He who composes the poem provides the key to understanding (‘ordained opacities’ line 9). If we are to enter The Stone Grinder easily then sifting the clues Heaney provides is key.
On the one hand legendary queen Penelope of Homeric legend with a mission to achieve (some guarantee of a plot) in challenging circumstances; by cunning construction and deconstruction of her shroud (she unweaved at night) she engineers a successful outcome for herself advance it all by a day), defeating unworthy male intrusion in the process; her story and her ‘plot’ are memorialised in Homer’s classic.
Alongside queen Penelope an unpretentious figure of old Irish pedigree – a tetchy stone grinder who has laboured at the same job throughout his working life (Me, I ground the same stones for fifty years). He ‘deconstructs’ rotating one heavy, flat circular stone against another to produce flour from cereal, powerless to bring about any other outcome (what I undid was never the thing I had done).
His alter ego (let us call him Poet) is a ‘constructor’ turning poetic charge into works of art. What links them is the Sisyphean struggle they both undertake to produce what they do with the tools at their disposal.
Some there be who have no memorial – neither the stone grinder’s name nor his face will be seen on any Roll of Honour (unrewarded as darkness at a mirror).
The narrative re-focuses on construction: Poet preparing the blank sheet (my surface) from which he hopes something durable will emanate (survive what came over it). He is part of an industry, a centuries’ old history of cartographers, printmakers dealing with labour-intensive challenges all that lining and inking.
Poet makes it clear that he who pays the piper calls the tune: the clarity or complexity of his poetic construction will be as he determines (I ordained opacities) … take it or leave it!
His publishers read the tea leaves and took the gamble (they haruspicated).
Their respective functions were different; the printers started each commission from scratch (new start … clean slate every time). For Poet, however, it was all construct and deconstruct, compose and edit, with something of the stone grinder’s repetitiveness (coming full circle) except that Poet is able to refine what he does (ripple perfected in stillness).
Poet pauses to consider whether he merits some kind of plaque.
So … should anyone get round to thinking of a memorial (commemorate me) they should be mindful of the stone-grinder’ labour, staying power and quarried materials (the faces stripped off the face).
The ‘opacity’ (Poet’s prerogative as he has made it clear) of the poem’s final sexual imperative suggests the hit-an-miss of creative writing (practise coitus interruptus) given the discarded evidence of those who went before (a pile of old lithographs).
- Penelope: wife of Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad who has to wait twenty years for his return from the Trojan War; she faces huge challenges: firstly from the presence of suitors in the court of Ithaca whose advances she resists over 3 years by weaving a shroud by day and unravelling it overnight; secondly proving to Odysseus who has returned disguised as a beggar that she has in fact been faithful to him; proving to herself that the beggar is actually her husband. When all is settled the future seems rosy for the couple and their son Telemachus;
- grind: reduce to powder by crushing;
- unrewarded: unappreciated, unacknowledged;
- come over someone: influence someone suddenly to behave in a particular fashion
- cartographer: producer of maps and charts;
- printmaker: maker of pictures or designs by printing them from specially prepared plates or blocks.
- ordain: establish, consecrate;
- opacity: quality of non-transparency; abstruseness;
- haruspex: to determine whether the gods approved of a particular course of action the ancient Romans turned to a haruspex was a type of an official diviner of ancient Rome, either the forensic inspection of entrails or less gruesomely the behaviour of birds or movement celestial phenomena. The word subsumes the notion of official approval
- haruspicate: rare usage prophesy;
- clean slate: both a blank sheet on which to start again and something free of existing restraints or commitments;
- come full circle: in the case of a man operating grinding stones complete a revolution; figuratively return to a past position or situation, perhaps in a way considered to be inevitable; pass the word ‘go’ again;
- quarry face: as opposed to rock face which is rough and unworked the quarry face is organised and squared off as of large square-cut stones, used as masonry o facing on walls of brick or as stone rubble are removed layer by layer
- coitus interruptus: sexual intercourse in which the penis is withdrawn before ejaculation; the only form of birth control authorized by the Catholic Church, its effectiveness depends on self-control and timing; regarded by many practitioners as the least pleasurable form of a natural impulse;
- lithography: printing method based on the fact that oil and water do not mix; prints derived originally from stone or a metal plate with a smooth surface; invented in 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder lithography proved to be a cheap method of publishing theatrical works;
- lithograph: printed image page of text produced by this method;
- sonnet length + 1 line in 5 triplets(T);
- 11 sentence construct and unusually varied line length between 8-15 syllables lend themselves to the ebb and flow of internal monologue thought processes;
- first person pronoun ‘I’ voiced to 2 people;
- rare usage: opacity…haruspicate;
- assonant effects: T1 [i:] Penelope…guarantee…she; T2 [ʌ]undid…done…unrewarded;T3/4 [ei] ordained…they…slate; [ai] ..my…survive…lining; [ei] came…ordained…they; [i] print…inking… opacities… haruspicate…ripple…in stillness; [ɑː] cart…start; T6 [ei] commemorate…faces…face; [əʊ] so…coitus…old; [i] imagine…stripped…practise…lithographs;
- alliterative chains: [w], [v] and alveolar [d] of T1; T2/3/4 sibilant [s]; nasals [m/n]; velar[k]cart…maker… inking…haruspicate;T6 nasal [m], velar [k], bilabial [p];
- 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;