The single letter monogram stands for Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam, an iconic figure much admired by Heaney. The poet allegorizes his conviction that men of Mandelstam’s stature ensure the truth will always be heard.

Heaney’s exemplar is able to unravel complicated data despite an impairment that to an outsider renders his task impossible (deaf phonetician): the sound input he cannot hear is replaced by touch, his hand / Over the dome of a speaker’s skull. Experience and ingenuity have made the impossible possible: he differentiates between each diphthong and … vowel / By the bone vibrating to the sound.

The speaker slows the revolutions of the world globe he is holding: (A globe stops spinning) to find a locality: I set my palm / On a contour. His finger comes to rest on the ice-bound Siberian location of Stalin’s prison gulags, somewhere cold as permafrost.

Associated ideas crowd in: Heaney hears (as the phonetician could ‘touch’) the continuous sound of Mandelstam’s well-oiled tongue and the irrepressible honesty of his message: axle-hum and the steadfast/ Russian of Osip Mandelstam as the Russian is threatened by repression, imprisonment, exile and ultimate death.

  • phonetician: one skilled in study and classification of speech sounds or who uses phonetics as part of work;
  • dome: rounded vault forming the roof of a building or structure, by extension the shape of the cranium;
  • diphthong … vowel: sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves towards the other;
  • vowel: speech sound produced from the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction; unit of the sound system of a language that forms the nucleus of a syllable;
  • contour: a line joining points on a diagram with the same value (e.g. metres high);
  • permafrost: subsurface layer of soil that remains below freezing point throughout the year, chiefly in polar regions;
  • axle-hum: the friction sound made by a rotating  spindle passing through the centre of a wheel;
  • steadfast: firm and unwavering;  ‘secure in position, steady, firm in its place’
  • Osip Mandelstam: a Polish Jew originally from Warsaw (regarded at the time as part of Russia) and leather merchant by trade; Russian poet (1891 – 1938) and essayist much admired by Heaney for his resolute public opposition to political extremism; lived in Russia during and after its revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. He was one of the foremost members of the Acmeist school of poets; arrested by Joseph Stalin‘s government during the repression of the 1930s was sent into internal exile with his wife Nadezhda.; rearrested In 1938 and sentenced to a camp in Siberia Mandelstam died in a transit camp;
  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first couplet, for example gathers together alveolar plosives [d] [t] and bi-labial plosive [p];
  • 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.