Shore Woman

Heaney revealed to DOD(p124) that ‘the fishing scenario in ‘Shore Woman’ is in fact an amalgam of two Kerry occasions – one when we went out on Kenmare Bay with Sean O’Riada and actually caught a heap of mackerel; another, reported to us by a man in Dingle, who told how his wife panicked when their boat was surrounded by porpoises’. The poem, one of a series depicting women in distress, and its epigraph linking men with the land and women with the sea identify Shore Woman as the narrator.

The piece paints all the themes, variations, dynamics and drama of a sea symphony in words.

The first movement, calm, lyrical andante cantabile, introduces a storyteller sensitive to the sound and touch of the strand: the inter-reaction of wind and grasses (the dunes with their whistling bent); the fine wind-blown particles (dry loose sand ( ) riddling round the air). Conscious of shoreline dangers the woman avoids soft ground (l’m walking the firm margin) picking out: the washed-out tints and textures of the sea’s cast-up bounty (White pocks/ Of cockle, blanched roofs [protective shell-homes] of clam and oyster); sea creatures that drink in and store (Hoard) the moonlight; the reflected moon-beams contributing to the ever restless movement of shades and tinges woven and unwoven/ Off the bay; In the distance random tidal sea-froth: At the far rocks/ A pale sud comes and goes.

As mood and focus (‘I’ to ‘we’) change the music suddenly revs from andante to molto allegro. The ebb and flow of a gentle seascape give way to frenzied in-board action: the eye-camera zooms in on doomed fish in their last throes (Under boards the mackerel slapped to death); the sheer volume of endless bounty (still we took them in at every cast) accelerates the contorted panic of cold-blooded creatures tipped into a hostile environment (Stiff flails of cold convulsed with their first breath).

The fisher knows every slight variation: cross-current (My line plumbed certainly the undertow); increases in weight as the fish are pulled in (Loaded against me once I went to draw); visual effects as the fishing-line flashed and fattened up towards the light.

He, the boatman, was at full stretch (all business in the stern). Her shout of elation (‘This is so easy that it’s hardly right’) meets male aloofness: he unhooked and coped with frantic fish/ Without speaking.

The dynamic stills to a lento pianissimo (suddenly it lulled): their boat has drifted beyond the shoal: We’d crossed where they were running. The sudden calm (the line rose / Like a let-down) gives time for visual assessment: I was conscious How far we’d drifted out beyond the head. He rejects perceived idleness: ‘Count them up at your end‘.

New threat is signaled by an accelerando animato: I saw the porpoises’ thick backs. She is alarmed by the creatures’ turbulent antics (Cartwheeling like the flywheels of the tide) and slippery gloss (Soapy and shining).

Allegro furioso: initially stunned (To have seen a hill/ Splitting the water could not have numbed me more) she is petrified by the explosiveness (the close irruption of that school), the sheer physical power of marine athletes (Tight viscous muscle) leaping ring-shaped (hooped from tail to snout) from the water (Each one revealed complete as it bowled out) and falling back again (And under).

A change of mood to drammatico serioso accompanies the clash of male and female emotions and wills: her fear (They will attack a boat./ I knew it) and request to terminate (I asked him to put in); his rejection of landlubber superstition (declared it was a yarn,/My people had been fooled by far too long) and decision to stick it out come what may: prove it now and settle it.

She compares his ‘brave’ face (Maybe he shrank when those sloped oily backs/ Propelled towards us) with her own a blind funk (I lay and screamed in a boat shipping water (Under plashed brine in an open rocking boat), where every contact spells disaster (Feeling each dunt and slither through the timber), her queasiness only heightened by the sense that the porpoise might actually be enjoying her fear: Sick at their huge pleasures in the water.

The final movement returns to the walking-pace of its first: her choice of solitude celebrates survival (I sometimes walk this strand for thanksgiving) and brings relief from ugly male-dominated domesticity (maybe it’s to get away from him/ Skittering his spit across the stove).

In need of comforting surroundings, shore woman chooses the beach (as did Heaney himself in the North poem of that name): it offers her security (Here/ Is the taste of safety); nothing nasty lurks there (the shelving sand/ Harbours no worse than razor-shell or crab) beyond rare reports (my father recalls) of marine suffering on a large scale: carcasses of whales / Collapsed and gasping, right up to the dunes.

Her recollections are ‘nubbed treasures the mind has known’ (North): intense re-creations (moving sinewed dreams) of things once real now lying, distant, out / In darker fathoms, far beyond the head, way out at sea but not out of mind.

The responses to the debris of scrubbed shells ( ) parched dunes and salivating wave of this lone (Astray) shore-walker reveal a consummate sensual closeness and define an entitlement (I have rights on this fallow avenue). At this exalting moment the distance separating speaker and world, microcosm and macrocosm, is no more than a whisker: A membrane between moonlight and my shadowmusical morendo … fade and die.

