Shelf Life

Memories are awakened by items that sit on ‘surfaces’ within Heaney’s private space; contrary tothe modern term ‘shelf-life’ that sets out the time it takes for perishables to become unfit for consumption, Heaney’s items remain timeless, have no ‘sell-by-date’.

Heaney maps out his private space (in) six terse lyrics (MP p187);

1. Granite Chip

The speaker once hammered a piece of Houndstooth stone ( ) off Joyce’s Martello/ Tower (near Dublin) recalling hard, Scottish granite associations (Aberdeen of my mind). He injured himself in the process: his human tissue was more vulnerable than the stone he gripped.

Attractive though the surface and colourings of the granite chip were (this flecked insoluble brilliant) the stone has little in common with the sandstone of the previous poem: the granite is hard and sharp despite associations with unpleasant stone-age rituals (circumcision knife) and uncompromising Protestants (a Calvin edge).

In direct contrast to Joyce Heaney recognises himself as soft and eager not to offend: my complaisant pith.The granite stands for all that Heaney is not and therefore all the Joyce is: jaggy, salty, punitive/ and exacting.

Heaney is sensitive to the messages his granite chip is transmitting as he moves towards the self-scrutiny he is committed to in this collection: ‘you will get no satisfaction from compromise or concession’; ‘ I reject attempts to put off important issues for another day’; ‘you will get no change of attitude from me’. The ‘Joycean’ approach is one Heaney might dearly like to adopt.

  • houndstooth: a design pattern so called because of its resemblance;
  • Aberdeen: a city on the east coast of Scotland also known a granite city
  • an union in the cup I’ll throw: adaption of Claudius’ determination in Act 5 scene ii of Hamlet to prepare a poisoned chalice and foil with which to dispose of Hamlet;
  • Joyce’s Martello tower: James Joyce stayed very briefly in the robustly built tower in Sandy Cove, Dublin (leased ironically from the British War Office) in 1904; now a place of pilgrimage it contains many possessions and ephemera;
  • Calvin: 16th century French theologian associated with the Protestant Reformation; of strong, single-minded and uncompromising stock;
  • Come to me, all who labour and are burdened : adaptation from the New Testament gospel of Matthew ch.11 v. 28; the original ending and I will give you rest’is replaced by a Joycean sting in its tail, the more unbending I/ will not refresh you;
  • Seize/ the day: an aphorism originally the Latin ‘carpe diem’, from a Horace ode; the phrase is part of the longer Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero – “Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future”;
  • you can take me or leave me: ‘this is what I stand for, like it or not’;.
  • The rebellious, non conformist Joyce scolds Heaney indirectly for his feeble neutrality, his reluctance to offend by taking sides; it will happen again in Part 2, cantoXII;
  • The chip is not soothing; it urges him not to waste time and reminds him that compromise is not an option;
  • 13 lines, a single followed by 3 quatrains; no formal rhyme scheme but loose rhymes in the quatrains aa/ bb etc; line length based on 10 syllables;
  • 7-sentence construct, 4 in the last quatrain as the chip offers advice from different sources;
  • alternation of punctuation and enjambment offers musical opportunities in oral delivery;
  • vocabulary of geological hardness indifferent to human fragility and injury;
  • examples drawn from ancient history and more recent history (the uncompromising voice of the Reformation);
  • adjectives are concrete, abstract and sensual in turn;
  • granite is personified, lent a voice;
  • ‘brilliant’: adjective given noun status;
  • the music of poems 1 – 6: fifteen 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:
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: Q1uses aspirate [h] in combination with voiced bilabial [b]and alveolar [d] plosives and sibilant [s]; Q2 introduces bilabial [m] and alveolar [n] nasals and voiceles velar plosive [k]; Q3 re-mixes the major consonant sounds adding alveolar [l];

2. Old Smoothing iron

Heaney has picked up another ‘message’ transmitted this time through a domestic process. A woman’s teeth-gritting skill in putting a potentially dangerous object to productive use acts as a further stimulus to self-scrutiny.

