Two Lorries

In this virtuoso piece Heaney adds the challenge of the sestina form to a creative routine that establishes a symbolic base, builds a structure that expresses the message it carries, makes appropriate choice of vocabulary and syntax, weaves together an interplay of senses and emotions that are essentially his own, scores the music of the poetry with assonance and alliteration and adds a ‘musical’ dynamic of light and shade, loud and soft to enhance the spoken word.

Heaney creates two short screenplays, the first a cheerful harmless flirtation in the 1940s featuring his mother in her prime, the second a horror nightmare with ghosts and images of death and destruction, requiem for a mother now passed away and a local town blown to smithereens by an IRA  bomb in the 1990s … black and white newsreel incorporates the ‘dust’ and ‘ashes’ of the burial service;

A youngster recalls a coal delivery at Mossbawn (it’s raining on black coal) and with it a moving reminder of his mother (warm wet ashes) appearing in similar terms to Steven Dedalus’s mother in Ulysses – in a dream of ‘wetted ashes’.

The boy’s gaze slowly rises from ground level (tyre-marks in the yard) to painted signage (Agnew’s old lorry), hinged side panels dropped for unloading (all its cribs down).

Enter the man himself – a city boy (Belfast accent) with a line of chat (sweet-talking my mother). He offers to take her out (a film in Magherafelt?) but needs a quick answer (it’s raining  … half the load to deliver farther on).

The boy poet loses interest in the blarney and reflects on the quality of a coal seam (lode our coal came from was silk-black) that will leave behind classy ash (silkiest white).

Jolted from reverie by a passing bus he watches the delivery draw to its close (half-stripped lorry emptied, folded coal-bags) and imagines his mother’s reactions to flattery (tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman) and cheekiness (conceit of a coalman).

Attraction is suddenly replaced by 1940s’ daily chores (black lead emery paperbusiness round her stove) and fastidious self-consciousness (half-wiping ashes with a backhand from her cheek). As for the methodical Agnew, the boy watches him secure the lorry’s side panels (bolt), start its engine (rev) and go on his way.

Harmless temptation (dream of red plush and a city coalman) and moral rectitude are replaced by a cry of anguish for mid-Ulster (Oh, Magherafelt!) announcing a Heaney newsreel (time fastforwards) of May 23rd 1993 (in which neither of them were actually involved): a second different lorry, toiling  under its load (groans into shot, up Broad Street) of IRA sourced explosives (payload that will blow the bus station to dust and ashes).

The outrage has triggered the vision of a deceased mother (revenant) and their shared routine – on the bench where I wouId meet her in a chilly unwelcoming place (cold-floored waiting-room in Magherafelt).

As he created this poem, one of Heaney’s starting points was an actual meeting with his mother at the bus-station in Magherafelt at Hallowe’en in 1951, when he was returning from St. Columb’s College in Derry.

His nightmare imagines them caught up in the mayhem (her shopping bags full up with shovelled ashes); coalman Agnew is present too (death walked out past her like a dust-faced coalman), his coal sacks now destined for the dead (body-bags) as many as required (empty upon empty), trying to extricate his lorry from dust of explosion (flurry of motes and engine-revs).

So which of the two on offer survives translation?  The flirting coalman’s lorry when she was alive? Or the time-bomb lorry (heavier, deadlier one, set to explode) years after her death (a time beyond her time in Magherafelt).

No hesitation. The honest bringer of coal (tally bags) and banter to the Heaney home (sweet-talk darkness, coalman) has a role to act out (listen to the rain spit in new ashes) – to help repair the sectarian shambles (heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt) and then return as the heartthrob his mum took a shine to (my mother’s dreamboat coalman) on the silver screen of a better time (filmed in silk-white ashes).