  • bent: general name for grasses especially long, stalked varieties; also inclination, disposition;
  • riddle: pass through a sieve;
  • margin: edge, outer perimeter;
  • pocks: scarred, pitted surfaces;
  • cockle: an edible seafood with a strong, ribbed shell;
  • clam: a smooth shelled seafood;
  • oyster: seafood with a rough, irregular shell, often eaten raw;
  • sud: froth typically formed by soap and water;
  • boards: sailing term describing the lateral planks/seats leaving access to the bottom of the boat;
  • mackerel: predatory marine fish caught and used for food;
  • cast: fishing term describing fishing line or net thrown out into the water;
  • flail: wild movement of a fish’s tail;
  • convulse: reference to violent muscle contraction;
  • plumb: measure depth;
  • undertow: undercurrent as, for example, incoming waves are sucked back into the sea;
  • all business: engaged in a fisherman’s chores;
  • stern: rear of boat;
  • running: tightly packed shoals of fish all moving together;
  • head: promontory, headland, cape;
  • let-down: disappointment, anti-climax;
  • porpoise: a small whale with teeth;
  • cartwheel: mimic the movement of a wheel, loop the loop;
  • flywheel: a revolving wheel inside a piece of machinery/ clockwork;
  • numbed: without sensation;
  • school: large group of the same breed of fish;
  • irruption: (note not ‘eruption‘) breaking in, invasion;
  • viscous: thick and sticky;
  • hooped: circular in shape like a hoop;
  • snout: projecting nose of an animal;
  • bowl out: emerge rapidly from;
  • put in: return to port;
  • yarn: cock and bull story;
  • shrank: cowered, recoiled;
  • plashed brine: salt-water thrown up by flailing fish;
  • dunt: dull, heavy impact;
  • slither: sliding contact rather than impact;
  • timber: wood of which the boat is constructed;
  • sick: scared to the point of throwing up;
  • strand: shore, beach;
  • skitter: describes jerky movement and also a fishing technique;
  • spit: a metal rod upon which fish are skewered for roasting over an open flame;
  • shelving: downward sloping towards the sea;
  • razor-shell: an edible seafood in a shell shaped like a knife-handle or cut-throat razor;
  • sinewed: tough bodily fibres that hold bone and muscle together;
  • darker fathoms: skilful economy of words – the deeper the sea the deeper its blue colour as measured in nautical 6 foot units;
  • scrubbed: cleaned as if with a brush and water;
  • parched: bone-dry;
  • salivating: producing a liquid discharge (from the mouth);
  • fallow: left to rest, uncultivated;
  • membrane: anatomical lining separating cells or organs;
  • in I969 and 1970, I’d written the group of poems about women in distress – ‘Shore Woman’, ‘Maighdean Mara’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Limbo’… those nar­ratives and monologues formed one segment of the contents’ (DOD124);
  • Mooning – If Part Two of Wintering Out seems disappointingly miscella­neous compared to the singleminded purposefulness of Part One, it nevertheless complements it in at least one significant respect … both parts share exemplary or emblematic figures of suffering or endurance, those of Part Two having a genuine role in establishing the chilly, disconso­late mood of the book. These latter, who are predominantly women, move out of prehistory, history and literature into the contemporary world, although they acquire something of an almost mythical or legendary quality too. This is created largely by the imagery of moonlight and sea in which they are bathed … the unhappy wife of ‘Shore Woman’ walks in the moonlight to become almost disembodied in the final line, ‘A membrane between moonlight and my shadow’ … These lunar associations suggest that Heaney is making the figure of the poet emblematic in this poem in the way of the volume’s other such figures’ (NC50);
  • Perhaps the most usual way poets devise to be anonymous is to turn to myth and legend (whether classical, Christian or folk-derived), and Heaney takes this path as well. In a rather self-conscious early poem called ‘Undine’ … the poem announces Heaney’s inter­est in assuming (as in ‘The Wife’s Tale’, ‘Mother’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Shore Woman’ and elsewhere) a special type of anonymity: what it might mean to imagine oneself inside a woman’s experience’ (HV22-3);
  • 4 sections of varying lengths (7+21+10+13); constructed in 17 sentences (3+7+3+4); unrhymed;
  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery; the music of each section/movement determines the flow and intensity of narration;
  • line length mainly of 10 syllables;
  • the whole, presented as a poem, might just as readily been laid out as a piece of poetic prose;
  • the voice is that of the shore woman doubling as the ‘fisher’;
  • variable verb tenses: present perfect; past continuous; present continuous simple present;
  • first section: sight, sound and touch predominant: shades of colour, wind-blown sand, textures;
  • metaphor: fine sand as if falling through a riddle; moonlight resembles flecked fabric; sea-shells akin to houses; gentle movement ‘comes and goes’;
  • dual intention of ‘bent: grasses whistle; the dunes whistle, as dunes do;
  • vocabulary confirms the change from tranquillity to mayhem, violence;
  • physics: the balance of weight and movement well understood by the woman;
  • oxymoronic contrast: ‘line rose Like a let-down’;
  • direct speech enables the male figure to join what has been an internal monologue;
  • an earth shattering geological event would be no less petrifying than the fish;
  • metaphor: ‘tide’ depicted as clockwork; vocabulary of circular motion: ‘cartwheeling … flywheels … hooped … bowled’; emphasis on textured muscularity;
  • his initial bravado (’yarn … fooled … prove it) can only be guessed in his responses to full frontal attack: (he) ‘maybe … shrank’; her fear real: ‘lay and screamed;
  • her presence on the shore ambiguous: to give thanks for survival; to distance self from a basic, insensitive partner ‘skittering his spit’;
  • beautiful, lyrical ending at the interface of dream and reality, kitchen stove and make-believe, the here and the there, the self and the shadow;
  • 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: 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 first sentence, for example, weaves the onomatopoeic effect of bilabial [w]and labio-dental [f] into a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t][d], velar [k]) alongside sibilant [s] and nasals [n] and [m];
  • 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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