The piece returns to a time before steam irons, electric points and flex; to a time when the free-standing iron, a compact wedge, was used on a routinely basis by his aunt Mary or his mother in their domestic environment, almost certainly the Mossbawn of Heaney’s upbringing.

This is a repeated memory: Often I watched her… He can still see the boat-like shape of a tool destined for hard work that rode its heat source on the back of the stove/ like a tug at anchor.

No thermostats in those days to set temperatures visually ; the person using the iron tested it out either by the sizzle of saliva method: To test its heat by ear/ she spat in its iron face (the insult reveals her attitude to the tedium of having to iron) or the close-to-the-skin test, holding the iron next her cheek. Long experience has sharpened the ability to divine the stored danger.

The sounds heard and the single-mindedness and postures of ironing confirm a certain resistance to the chore: Soft thumps ( ) herdimpled angled elbow and intent stoop; the iron becomes a weapon aimed like a plane into linen (the plane, a carpenter’s tool, sought the same smoothing effect upon wood; it is too early to suggest that airplanes might one day be used as weapons). The routine task of ironing is depicted as a gender-specific duty rather than pleasure: like the resentment of women.

Heaney perceives the stoical acceptance of work that routinely befell women: no verbal response in her dumb lunge; no thought required, justroutine acceptance of the laws of physics: to movea certain mass … a certain distance.

Thencomes the hidden message that ironing has transmitted: to pull your weight (both her literal iron and his metaphorical place in the community);to be up to the job: feel exact and equal to it; to accept being taken for granted: dragged upon; but, resolving the initial boating image, to be afloat, positive even cheerful: buoyant.

  • to pull your weight: to take a fair share of all the chores at hand;
  • 5 quatrains in 7 sentences; line length based on 7 syllables;
  • Q1 and 2 totally enjambed; the later combination of enjambment and punctuation fragments the flow; it may even echo the uneven movements of the ironing process;
  • iron shape lends itself to the boating simile; use of ‘divine’ adds a magical overtone of a skill not granted to everyone;
  • Q3,4 and 5 are richer in the use of adjectives: sound, visual description, intention, robotic behaviour;
  • later vocabulary empathises with the feelings of those tied into gender rôles; ‘her’ is indicative of a traditional demarcation between ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ work;
  • then expands to include a more general sense of responsibility within both communal routines and the calling of the poet;
  • ‘dumb’ suggests acceptance rather than lack of intelligence; it is followed by a scientific appraisal;
  • the final emphasis, ‘buoyant’ is both a statement of undiminished morale and an echo of the unsinkable ‘tug’;
  • the music of the poems 1 – 6: fifteen 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:
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:Q1 features bilabial [w] interwoven with alveolar [t] and alveolar [k] plosives; Q2 reprises [t], percussively in ‘spat’; sibilant presence is suggestIve of latent heat; sibilant sounds are frequent and plosives [t] [b] [p] less jolting;Q4 is strong in nasal consonants [m] [n]; mid-verse bilabial [w];in Q5 the alveolar [t]plosives are designed to make an impact: originating in an expression of scientific certitude; the consonant [t] completes three key words ‘weight’, exact’ and ‘buoyant’;

3.Old Pewter

The speaker examines a modest pewter plate, not from a high-born age of silver but ratherthe possession of a less privileged, less well educated class, typical perhaps of a rural Irish farming background: more a slither/ of illiteracy under rafters.

The plate bears the marks of use from one generation to the next: a dented hand-me-down; its surface colouring reveals highlights of falling snow (full of blizzards), is stained (smoky/ sullied) and restrained (temperate).

His feelings run strong: I love this soft, humble, unshowy metal; it is not unlike his own disposition towards the soft option.Other metals are softer still: solder/ that weeps at the touch of a hot iron.

The sad, mild qualities he perceives (doleful and placid)recall the gloss-barked alder tree reflected in the nebulous lid of a (bog) pool where a previously subdued little boy who ‘knew his place’ rebelled for the very first time and scared the living daylights out of his parents: they thought I had drowned one winter day; he confesses that it was a conscious act: I hid deliberately.

