In his interviews with Denis O’Driscoll that make up ‘Stepping Stones’ Heaney reveals his fascination, as he grew up, with Lough Neagh (into which his local Moyola river flowed) and also his experiences of the eel trade (pp93-4). The title of this 6-poem sequence turns out to be the familiar name used to describe the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative (revealed in vi) with which his future wife’s grandfather and father were connected.
i ‘Getting ones feet under the table’: being invited into a girl-friend’s family home is seen as a significant stepping-stone in relationships.
In fairy-tales, as in Arthurian legend and Courtly Love, the male aspirants were challenged to show they were worthy of a damsel’s love Heaney’s task is reminiscent: To win the hand of the princess/ What tasks the youngest son had to perform!
He suggests that an invitation into the bosom of a family was a privilege For me, the first to come a-courting/ In the fish factor’s house. The meal he shared with them on that occasion introduces the motif for the sequence: An eel supper.
- 7 lines; two triplets and a free-standing line
- use of archaic term once found in fairy-stories and traditional songs: a-courting;
- he suggests he was the first boyfriend to gain admission to this particular family circle;
- inversion of word order emphasises the nature of that first privilege;
ii A Day in the Life of an ‘eeler’: the smells, the sights of boats and men; the labour; snippets of social life.
Amidst the smells of commercial activity (the Cut of diesel oil in evening air)the day’s work draws to a close; there is need to drag the clinker-built/ Deep-bellied boats ashore. Eel fishermen are ingenious in adapting Tractor engines for their boats. These are not sophisticated sea-going boats because they belong to retrained agricultural workers rather than true sailors: Landlubbers’ craft … Horse-and-cart men, really, to whom a heavy boat is akin to the challenge of a cow down in a drain. Their hoisting and heaving posture reflects the physical challenge and their determination (straight-backed,/ Standing firm) relieved only when the boat is dragged above water-level: the adze-dressed keel/ Cleaved to the mud. Then, communal relaxation for these Rum-and-peppermint men at the bar of the princess’s father’s pub.
- Rum-and-peppermint: a fashionable ‘short’ drink in the 1950’s; a dash of peppermint cordial was added to a shot of rum;
- Landlubber: a slightly scornful remark from sailors referring to people unfamiliar with the sea (Lough Neigh is of course a lake);
- 5 three line stanzas;
- references to ship-building: the overlapping planks of clinker build; the fashioning of the keel using woodworkers’ hand-tools: adze-dressed;
- as an exercise in sound the velar plosive [k] of the first couplet leads to the bilabial plosive [b] of the next: clinker-built/ Deep-bellied boats,/ Landlubbers’craft, then to sibilant [s]: straight/ standing/ stern;
- use of preposition to following cleaved adds the idea of downward pressure to that of drag; the keel acts as a blade creating a split in the mud;
- a cluster of assonances: firm/ At stern; really/keel/ Cleaved; glad/ adze
iii A fellow-pupil from Primary school, Alfie Kirkwood, is remembered for the skin he wore as a garment: its surface sweaty-lustrous, supple; its unusual cut: bisected into tails/ For the tying of itself around itself. Alfie could demonstrate the rational of the design: For strength, according to Alfie/ Who would ease his lapped wrist/ From the flap-mouthed cuff.
Its smell is the abiding memory: a jerkin rank with eel oil/… the abounding reek of it, especially in hot weather. But however unpalatable this might be you sat where the teacher put you and dared not speak out of turn. This is Heaney’s first encounter with the up close/ That had to be put up with.
- The combination of adjectives offering visual and tactile effects: sweaty-lustrous, supple; alliterative use of sibilant [s];
- language that imitates the ‘knotting’ movement: the tying of itself around itself;
- Some internal rhyme: skin … jerkin; alliteration using velar [k]: cuff/ Of a jerkin rank/ reek/ desks;
- frequency of words with initial letter a ;
- Among things: smell that has impregnated and is impossible to dislodge;
- the use of couplets permits the lesson learnt to be set apart and to echo the finger-wagging, no-nonsense language a Primary teacher might use (the up close/ That) had to be put up with;
- inverted word order creates a new noun: the up close.
iv In Stepping Stones (p93) Heaney recalls fishing eels by hand as an eleven or twelve year-old. Here he picks out the contrasts between the novelty of eel-fishing and more familiar angling.
Heaney discovers the sweaty-lustrous texture of Alfie’s skin (in iii) on The butt of the freckled/ Elderberry shoot, that became his fishing-rod.
