Two childhood scenarios in which sticks featured.
Heaney reflects on the contrasting behaviour of two girls with whom he mixed as a child.
On autumnal fruit-picking expeditions the first was skilled in the use of the stick she carried: Claire O’Reilly used her granny’s stick (its shape fit for purpose: A crook-necked one) to snare the highest briars. The reason for stretching up: the least accessible plants always grew the ripest blackberries.
The second girl was less modest and thoughtful: Persephone/ Was in the halfpenny place compared to Claire. Heedless of danger or regulation She’d trespass and climb gates and walk the railway. Heaney recalls the inter-reaction of railway and nature (Where sootflakes blew into convolvulus) and the inter-play between frustrated, powerless railway-man and reckless child: the train tore past with the stoker yelling/ Like a balked king from his iron chariot.
- Claire O’Reilly: friend and neighbor of the young Heaney; member of his ‘gang’;
- crook-necked: curved at one end like a shepherd’s crook;
- snare: (outside this context) trap for catching birds or mammals, typically one having a noose of wire or cord; here a means to catch hold of hedgerow fruit;
- Persephone: friend and neighbor of the young Heaney; member of his ‘gang’;
- the halfpenny place: Irish figure of speech suggesting ‘cheap by comparison’;
- trespass: enter without permission;
- sootflakes: coal-fired steam locomotives belched out soot particles with the smoke;
- convolvulus: an invasive twining plant with trumpet-shaped flowers growing freely in hedgerows;
- stoker: train driver’s companion responsible for loading coal into the locomotive’s fire-box;
- balked: thwarted;
- chariot: a two-wheeled vehicle drawn by horses, used in ancient racing and warfare; symbol of power and aggression;
A warm tribute to Irish compassion: a mentally disabled individual (not uncommon in closely knit rural communities) is treated with the tolerance and indulgence that the poet would expect.
The scene is set for a one-man show. The props are the sticks (drover’s canes and blackthorns and ash plants that Heaney’s father used for his trade) displayed on The ledge of the back seat of my father’s car that gave it the air of a stick-shop window.
Enter Jim, a kind of jester figure of unspecified age, the only person to take an interest in the sticks (who ever window-shopped). Evidence of the man’s physical handicap (the hanging jaw) was symptomatic of his slow wittedness (Jim was simple); whatever the weather (rain or shine), he forlornly pursued … his desperate rounds/ From windscreen to back window, accompanying this with anguished gestures (hands held up/ To both sides of his face), intent and unintelligible: peering and groaning.
To indulge Jim, the sticks were Brought out … and stood up one by one/ Against the front mudguard. Comedy of situation: Jim would handle each one in turn (take the measure of them, sight) then go through the motions of a sword-fight with no opponent: wield and slice and poke and parry/ The unhindering air.
Ultimate selection of a ‘best’ stick (The true extension of himself) would generate a jubilant response then a series of antics: He’d run and crow adopting a particular posture: Stooped forward, with his right elbow stuck out / And the stick held horizontal to the ground, / Angled across in front of him.
As a compassionate youngster Heaney understood the poignancy of the moment: the stick appeared to have taken the simpleton under its control (as if he were leashed to it) rendering him powerless to resist (it drew him on) without hope of ever escaping from his condition Like a harness rod of the inexorable.
- drover: one of Heaney’s father’s tasks; he ‘drove’ cattle to market;
- canes (from the bamboo plant), blackthorns (from a thorny shrub) and ash plants (Irish usage): versions of cattle drover’s stick;
- ledge: narrow projecting surface below a window;
- stick-shop window: imagined shop;
- window-shopped: looked at displayed goods with little intention of buying;
- hanging jaw: suggestion that the boy’s mouth hung open;
- rain or shine: wet or fine, whatever the weather;
- desperate: with a sense of hopelessness;
- take the measure: consider and compare;
- sight: take aim by looking through the sights of a gun;
- wield: brandish;
- slice: slash like a sword
- poke: jab
- parry: ward off defensively;
- unhindering: not getting in the way;
- extension of himself: that added to the length of his body;
- jubilant: whooping with pleasure;
- crow: express great pride or triumph; the loud sound of a poultry-yard cock;
- angled: inclined;
- leashed: fastened; movement restricted by a rope;
- harness rod: fitting by which a horse or other draught animal fastened to a cart is controlled by its driver;
- inexorable: inevitable, inescapable;
- stick Art generally: figures drawn in short, thin straight lines (cf. matchstick men); in these two poems walking-sticks/ switches are the main props in the action;
- 1. 9 lines in a single verse; 3 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
- use of enjambed lines determines the narrative flow in oral delivery;
- use of superlatives: highest, ripest; Irishism: halfpenny seat;
- portrait of carefree Tom-boy figure;
- comparison: railway man/ classical epic gladiatorial figure; vocabulary of train/chariot speed, and male aggression;
- 2. 21 lines in a single verse; three sentence structure, the second characterized by repeated use of semi-colon as a full-stop substitute; early 11 syllable lines superseded by standard 10 syllables; copious use of enjambed lines
- Comparison: car interior/ shop window; image extended by Jim’s appearance;
- Weather described by its components: rain or (sun)shine; similarly wet or fine;
- transferred epithet: Jim his desperate not his rounds; they demonstrate his desperation;
- use of preposition to avoid lengthy alternative: Jim of the hanging jaw;
- lexis alluding to physical deformity and mental impediment, extending to various senses: sight, sound;
- 2 film-like clips: Jim brandishing a stick; Jim following a strange dance with a stick; element of ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ animation where the instruments take control over the user;
- oxymoronic juxtaposition suggesting Invisible mass: unhindered air
- Jim’s jubilation accompanied by an acceleration of hectic activity only slowing as hope and energy decline;
- the music of the poem: fifteen 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 main title and first couplet already gather together alveolar plosives [t][d] and velar plosive [k] alongside sibilant [s] sounds and nasal [n]; note also alveolar trill [r];
- 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.