A poet of labor and the laborer

September 11, 2013

Mark Dickman pays tribute to one of the great poets of our age.

SEAMUS JUSTIN Heaney passed away on August 30 at the age of 74. From his very first published poem "Diggers," the subject of workers and their tools has been central to the writings of Seamus Heaney. The richness and precision of his description of laborers, their tools and machinery, the work environment and the products of labor is a veritable catalogue of the thoroughly human act of production.

Let us begin with "Diggers." The poet is seated at his desk before a window with his pen in hand. He remembers the sounds of his father outside the window, digging below him:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:...

his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low...

Stooping in rhythm through the potato drills...

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly,
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving the cool hardness in our hands...

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney (Sean O’Connor)

In a mere dozen lines, the poet plumbs the depths of what Marx called the labor process. First, there is the sound of the sharp blade biting into gravel, ushering in a vision of the worker (his own father), straining, bending, rhythmically stooping between the plants deep-rooted in the soil, the lever of his knee guiding his boot onto the lug.

Each plunge of the spade's keen edge scatters the potato roots in the earth; until the cool hardness of the products of his labor, new potatoes, are held in the poet's own hands. Then his memory leapfrogs another generation to recall his grandfather, like his father, digging, this time cutting turf:

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging...

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head...

Once again, the worker (this time his grandfather), digging, plunging his spade into the turf, with its squelching and slapping, to heave the soggy peat over his shoulder. The action, the simple tool and the product of his labor; the squares of peat, in all their sensual particularity. Finally, the poet draws to a close with the thought that, though he will never compete with these generations of diggers who were his own progenitors, he will nevertheless labor as a writer with his own instrument, his "squat pen," to dig deep into experience and memory to unearth the products of literature, poems.


NEXT, WE turn to "Churning Day," a poem about his mother laboring in the workshop of her kitchen to create the slabs of butter that grace the family table:

A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast,
Hardened gradually on top of the four crocks...

After the hot brewery of gland, cud and udder
Cool porous earthenware fermented the buttermilk...

Out came the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip
Of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn...

My mother took first turn, set up rhythms
That slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached.
Hands blistered. Cheeks and clothes were spattered
With flabby milk...

This time, the worker is Heaney's mother in her kitchen, with its familiar odors, textures and implements, engaged in the strenuous task of churning. It is an indoor world of flagged tiles, wooden cupboards, earthenware and copper kettles. For hours, she labored, covered in the spattered gold liquid of her crocks. Then finally the product of her efforts was revealed: the heavy curd, "heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl."

In "Damson," we encounter a bricklayer at work before a mortared wall:

Over and over, the slur, the scrape and mix
As he trowelled and retrowelled and laid down
Courses of glum mortar. Then the bricks
Jiggled and settled, tocked and tapped in line.
I loved especially the trowel's shine,
Its edge and apex always coming clean
And brightening itself by mucking in...

It was all point and skim and float and glisten
Until he washed and lapped it tight in sacking
Like a cult blade that had to be kept hidden...

The close attention of the worker is reflected in the virtuosity of jiggles, tocks and taps on the row of bricks with the trowel. Between the bricks flows the viscid mortar, as it slides and glistens, shaped by the laborer's subtle gestures. To the poet, the trowel "felt heavy as a weapon," but to the laborer, it was light as a feather, an extension of a steady arm and a skillful hand.

In "At Banagher," we find a tailor seated on a table with a garment in his lap:

His lips tight back, a thread between his teeth...

His eyelids steady as wrinkled horn or iron...

he threaded needles
Or matched the facings, linings, hems and seams.
He holds the needle just off centre, squinting,
And licks the thread and sweeps it through...

Then takes his time to draw both ends out even,
Plucking them sharply twice...

The journeyman tailor arrives at the door and is admitted into the family kitchen. Seated cross-legged on the table, he rips out an old garment to be re-sewn. Plying his trade under the watchful eyes of the mother and her son, his skillful touch has the power to turn mere rags into finished garments for their family.

In "A Shiver," we encounter a workman aiming a sledge at a crumbling stone wall:

Your two knees locked, your lower back shock-fast
As shields in a testudo, spine and waist
A pivot for the tight-braced, tilting rib-cage;
The way its iron head planted the sledge
Unyieldingly as a club-footed last;
The way you had to heft and then half-rest
It's gathered force like a long-nursed rage
About to let fly...

A first blow that could make air of a wall,
A last one so unanswerably landed
The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?