The feel of an unfamiliar creature on his fishing line leaves him A-fluster; not the tug he would have expected of the utter/ Flip-stream frolic fish, a creature played by the angler; rather a trailing …foot-long slither of a fellow. He depicts the elver: greasy grey … rightly wriggle-spined, too young as yet to present the sterner challenge of the blueback/ Slick-backed waterwork/ I’d live to reckon with an eel with something legendary about it: My old familiar/ Pearl-purl/ Selkie streaker.
- Stories are told about the legendary Selkies, creatures said to slip out of their skins thus reminiscent of eel behaviour;
- 6 tercets of free verse;
- The resonance of a now emotive word from a previous poem: butt
- texture-rich adjectives and adjectival phrases appeal to different senses; fishing references; the twining movement of eels;
- musicality: the largo passage involving 2 present participles, tugging … trailing, moves into the quick-fire vivace of the angling process;
- ingenious combination of alliteration and assonance is tongue-twisting: the slipstream airflow round the aerodynamic shape of a high speed aircraft becomes the hydrodynamic shape of a flip-stream frolic fish; it can produce onomatopoeia and an anaesthesia (you ‘see’ colour; you ‘touch’ texture) in the same sentence, the Slither … greasy grey of the eel.
- alliteration and assonance are dynamically interwoven: greasy grey and rightly wriggle-spined; utter / foot-long Selkie streaker;
- sonic echo: blueblack … Slick-backed; too/ shoot; familiar/ streaker;
- Pearl-purl: an imaginative combination of like-sounding words opening a mass of possibilities: colour (mother-of-pearl); something valued (the gemstone) ; the looping (as of a knitting stitch), swirling movement (of creature) and the babbling sound of water.
v The words of poet, Walter de la Mare in his rare, recorded voice trigger a chain of associations: a time of year: Summer; a place: a lawn beyond French windows/ And downs in the middle-distance; an incident recalled: a tree Struck by lightning; an peculiarity of pronunciation: de la Mare’s ba-aak for bark.
Heaney quotes him as likening the bark being stripped from the tree by lightning to a girl shedding her petticoat as it might have been captured in saucy flash-photography of the period: White linen éblouissante/ In a breath of air,/ Sylph-flash made flesh. The image of a young woman exposing bare skin is as tantalizing as the process of eelwork: stripping an eel in preparation for cooking, flavouring with sea-salt ; using a dish-cloth for wiping; taking a grip, a first hold; applying pressure: purchase… Under a v-nick in the neck … finally removing the outer skin skinpeel drawing down .Heaney lends the task a kind of slow, pleasurable sensuality: Like silk/ At a practised touch.
- Walter de la Mare: poet, story teller and novelist from the first half of the 20th century; privately educated (St Pauls’) and firmly British despite his Gallic name hinting at Breton or Channel Island forebears;
- sylph: elemental spirit of the air; by extension, slim, graceful young woman;
- downs: specific areas of natural beauty in Sussex, south of London; downs are actually upland areas running parallel to the English Channel;
- 7 triplets; two sentences; varying line length with every third line shortened; final stanza changes format: its sensual overtones are drawn out;
- sparse punctuation with much use of enjambed lines;
- early vocabulary reflects the upper middle-class prosperity of the poet;
- éblouissante: Heaney toys with the Frenchness of poet’s name, hinting perhaps at a perceived préciosité in his nature and a sauciness with which the ageing de la Mare responded to young demoiselles of his era;
- woven alliteration: rare, recorded; windows/ And downs in the middle distance; also flesh/dish; nick/ neck; skinpeel/ silk;
- clever juxtaposition of closely associated or similar sounding words: Sylph-flash made flesh (the era was often recorded using ‘flash’ photography);
vi Four short lines provide a simple coda, contrasting adult signage and adolescent vernacular reference: ever on our lips and at the weir ‘The Eelworks’.
- Works: the word was much used in English in the mid 20th century to denote a location where things might be produced (brickworks) or a process take place (gasworks); developing language replaced it with alternatives: factory, processing plant etc;
- Heaney uses ‘work’ both in this narrower sense (waterwork: that is an eel engendered in water in iv) and adopting its more general sense (eelwork: preparing eel as food in v)
- Heaney manages to portray life in its most unflinchingly human terms. By unapologetically engaging the reader’s senses, Heaney takes us into some of his most “up close” memories Christine Fears writing in the Literateur; Sept 2010