Damson

The three-part sequence depicts people, circumstances and associations linked with the title-fruit.

Background: for Heaney as a boy of five or six years old the bricklayer he knew best was king of local post-WWII building sites and child’s-eye giant of the world.  Mick Joyce portrayed anonymously in Damson was Heaney’s uncle who married one of his father’s sisters.

He first appeared in The Demobbed Bricklayer of Sandpit (from Station Island, 1984), his friendly cheerful personality celebrated by ‘merriment in the spirit level’s eye’ and the ‘song of his trowel’. His final appearance comes in ‘District and Circle’ of 2006, an elegiac sequence of 5 sonnets To Mick Joyce in Heaven. Heaney commented that the sheer weight of his tools required the strength of a hero of classical literature – a ‘demobbed Achilles … prince of the sandpiles’. The final poem of Damson will turn the anonymous bricklayer into an Odysseus in Hades.

*

The boy-watcher’s attention has been caught by sight of a wound: its colour – a noble heraldic blood-red (gules) stained by building-site effects (cement dust); its congealing texture (matte tacky blood); where it was inflicted (bricklayer’s knuckles); what it reminded the youngster of (damson stain that seeped through his packed lunch).

Heaney remembers the hand-wringing detail: work has come to a temporary halt (full hod stood against the mortared wall); his main tool (big bright trowel) is in his wrong hand (his left … for once) and non-operational (pointing down). The man can scarcely believe what he has done to himself (marvelled) yet attempts to reduce pain and blood-flow by his posture (right hand held high and raw).

To young Heaney a building-site giant (King of the castle) and colossus bestriding his known world (scaffold-stepper) has been brought low (shown bleeding to the world).

Heaney reveals just how portentous (damson as omen, weird) that glimpse of bloodshed (in glutinous colour fifty years ago) would prove (a dream to read) – tears of blood and pain (weeping) shed for all those less well known victims of violence (held-at-arm’s-length dead) wherever they were to be found (from everywhere and nowhere), including the present moment (here and now).

  • gules: red, as a heraldic tincture;
  • matte: thick, untidy mess;
  • hod: builder’s V-shaped open trough on a pole, designed to carrying bricks in number;
  • marvelled: was filled with wonder or astonishment;
  • King of the castle: from the opening line of a children’s rhyme; denoting the most powerful person
  • scaffold: here a reference to scaffolding, the temporary structure on the outside of a building under construction or repair;
  • glutinous: like glue in texture; sticky;
  • weeping: dual intention – exuding liquid, shedding tears;

*

Inquisitive boy-Heaney recorded in every detail the bricklaying methodology of his classical superman.

First stage: the repetitive laying of mortar (over and over) – the best way to get it right by  smoothing it (slur),  shifting it along the brick beneath (scrape), preventing the mortar blend from hardening too soon (mix), repeating the process (trowelled retrowelled) to end up with a dull coloured base (glum mortar).

Next stage the bricks. Laying them required deft touches – initially tiny manhandlings side to side and up and down (jiggled) to seat them on the right spot (settled) – audible readjustment using the trowel’s wooden butt (tocked and tapped) to form a level course (in line).

The boy was taken by the trowel’s shine; he recognized two paradoxes: that somehow the its key parts (edge and apex) were never stained (always coming clean and brightening) despite dirty, clinging mortar (mucking in) – secondly, watching was deceptive (looked light … felt heavy) when Mick was handling it.

Heaney’s super-bricklayer made effortless use of the tools of his trade (no strain), whichever skillful touch was required – where brick ends met (point and skim), where moisture came to the surface (float and glisten).

The way he maintained the trowel (washed and lapped it tight in sacking) lent it ritual status (cult blade that had to be kept hidden) to be put to use once visible (as for example the Gurkha ‘kukri’ sword that once unsheathed had to be used in battle).

  • slur: noun chosen to illustrate the spreading of wet cement onto the surface upon which bricks will be laid;
  • courses: bricklayers refer to ascending lines of bricks as ‘courses’;
  • tocked: onomatopoeic variation to add a hollow sound to the positioning of bricks (produced by the wooden handle of the trowel used as a hammer);
  • apex: highest point;
  • mucking: a double meaning; bricklayers refer to cement familiarly as muck‘; ‘mucking in’ is rolling your sleeves up and sharing tasks;
  • skim: passing over and lightly smoothing a surface; also the name of the trowel used for this process;
  • float: move slowly and lightly over a surface; also the name of the trowel used for this process;
  • cult blade: some cultures possess a weapon that also passes as a spiritual object; Heaney provides no examples, however Indonesian and Malay venerate the ‘kris’, a dagger often considered to have an essence or presence, considered to possess magical powers;

*

With an ingenious change of tack Heaney leads bricklayer and reader into Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey adapting detail from the classical original somehow to echo current troubled circumstances in Northern Ireland (the held-at-arm’s-length dead).