Reflecting on the incident as part of personal development Heaney has concluded (he uses the pewter-reflected light as a source imagery) that the soul iscomposed of dim, intermittent glimmerings, that a sense of moral responsibility is perceptible in a series of far conscience-glitters, that there is no clear pre-preparation for life’s fogged-up challenges, that loving is an amalgam of cowed obedience, sincerity and guilt feelings that leave room for slight dishonesty: hang-dog, half-truth earnests of true love.

Heaney’s final line is elusive; it seems to suggest that the mature poet reflecting on the way his life has unfolded acknowledges the extent of wisdom, values and experience inherited from his forebears visible to him on the face of his plate, now that the blizzard of line 4 has melted: a whole late-flooding thaw of ancestors.

  • pewter: a malleable metal alloy predominantly tin; evidence of its use as early as the Bronze Age; generally superseded now by more modern alloys; workaday pewter items suggest church environments and tableware of an earlier age produced at much more modest cost than silver or gold alternatives;
  • solder: .a soft alloy used to fix metal pieces together; it melts at low temperature;
  • soft option: the easiest choice of those on offer; note that here the softness of the option echoes the softness of the two alloys, pewter and solder
  • nebulous: ‘imprecise’, ‘dim’, ‘hazy’; the first of a series of words indicating blur/ lack of clarity in the memory;
  • the opening stanzas ( ) continue the celebration of Mossbawn persistence and virtue(MP p188);

  • 3 quatrains in 2 complete sentences; a judicious mix of enjambment and punctuation establishes the dynamic of delivery;
  • line lengths based on ten syllables; no rhyme pattern;
  • imagery alludes to: snake-like backwardness (‘slither’); snow-flecked colouring;
  • pathetic fallacy: metals show emotion (‘weeps’, ‘doleful’, ‘placid’) sensed elsewhere in nature (‘alder’);
  • the music of poem: 1 – 6 fifteen 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:
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: initial sibilants in Q1 superseded by plosives: firstly voiced alveolar [d][b] then bilabial [p]; Q2 is strong in (s) variants [s] and ]ʃ]‘showy’ ‘option’ before reverting to plosives in combination;

4. Iron Spike

A stray discovery breathes new shelf-life into a pioneering railroad age that outlived the pioneers themselves but has in its turn been superseded by progress from steam to electricity.

The discovery of an iron spike awakens memories of home; its resemblance to a harrow pin brings with it the sounds of home-farm activity: harness creaks and the click/ of stones in a ploughed-up field.

What the speaker has found is from a different time (the age of steam), on a different continent (Eagle Pond, New Hampshire), the rusted relic of railway construction, originally aimed and driven in/ to fix a cog on the line.

Its discovery raises questions about the passage of time, durability and change: things keeping after they have fallen into disuse or been discarded or superseded (a railway … lifted/ like a long briar out of ditch-growth).

The spike becomes entwined with thoughts of his own poetic creativity: myself … where I drew the iron like a thorn; as if finding an object fashioned by some epic craftsman has opened a floodgate of creative associations: a word \I had thought my own ‘drawn’ from a stranger’s mouth.

One question leads to the next: the whereabouts now of the sledge-head that drove the spike in with a final dull thud (last opaque report) and the hammer’s handle, stained with the perspiration of the original builders: sweat-cured haft.

The ones who hold the answers are the pioneers themselves, now ghosts, who once propelled bogies up and down newly-laid track: inaudible and upright … sped along without shadows.

