the concrete mixer.
The boy was close to the labourers at work (the first spadeful I saw/ pitched up),threw his own handful of gravel /over the cribs and into the mixer.His imagination blends quarrying and cement mixing, suggesting that the ingredients of the mixer burn in the fireball/ or crumble on the edge of the blast (it is a Sand Boomafter all). The final ingredient is piped water (no longer rain) added to the mix on the site already flattened in preparation for building.
The next stage: cement is trowelled into position (bonded and set)ready to receive whatever beams and throbs into the wall. Heaney’s comparisons are elusive but seem to depict personified objects watching and waiting: Like undead grains in a stranded cockle shell./ Boulders listening behind a waterfall.
Heaney stresses an addendum (as well): the proximity of major building development fails to stifle Nature’s activity: foxgloves and saplings continue to grow when work moves on from the worked-out pit floor;so does grass on the cracked/ earth face.Fishermen merely adapt to change, nested on an overgrown/ loading-bay conveniently constructed abovethe deepened stream.
- flint: a stone that produces sharp edges when broken;
- sandstone pebbles: softer stone with rounded edges, eroded by the sea;
- skimming stones: flat stones thrown across water to see how many times they will bounce before sinking; a game popular with children;
- concrete mixer: the older version driven by a petrol motor started using a crank-handle; it turned a large central drum into which the ingredient were shovelled; water was added and the concrete produced was poured into wheel-barrows;
- cribs: local usage; Heaney seems to refer to the raised sides of a lorry that could be lowered to facilitate removal of its contents;
- pitched up: cement was shovelled from the pile beneath the mixer and thrown into a wheelbarrow that took it to where it was needed;
- bonded and set: building terms to do with brick patterns or ‘bonds’ and hardened concrete;
- beams: the wooden timbers that stretch internally from outside wall to outside wall and support the structure of a building are set into the brickwork at the appropriate height.
- Heaney gives life to the features of building construction: whatever beams and throbs into the wall;
- stranded cockle shell: large scallop shell washed up by the tide;
- three stanzas of varying length connected by or featuring half lines;
- 8 sentences initially staccato short; a balance between enjambed lines and punctuation determines the shape and emphases of oral delivery;
- line length variable between 4 and 11 syllables; unrhymed apart from strong assonant echo on 4 separate lines;
- description in stanza 1 is rich in colours and textures; compound adjective ‘clay-scabbed’ blends geology and texture; recognition facilitated by comparison with ‘birds’ eggs’; use of building terms;
- vocabulary bringing inanimate things to life; personification: stone listens;
- the music of the poem: nine 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: listen for:[æ] sand/ gravel/ scabbed/ granite/ handful; flattened/ stranded; saplings/ grass/ cracked/ anglers; [ɪ] pits/ river/ in/ brickyards/ flints, skimming; granite/ mixer; pitched/ cribs; drink/ register; listening/ this/ saplings/ pit [e] beds/ pebbles/ eggs of flecked; set to register whatever/ shell; [i:] concrete; beams; deepened stream[ɒ] bonded; throbs; cockle; [ei] clay/ slate/caked/ spadeful; rain/ grains; face/ bay;[ɜː] first; worked; burn; [ai] site; like; behind; [ʌ] -ful/ flung/ crumble; foxgloves/ above;
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: ll. 1-6 contain a weave of bilabial [p] [b] and velar [k] [g] plosives amidst plentiful sibilant [s] and intermittent nasals [m] [n]; 7-16 features a blend of consonant sounds without predominance; 17 to the end draws together velar plosives [k] [g] with beats of [p], interwoven with nasals [m] [n];
4. What the Brick Keeps
An estate built when Heaney was seven years old bears the mark of his ‘demobbed bricklayer’.
First, memories of the man himself: his personal stamp (His touch); his personal memories of wartime (his daydream of tanks); his ‘king-of-the-castle’ point of vantage on the scaffolding; what he sees (close hills at noontime); what he hears (constant sound of hidden river water).
Heaney lauds his bricklayer as single-handedly responsible for the new estate that rose up through. He it was who built the foundations and walls with one chop of the trowel that became part of the brick for ever.
The outer shells he constructed were only the start: it has not stopped travelling in/ in the van of all that followed. The succeeding stages are set out: floors hammered down; then plumbing (the pipes’ first/gulping flow); thenservices and decoration (phone wires and flags/ alive on the gable); finally the signs and sounds of those living there: energetic bedroom activity (a bedhead thumping),the house’s fabric disturbed by banging doors shaking/ the joists, rippling the very roof tank.
Forty years on (my own hands, the size of a grandchild’s) Heaney still cannot resist digging into the sand’s cold and wet; the sand-pile remains a source of amazement, his eyes growing to the size of saucers: my big gaze/ at the sandpit opening by the minute.
vantage point: 19th century phrase; a high place from which to look down on the world;
estate: housing-estate; the post-war term for high density building developments;
van: shortened form of ‘vanguard’, theleading section of an army (in this case an army of tradesmen);
gable: the pointed end wall of a house;
joist: a horizontal timber supporting a floor;
- 17 lines in a single stanza; line length variable between 6 and 10 syllables; unrhymed;
- balance of enjambed lines and other punctuation, the first sentence split by a dash, a later colon introducing an enumeration;
- Heaney paints a panoramic picture that includes other senses data;
- parallel: the bricklayer ‘s hallmark, stamped using a trowel, echoes the hammer and punch used for dating silverware;
- the further development of each house follow a logical sequence;
- personifications: pipes swallow; other accessories are alive;
- the observer has never outgrown the magic of his early experiences;
- the music of the poem: up to eleven 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: listen for [i:] Keeps/ daydream; [ɪ] Brick/ his/ scaffolding/ chimneys/ hills/ hidden river; travelling in in; ; big/ sandpit/ minute; [əʊ] scaffolding/ close/ rose; followed/ flow, phone; go/ cold/ opening; [æ] vantage/ scaffolding; has/ travelling/ van/ that; hammered/ flags/ alive/ banged/ tank/ hands/ grandchild’s/ sandpit; [ɒ]constant/ one chop; not stopped/ followed; [e] sent/ ever; bedhead/ very/ wet[ei] day; estate; shaking [ɔɪ] point/ joists; [uː] noon; through/ roof [ai] time/ pipes. wire/ alive/ size/ child/ my; [au] sound/ trowel/ down;
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: ll. 1-7: alveolar plosives [t] [d] combine with alveolar [t], a pair of velar [k] and a line of voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ] after ‘chimneys’; 9-17: alveolar [t] [d] are joined by labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and velar plosives [k] [g] before a paired trill [r] and final bilabial [p] [b] combination;