It begins with the proud stance of the worker before the wall, wielding a powerful hammer. The laborer is seen as a machine with a torso serving as a pivot upon the waist, arms extending and connected with the handle of the sledge. Then the sledge is swung round, its iron head directed at a wall. As it follows through the trajectory of the arc, the force rattles the workers' bones, as the hammer blow shatters the wall! Finally, the very earth shakes as the handle shivers.


HEANEY ALSO wrote poetry about the workplace. This poem is titled "The Forge."

All I know is the door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or the hiss when a new shoe toughens in the water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music...

Here is revealed the mysterious site of the blacksmith's art, with its chiaroscuro of light and darkness. The inner sanctum lit by a brilliant blaze of sparks, the hiss of the shoe in water, the jangling rhythmic music of hammer against iron. Within, the heat of white-hot steel; outside, the glistening ice on rusting wheels.

"The Barn" is another poem that takes as its subject one of humanity's traditional workplaces:

Threshed corn lay piled like grit of ivory
Or solid as cement in two-lugged sacks.
The musty dark hoarded an armoury
Of farmyard implements, harness, plough-socks...

There were no windows, just two narrow shafts
Of gilded motes, crossing, from air-holes slit
High in each gable...

A scythe's edge, a clean spade, a pitch-fork's prongs:
Slowly bright objects formed when you went in.

Once again, the magic of the work site smolders in the memory of a boy. There is the musty, cobwebbed darkness, heat of burning zinc and the chilly concrete floor. Each tool is seen clear-cut against the darkness, with its bristling prongs and sharpened blades. And later, at night, there are the haunting eyes of bats in the rafters. He lies face down, as birds shoot through air-slits in the roof.


FROM THE workplace, we turn to the machine itself in "The Turnip-Snedder." It is the soul of an ancient contraption that speaks to us:

...a barrel-chested breast-plate

standing guard
on four braced greaves.

"This is the way that God sees life,"
it said. "From seedling-braird to snedder,"

as the handle turned
and turnip-heads were let fall and fed

to the juiced-up inner blades,
"This is the turnip-cycle,"

as it dropped its raw sliced mess,
bucketful by glistening bucketful.

Here we have a piece of machinery--a hungry iron monster--made for the skinning and slicing of turnips. From the snedder-god's viewpoint, the turnips are seen in the cycle of their lives: from the green sprouts in the ground to the final juicy buckets of raw vegetables. The turnip heads are poured into the snedder's maw: to emerge as fresh food for the family.

In "The Harrow Pin," we have a handmade nail:

Head-banged spike, forged fang, a true dead ringer
Out of a harder time...

Brute-forced, rusted, haphazardly set pins
From harrows wrecked by horse-power over stones
Lodged in the stable wall and on them hung

Horses' collars lined with sweat-veined ticking,
Old cobwebbed reins and hames and eye-patched winkers,
The tackle of the mighty, simple dead...

What virtue...
Was in hammered iron.

This all-purpose sliver of iron could support a shelf or serve as a picture hook. Lodged in the wall of a stable, it held the horse's reins, collars and tackle securely. It was the simple gadget that proved useful for all occasions.

And in "A Stove Lid for W.H. Auden," we have the end product, an iron artifact:

The mass and majesty of this world I bring you
In the small compass of a cast-iron stove lid...

The red hot solidus to one side of the stove
For the fire-fanged maw of the fire-box to be stoked,
Then the gnashing bucket stowed...

So one more time
I tote it, hell-mouthed stopper, flat-earth disc...

Watch sparks die in the ashpan, poke again,
Think of dark matter in the starlit coalhouse.

The solidity and weight of a cast-iron lid reminds the poet of a dense world unto itself. Like a stopper at the mouth of hell, it sat on the side of the blazing stove. Its fiery maw was stoked by the boy after he'd toted buckets of coal from the firebox. Then he'd sit back watching the sparks slowly dying out in the dim light of the coalhouse.

Finally, we return to the richest of his subjects in "Follower"--his father, once again, as the worker with his tools:

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue,

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land...

As in Marx's description of the labor-process: "he opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces." Like a sail strung on a mast, his father's shoulders are united with the plough: from Marx, "the instrument of labor that serves as the conductor of his activity." And the two are engaged in the daily struggle with the soil; in Marx's view, "the universal subject of human labor."

The poet remembers, as a boy, stumbling, falling in his father's tracks. He'd climb on his broad back, riding as he plodded through the moist black earth. Back then, he had wanted nothing so much as to grow up to plough the land like his father. But today, it's he who ploughs the furrows of literature, fond memories of his father trailing behind him.

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