  • harrow: a farming implement with which Heaney would have been familiar; used after ploughing to break the earth down into a finer tilth;
  • harness: the set of straps that would attach a horse/ team of horses to the implement being pulled across a field;
  • Eagle Pond: a lake area north of Harvard University in Massachusetts;
  • the tone in Part1 is predominantly chastened, restrained and even wearied ( ) self-chastening is accompanied by a sense of diminishment, transience and the fragmentariness of human memory(NC p113).
  • This spike, like a harrow pin from back home was found in America and set off a sequence of responses. The spike might also be a symbol of the poet’s acknowledgement that ideas and images can be generated by the most unlikely of events;
  • In the context of the collection the quasi-human element in the process could well be Sweeney waiting in the wings, comparable with the railway pioneers of old: the ones in the buggy,/ inaudible and upright/ and sped along without shadows;
  • six quatrains; a 7-sentence construct including 3 questions; no rhyme scheme;
  • line length between 6 and 8 syllables; a blend of enjambed and punctuated lines;
  • precise geographical references;
  • poem rich in the vocabulary of sound; vocabulary of abandoned artefacts and questions associated with retrieving the past; absence and ghostly figures that might provide an answer;
  • verbs reflecting physical effort;
  • the music of poems 1 – 6: fifteen assonant strands 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:
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:Q1 introduces consonants formed in the centre-back of the mouth, [h] and velar [k]; ; Q2 adds to bilabial [p] of ‘pin’, also velar [g] and 4 variant (s) sounds; in Q3 alveolar [l] joins [g]; Q4 adds a group of [θ] sounds to ‘growth in Q3; Q5 settles on a combination of sibilants [s] with bilabial [p] and percussive alveolar [t] echoing hammer blows; the piece is completed by the use of plosives [p] and [d];

5. The Stone from Delphi

The Delphic oracle was believed to have the power to foretell the future, to help those who made offerings to unravel and determine their future actions. Heaney uses a site from classical mythology as he seeks an honourable way through and round the issues that assail him. The ‘stone’ he will carry away with him will have different properties from those of the granite chip and the sandstone keepsake.

HThe speaker has been there before and yearns to be transported back to the shrine, to this site of outstanding natural beauty especially at dawn whenthe sea spreads its far sun-crops to the south.He is eager to seek a hearing with the Oracle, so makes a morning offering again.

His wish list is hugely personal: firstly confirmation that his escape the miasma of spilled blood in Ulster is permissible; secondly that exercising judgement over what he has to say (govern the tongue)is not judged as weakness;thirdly that he may avoid giving the impression that he is too big for his boots: fear hybris; finally that the counselling voice, which he respects (fear the god), may emerge unrestrained from his lips: speak in my untrammelled mouth.

  • miasma: ‘noxious vapour’, ‘stain’, ‘defilement’;
  • untrammelled: ‘trammel’,originally a 16th century verb ‘to bind a corpse’, developed the sense of ‘hinder’, ‘restrain’; the earlier 14th century noun was ‘a net to catch fish’. Between them they suggest entanglement; the prefix -un provides the sense of ‘free of entanglement’;
  • hybris: tied up with classical Greek culture , amounting to ‘presumption towards the gods’; or, put more simplistically, the expression of an arrogant wish to be more than the gods have destined one to be;
  • The site of Delphi is in central Greece near to Mount Parnassus and close to the Gulf of Corinth
  • Heaney is praying for a renewed sense of piety and purpose ( ) He is compelled to do this using Catholic images, whilst another part of him cherishes the possibility of ‘untrammelled’ speech like Joyce (MP p188).
  • six lines as a single sentences split by a colon; 1 end-of-line rhyme but no more than a loose pattern;
  • line length based on 10 syllables;
  • a poem of 2 halves, the first a delightful lyrical description of a blessed classical scene and the way it promises to access the gods, the second, italicised, perhaps a prayer but with a much sterner tone;
  • the beginning of the first sentence lacks an interjection of entreaty, ‘Oh…’
  • ll.4-6: a series of verbs that hold things at bay, say ‘no’ to…;
  • archaic usage: ‘miasma’, (noxious vapour); ‘hybris’ (self-pride); ‘untrammelled’ (unrestrained);
  • the subjunctive ‘may’ is omitted before succeeding phrases after ‘may escape’ but belongs there;
  • tthe music of poems 1 – 6: fifteen assonant strandseight 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:
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:the initial sibilant is threaded through the piece and the alveolar plosive [d] into the first line; the introduction of bilabial nasal [m] prepares us for key words ‘miasma’ and ‘untrammelled mouth’;

6. A Snowshoe

Heaney sets out in some detail the challenges he faces as a writer. He selects as his title a device used by trappers that eases progress through the snowy wilderness in particularly adverse conditions. The piece is deliberately given a ‘Far North’ setting.

