A Call

The first of two regretful poems in which Heaney recalls incidents from the time before his parents passed away. In this piece he keeps in telephone contact with them. Heaney had left the family home (after seven years of part boarding-school experience) to go to university after which he worked, married, travelled and brought up children in locations distant from his roots.

Heaney’s mother has answered the phone and heard his request to speak to his father: ‘Hold on,’ she said, ‘I’II just run out and get him. His elderly father is still actively engaged in what he enjoys best (fresh air and agriculture): ‘The weather here’s so good, he took the chance  to do a bit of weeding.’

Left to his thoughts as he waits the poet pictures the old man down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig. He knows the routine well: touching, inspecting, separating one stalk from the other before discarding anything unproductive: gently pulling up  everything not tapered, frail and leafless. The old man’s compassionate nature affects his work: whilst pleased to feel each little weed-root break yet he is not without remorse for the destructive act (rueful also).

Heaney waits on, picking up familiar sounds echoed by the receiver (the amplified grave ticking of hall clocks) as it lies next the phone unattended in a calm mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . He waits on…

His thoughts generate an amusing if wistful association whereby, given advances in communication, Death alerts his victims via a phone call (if it were nowadays, this is how Death would summon Everyman.

Heaney’s wait is ended and his emotions well up: Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

Heaney alludes to the difficulty he and his father experienced in expressing openly their affection for one another. The issue will crop up again in Album, iv from the Human Chain collection of 2010 (and the three poems following it) lamenting the understated love the poet felt his father. Patrick Heaney passed away in 1986 following Heaney’s mother’s death in 1984.

  • chance: opportunity;
  • weeding: removing unwanted plants from the vegetable patch: Heaney’s first poem, Digging, in Death of a Naturalist of 1966 depicts his father in the garden; habits that never died;
  • rig: portion devoted to a particular vegetable;
  • not tapered: shoots that grew thicker at soil level would produce vegetables; if not they were useless;
  • frail: weak, delicate, easily broken;
  • rueful: sorrowful;
  • grave: serious, solemn;
  • ticking: regular, repeated sound made by a clock;
  • Sunlight in the North collection of 1975 recalls a similar situation in equally endearing terms;
  • unattended: with no one holding the receiver;
  • pendulums: free-swinging weights that regulate the mechanism of clocks;
  • Death: personified as an unwelcome visitor;
  • Everyman: ordinary, typical human being;
  • nearly said: came close to but did not express his love;
  • 16 lines of poetry including 2 hemistiches in 5 verse of differing length;
  • line length based around 10 syllables for full lines; unrhymed;
  • the use of dots indicate an ellipsis, not of words rather time-lapse;
  • present participles used to add presentness to a series of actions;
  • use of descriptive words: clock sounds exaggerated by electronic amplification; adjective suggesting both solemnity associated with the family home and anticipating less happy times when there will be no-one to listen or reply: grave, unattended; light effects in the hall;
  • powerful adverb: nearly (but not quite);
  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first triplet already gathers together alveolar plosives [t][d] alongside sibilant [s] ;
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds: voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

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