His dramatization depicts the nightmare images of the victims of bloody assassination (ghosts with their tongues out) seeking an opportunity to communicate with the Upper World (crowding up the ladder) from the Hadean underworld to which violent death has brought them. Their wounds unstaunched (all unhealed) their clothing still soaked with blood they seek to benefit from Odysseus’ mythological libation (a lick of blood).

Heaney turns to his bricklayer-hero to enable them, Odysseus-like, to return, not to where they were killed (the doorstep or the road) and the horrendous suffering to which they were subjected (lay in their own blood once) giddy (in the hot nausea) and trying to cling on (last gasp of dear life).

No, not there. Heaney invites his 1940s’ bricklayer – he who slashed his hand so long ago (trowel-wielder, woundie) and carried the stance and weaponry of a Homeric hero (Odysseus in Hades lashing out), who achieved the odyssean feats of Homer’s original (his sword that dug the trench and cut the throat  of the sacrificial lamb) (see note below) to lead them in another direction.

Be, says Heaney, what you stood for Mick Joyce (builder, not sacker) non-aggressive (your shield the mortar board) … treat them not to further suffering but to a shared seasonal smell of Irish pleasure (wine-dark taste of home) emanating from damsons simmering in a pot that provided the sandwich-filling (jam-ladled thick) backlit in its glory (steaming down the sunlight). Thus Heaney takes his narrative in a neat circle back to the ‘packed lunch’ of the first triplet.

  • lick: taste with the tongue;
  • rigged: dressed in a particular way, here probably as 1970s Ulster lookalikes;
  • gasp: a convulsive catching of breath;
  • woundie: an endearing form of address referring to the injured bricklayer;
  • Odysseus in Hades: in Book 11 of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ Odysseus travels to the Land of the Dead and makes offerings according to Circe’s instructions. The shades of the dead gather to drink the blood of a sacrificial lamb hoping thereby to be reanimated and able to communicate with the living once again. The sacrifice attracts the dead, so Odysseus must take measures to hold the other shades at bay.
  • Odysseus followed Circe’s instructions, digging a trench at the site prescribed and pouring libations of milk, honey, mellow wine, and pure water before sacrificing a lamb whose dark blood flowing into the trench attracted the dead;
  • sacker: plunderer, looter;
  • ghosts: one such was the bloodstained ghost of William Strathearn murdered in his shop doorway by the RUC during the Troubles, whose drama Heaney played out in Station Island VII).
  • mortar board: a rigid square of light material held by the bricklayer with which cement was transferred to the point where bricks would be laid; not here the academic symbol of graduation;

 

  • (1) is of 12 lines with 2 split lines; 4 sentences of 10 syllables;
  • he balance between punctuation and enjambed lines sets rhythm and flow of recitation;
  • no formal scheme but a number of irregularly placed rhymes;
  • individual word is heraldic; the vocabulary of liquidity opens the possibility of metaphor; everyday tradesman’s language is objective;
  • use of simile: ‘like the damson stain’; ‘Damson as omen’;
  • pun ‘weeping’;
  • occasional music: the trumpets of ‘King of the Castle’ change to a sustained violin note after ‘weeping’;

 

  • (2)12 lines composed as 5 sentences; the presence of many enjambed lines;
  • Slightly irregular 9/10 syllable lines; some rhyming early in the piece;
  • Nouns and verbs in cluster following the sequences of the bricklaying process using everyday tradesman’s language ‘point and skim and float’; sound the dominant sense alongside sight
  • Vocabulary contrasting light and dark, cheerful and gloomy; paradox of ‘brightening’/ ’mucking’;

 

  • (3) sonnet form in 4 sentences; volta after ‘sacrificial lamb’; line length – stricter 10 syllables; occasional irregular rhymes;
  • an air of the hellish corner a Renaissance Creation canvas; vocabulary exudes unpleasantness;
  • use of imperatives : ‘drive’;
  • an echo word: ‘trench’ with its nasty smell of social division;
  • massive change of mood music: the opulent welcome of home after a series of revolting scenes;

 

  • In ‘Damson’ the childhood memory of a bricklayer’s bloodied hand promotes him, in the literary present of the poem, to the status of Odysseus in the underworld in the Odyssey, a ‘translation’ continuous with Heaney’s Virgilian and Dantean translations NC 189
  • cited from McCarty lecture to HSIS in Galway of Nov 2007: ‘Seamus Heaney metamorphoses a bricklayer ( ) into Odysseus, in the Homeric katabasis of the Odyssey, book 11, driving off the souls of the dead as they emerge from the lower world to drink the blood of his sacrifice.

 

  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first triplet of ‘Damson’, for example, brings together bilabial plosive [b] and alveolar [t] alongside nasals [m] and [n] with a cluster of 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/ ang

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