The Rain Stick

for Beth and Rand

Rand Brandes: academic, critic and bibliographer working at Lenoir-Rhyne University, North Carolina; married to Beth;

The poem first published in the New Republic in 1993 describes the ‘watery music’ produced by a cactus stalk. Heaney has discovered a snatch of pleasure that may be repeated at will.  In so doing he introduces a message found in the collection’s final piece (Postscript) – that of opening the heart and the senses to the simple delights that the world has to offer. The rain stick acquires the symbolic quality of an instrument of divine transmission.

To play this ‘instrument’ only one lesson is required (upend the rain stick). What comes out of it is unprecedented (a music that you never would have known to listen for) – a cactus ‘instrument’ that grew in an arid wilderness broadcasts a concerto on the sound of rain, its successive movements inundation (downpour), pent-up torrent (sluice-rush), overflow (spillage) and ebb (backwash).

The player becomes an extension of the instrument (you stand there like a pipe being played by water) adding liquid dynamics with sensitive fingering (shake it again lightly), gradually to soften the volume (watery diminuendo)  both major and minor (all its scales) almost to silence (like a gutter stopping trickling).

Musical terms are replaced by fluid variations and natural precipitation added to the subtlety of each phrase: now a delicate, and gently restorative (sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves); now faint deposits of desert rainfall (subtle little wets off grass and daisies); now involving other senses (glitter-drizzle); now something next to nothing (almost-breaths of air)

This simple enriching experience is repeatable at will (upend the stick again) without ever losing its novelty (undiminished for having happened once, twice, ten, a thousand times before).

Is it any less musical (who cares) that a rain-stick passed off as liquid (transpires) is not what it seems (fall of grit or dry seeds)?

He who is privileged (rich man) to hear this sublime product of nature with its magical, musical quality is already in paradise (entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop) without the stipulations imposed on ‘rich young man’ of Station Island who needed to make major changes of life-style to get there ‘through the eye of a needle’!).

‘Go on, keep going’ (listen now again).

  • In dialogue with DOD (p345) Heaney commented: ‘That first poem is as much about middle age as about a ‘rain stick. The instruction to listen was directed more to myself than to the reader, a reminder to keep the lyric faith … ‘The Rain Stick’ is about being irrigated by delicious sound, about water music being created by the driest of elements – desiccated seeds falling through a cactus stalk. I’d occasionally seen and heard rain sticks in shops that specialized in ethnic goods, but I’d never heard anything like the one in the Brandes home in North Carolina. It was so lush and I was so entranced that Rand and Beth made me a gift of it – which is why the poem is dedicated to them.’ DOD ‘So the poem is really about ‘keeping going’?’ SH ‘Exactly’.
  • the Saguaro cactus, native to the American southwest shoots up 30 or 40 feet into the air with raised blunt curved arms and striated rows of giant spikes (thorns). When these giant cacti die, the waxy green pulp dries and fades. The hollow “tubes” are hacked down by native Americans, filled with seeds or small pebbles and their ends sealed off. The sound that is produced by tipping the tube sounds exactly like raindrops
  • sluice:1400a shortening of Old Frenchescluse “sluice, floodgate” (Modern French écluse), from Late Latin exclusa “barrier to shut out water;
  • gutter: the shallow trough fixed to the edge of a roof that carries away rainwater;
  • diminuendo: 1775, from Italiandiminuendo “lessening, diminishing,”; a musical dynamic indicating a lessening of volume;
  • scales: dual intention: the cactus tube has retained a veneer of flaked pieces that peel off from a surface;  scales describe a succession or progression of steps or degrees; a scale is a group of musical pitches arranged in ascending order that span an octave (with an interval of an eighth).
  • undiminished: a ‘diminished’ interval in music is produced by narrowing a perfect fourth by a chromatic semitone; Heaney is merely pursuing his musical imagery;
  • transpire: transpire (from Latin transacross, ‘beyond; through’ + spirare ‘to breathe’): originally ‘pass off in the form of a vapour or liquid’; developed  its current sense of ‘leak out, become known, prove to be the case’;

Heaney is being hugely ingenious falling back on his knowledge of language to retain the water imagery;

  • Adam Kirsch comments on (the poem’s) ‘transparent guilelessness’. It isn’t trying to convince you of something which the poet feels you need to know for your own good. It’s a gift outright, a piece of the wondrous fabric of direct experience.
  • Holly Ordway comments: We listen to the noise of the rain … we know a moment of beauty and peace and then it is gone, passing into memory even at the very moment of experience… if we will but listen (which is what Heaney calls us to do) to the fragility of that moment, we enter into something deeper … what moved me most in “The Rain Stick” was Heaney’s assurance that true joy wells up from an inexhaustible source;
  • six triplets constructed as nine sentences; line length mainly ten syllables, otherwise eight; unrhymed;
  • frequent use of enjambed lines helps determine the ‘musical score’ of oral delivery;
  • poem pitched in the present tense, ‘as it happens’;
  • use of imperatives;
  • rather than the if you of conditional clauses: ’upend’ to mimic user-manual; amounts to the same thing;
  • multiple use of musical terms; vocabulary of liquidity, both open ‘flow’, concealed in Latin borrowings: ‘transpire’;
  • Biblical reference reworked to add a spiritual but non-religious dimension: ‘eye of a needle’ becomes ‘ear of a raindrop’;
  • simile using ‘like’; personification ‘almost-breaths of air’;
  • synesthaesia juxtaposes sight and touch to add the light effect of the compound ‘glitter-drizzle’;
  • 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: thirteen 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 sentence of Rain Stick, for example, stirs together sibilant [s] with bi-labial plosive [p], alveolar plosive [t]and nasal [n]; 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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