  • crib: dialect word that describes hinged side and end pieces (e.g. of a lorry) that can be raised or lowered for unloading purposes;
  • sweet-talk: Insincere praise used to persuade someone to do something;
  • lode: vein of mineral/ metal ore in the earth;
  • conceit: excessive pride;
  • black lead: graphite used to polish cast iron surfaces common in the mid-20th century;
  • emery paper: form of corundum used as an abrasive;
  • revved: increased the engine speed (and its noise!);
  • plush: rich fabric of silk, cotton, that might describe the interior or upholstery of a period cinema;
  • payload: specific reference to explosive ‘warhead’ carried by the lorry;
  • revenant: who has returned from beyond the grave;
  • body-bags: used to contain dead bodies and conceal injuries;
  • plying: 19th century sense of ‘undertake regularly’ (journey, trade);
  • motes: specks, tiny pieces;
  • beyond her time: Heaney’s mother died in 1984; the attack described here took place in May 1993
  • tally bags: sacks used to keep a running total;
  • heft: haul, tote;
  • filmed: (pun) taken by movie-camera; covered in a thin layer;
  • in general terms the best coal left least waste;
  • sestina :a complex form seeking spectacular effects through intricate repetition;
  • a thirty-nine-line form attributed to Arnaut Daniel, the Provencal troubadour of the twelfth century. Troubadour songs were based upon wit as well as complexity and difficulty of style.courtly love was often a theme of troubadour songs; in the first phase Heaney offers a mild, teasing flirtation;
  • a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi.
  • lines may be of any length;
  • the form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words: 1. ABCDEF 2. FAEBDC 3. CFDABE 4. ECBFAD 5. DEACFB 6. BDFECA;
  • envoi (concluding lines): ECA or ACE: the final three-line envoi, sometimes known as the tornada, must also include the remaining three end-words BDF;
  • beyond homophones and slight variations (‘lode’ for ‘load’ ‘flurry’ for ‘mother’) this is the only structural variation that Heaney insists upon in a sestina that centres around his mother.
  • ‘In fact, by referring apolitically to the conflict, Seamus Heaney ( ) possibly says far more about the horrors of life in civil war than any partisan statement might have done. Peace Pledge Union series;
  • The lyric lilt of the poem – not only in its rhythm but also in its sounds (and repletion of sounds) (Magherafelt, ashes, lorry, coalman, mother) or parts of words (coal-bags/body-bags; payload/ plying his load) – provides a deceptively sweet background for the two kinds of action, as it were the two black-and-white movies in the programme. The first is a childhood documentary:. The second: ( ) a blend of dream and truth. (ibid)
  • which lorry is it now? … is that last image – ‘dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes’ – an image of death, a ghost, or the result of burning? However often one winds and rewinds this poem, the end is pain (ibid)
  • at the Tricycle Theatre in north London. Heaney ‘read from his poem “Two Lorries” – “one of the least romantic titles for a poem ever”, he drily noted – which opens with a memory of his mother having coal delivered … The last two words echoed a passage from Joyce’sUlysses he had read out earlier, in which Stephen Dedalus’s dead mother appears in a dream smelling of “wetted ashes”. Heaney’s echo was surely deliberate. It felt like he was allowing us a private glimpse of his creative method’ Saheer Rahim in The Telegraph;
  • the sestina structure is adhered to (see above);
  • line length is not regular; generally between 10 and 12 syllables
  • a 17-sentence structure: insertion of reported speech mimicking speech patterns of a mother tickled by cheek of the coalman’s approach breaks up rhythms; enjambed lines help to counter-balance mid-line punctuation and create more sustained flow;
  • all 5 senses figure in the first 4 lines;
  • synaesthesia of ‘sweet-talking’, taste + sound; ‘silk-white’ touch + sight; further ample use of compounds as nouns and adjectives;
  • everyday language and situation in the first half; interesting use of use of ‘now’ as a pause word rather than reference to a specific moment;
  • vocabulary of premonition and grief: ‘groans into shot’;
  • nebulous characters and references to otherworldliness; frequent reference to dust and ash;
  • vocabulary of opposites: black v white; the appeal of city life to naive countrywoman; the tools required for period chores (emery) v modernisms: (fastforward, shot, payload);
  • use of puns: load/lode, filmed; ‘set’: triggered by a timer;
  • local place names;


  • 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: fourteen 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 lines of ‘Two Lorries’ for example, bring together alveolar plosives [k] and [g]alongside bilabial continuant [w] and sibilants [s] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ];
  • 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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