Heaney describes the production of farm-made butter witnessed as a youngster. The poem reveals close observation of the technical stages whereby a transformation occurs as if by magic. The process is akin to alchemy: as if the Heaney family is able to produce gold from base metal in the form of butter from milk!
Left to rise, the cream of the milk gradually forms A thick crust with the texture and colour of building materials: coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast. The cream-containers are four crocks/ … large pottery bombs, both in their shape and, perhaps, their promise of explosive transformation (re-echoed in the later reference to the yellow-pigmented sulphur mine).
The milk has undergone a notable temperature-change from the cow’s hot brewery of gland, cud and udder and now at rest in cool porous earthenware.
Heaney explains how traditionally the wooden hooped churn is purified: first abrasively sterilised and scoured/ By plumping kettles (the water piping-hot) then with gentler human touch: busy scrubber echoing daintily.
The next stage prepares for an intense manual process: crocks spilled their heavy lip/ of cream, their white insides into the churn; the plunger like a great whisky-muddler (a kind of cocktail mixer in the drinks’ trade) fashioned/ in deal wood is plunged in and the churn sealed.
Prerequisites of cleanliness are replaced by the need for huge energy and stamina, the thudding reverberations echoed in the onomatopoeia: rhythms that slugged and thumped for hours. Muscles, skin and clothes are equally affected: ached … blistered … spattered.
Predictably the milk turns flabby as it begins to thicken. Then, following moments of suspense, first veins of butter started to form, gold flecks began to dance, triggering the need to prepare recipients for the finished object: birchwood bowl/ and little corrugated butter-spades.
Redoubled efforts are rewarded: suddenly/ a yellow curd was weighting the churned up white, heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight. A skimming process extracts the bounty: butter, like gold nuggets panned from a river, heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl.
Heaney remembers the pungent smells that followed the butter-making process and their effect on the senses: The house would stink…/acrid as a sulphur-mine. Equipment would be set out for another time and the butter strategically put on one side.
Calm is being restored; people move around with gravid (the original Latin sense of ‘full’ and by extension ‘charged’, ‘replete’) ease; but the mind still rings with the sounds and memories of recent activity: our brains turned crystals whether themselves turned solid by all the pummelling or mirroring the newly cleansed equipment. Sounds are recorded (the plash and gurgle); smell, too (sour-breathed milk).
The final line echoes to a mini activity now emanating from the scullery: the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.
- 36 lines of poetry in 3 sub-divisions; free verse;
- the punctuation is plentiful, providing irregular intervals in the flow of the process;
- multiple alliterative chains : velar plosive [k]: thick/ crust/ coarse; crocks; a triplet of voiced velar [d]: daintily seasoned wood; sibilants [s[ & [ʃ]: soft/ slabs/ shelves; short/ stroke/ suddenly; in pairs: finally flecks;
- sonic chains of varying lengths: (fours) [ʌ] scrubber/ wood/ stood/ purified; [ɪ] fished/ dripping/ in/ tin; (threes) [ʌ] mother/ slugged/ bumped; [ai] while/ inside/ sterile; [ɜː]earthenware/ churning/ churn;(pairs) [ʌ] cud/ udder; muddler/ plunged; [ei] ranged/ again; [i:] clean/ deal;
- crystal: a fascinating choice. Heaney selects a word that hints at notion of ‘crystal-clear’ referring to the mineral’s transparency; furthermore a magical process such as witnessed would have been foreseen in the ‘crystal ball’ that shows the future to the initiated; alternatively soft brain tissue turned hard is sometimes the reward of boxers engaged in the slugging business;
- Heaney uses a kind of film-maker’s technique whereby the magic transformation is reflected in a kind of fairy-tale animation where crocks self-pour and gold flecks dance;
- butter-production is a Gold Rush as gold prospectors pan for gold dust: fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer;
- Onomatopoeia: the plash and gurgle; personification: sour-breathed milk
- Neil Corcoran’s The Poetry of Seamus Heaney refers to the ‘clamour and clang of the opening line’ (p.6) … and Heaney’s mother glimpsed (ibid p.10);
- NC describes the poem as richly expressive ‘gravid ’(ibid p.208)
- NC (pp63-4) picks out the magic, miraculous moment of change after a bout that leaves them bloodied
- NC salutes the marrying of word to action (bid p.63)
- NC asserts a sub-text of guilt over Heaney’s rift with tradition, his physically less physically exacting labour as writer and teacher (bid p.64)