The speaker identifies an incoming poetic charge: The loop of a snowshoe hangs on a wall/ in my head. Imagination pitches in: the memory-idea came to him in a drift-still room (silent and snow-bound); its shape resembled the picture-like inscription of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics providing by extension a recognisable if as yet frail voice to thought and image: like an brushed longhand character,/ a hieroglyph for all the realms of whisper.

The deep-freeze image is that of the poet delving into his word hoard in search ofthe perpetually elusive ‘mot juste’ required to express some specific feeling, in this case the snow goose of a word.

The urge to write has multiple costs attached to it: the intensity of personal intimacy(amorous blizzard) cut short; the need to be alone however adverse the conditions (I left the room …/and climbed up attic stairs) as ifsub-consciously programmed: somnambulist (sleep-walker). Fur-clad and still warm-blooded from previous activity he scratches at the surface of an initial theme: scuffling the snow-crust.

Initially his writing is still stimulated by the memory of the physical comforts he has just enjoyed: imagining in silence/ sounds like love sounds after long abstinence. At this stage he feels keen and engrossed in competent pursuit of celestial ideas under the sign of a snowshoe on a wall.

Unpredictable change occurs and ideas run dry: the loop of the snowshoe, like an old-time kite/ lifts away in a wind and is lost to sight.

This unwelcome happening results in all-night sittings and writer’s block: I sit blank. In due course however the depressive intellectual darkness of the poet’s attic ‘cell’ lifts and gradual morning brightens shedding light into every corner of its distancing, inviolate expanse.

  • drift; in the wilderness wind-blownsnow gathers in huge masses known as snow-drifts;
  • under the sign of is suggestive of astrological patterns and energies centred around the signs of the Zodiac; the philosophies of many First Nations peoples are said to include similar spiritual notions and symbols;
  • inviolate: Latin inviolatus meaning ‘unbroken’, ‘intact’, ‘unhurt’
  • attic: in In the Attic of Human Chain (2010) Heaney will confirm that the attic of his Glanmore cottage is his work-space and metaphorical vantage point over the world;
  • the rather bleak, opaque final poem of ‘Shelf Life’ with few sparks of warmth (MP p188);
  • thoughts of ‘shelf life’ (or ‘sell-by-date’ or ‘past it’) appear to cast a shadow over all aspects of a writer’s life, creative and domestic;
  • four quatrains; line length base around 10 syllables; a loose rhyme scheme aabb ccdd;
  • constructed in 5 sentences with a spread of punctuation and enjambed lines offering rhythmic potential;
  • vocabulary of winter conditions alongside references to the stop-and-start of the poetic process; visual representation of writing; some ononmatopoeia ‘scuffling’;
  • sense data vary and combine: drift-still neatly expresses the dulling sound effect of snow; epic dimensions when ‘word’ equals ‘goose’;
  • positive adjectives of self-assessment; analogy: snowshoe becomes a kite carrying ideas away;
  • the music of poems 1 – 6: fifteen 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: St1provides a blend of alveolar approximant [l] sibilant [s], voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] and alveolar trill [r]; S2 introduces bi-labial nasal [m] and alveolar nasal [n] alongside voiceless labio-dental fricative [f]; S3 retains [s] and [l] S4 persists with [l] adding plosives: voiceless velar [k], voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b];

2 thoughts on “Shelf Life

  1. Why no wonderful analysis on Field Work? It would have been very helpful as all the others have been Steve Wood

    1. Next on the list Stephen; just two more collections for the full set … maybe posted mid 2021
      Currently reviewing my early efforts and finding stuff that falls short … which of course inderlines the value of the blog format.
      Thanks for you kind words,
      warmest, David

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