Jan 102012

The Barn

A second ‘bad-dream’ poem plays on the stuff of nightmare: half-light/ darkness; day/ night, benign/ threatening. Harmless objects in relative light assume very different natures once a child’s imagination is given full rein.

A youngster describes a place he knew in childhood; his memory recalls farm objects stored in a barn. His eye rests initially at floor level where he sees Threshed corn lying scattered like grit of ivory or packed solid as cement in two-lugged sacks (the stitching-up of the sacks left two ear-liked corners, often stretched because the corners were gripped as they were lugged about); he smells musty dark. Farm items are methodically displayed as in an armoury.

The boy’s memory-eye moves upwards from floor to ceiling, from the mouse-grey (a subtle introduction to later trauma),smooth, chilly concrete to the meagre light (two narrow shafts of gilded motes) introduced by air-holes slit/ High in each gable. This is a windowless, airless barn remaining cool within whatever the summer heat beating on its corrugated iron roof.

Suspense is injected: tools with sharp edges begin to assume veiled threats as they emerge from the penumbra; it takes no more than an unexpected ‘something’, real or imagined, to cause panic: you felt cobwebs clogging up your lungs/ And scuttled fast into the sunlit yard.

The incident triggered nightmares leading the child’s fertile imagination into nights when bats were on the wing/ Over the rafters of sleep, transforming a building harmless by day into a place where a captive is watched by rodents, where bright eyes stared /…fierce, unblinking at ground level, where birds shot through the air-slits and pecked at him from above and where, despite futile attempts to escape the spectres (face-down to shun the fear above), the benign items of daytime (The two-lugged sacks) moved in like great blind rats.

  • Twenty lines divided into 5-quatrains; a loose scheme abab/ cdcd of ‘approximate’ rhymes;
  • eleven sentences of varying length accompany the poetic eye as it flits around; the birth of fear brings enjambed lines that echo the quickening voice of a frightened child;
  • alliterative effects: strong in sibilants (solid as cement/ sacks)adding a ‘hissing’ background to the growing fear; velar [k] cobwebs/ clogging suggests voice constricted by anxiety; lack of oxygen adds to a sense of claustrophobia and ultimately panic;
  • weave of [t] and [b] sounds: into/ nights/ bats/ rafters/ bright assonance: [ɔː] hoarded/ armoury ; [ ʌ] up/ lungs/ scuttled/ sunlit;
  • frequent compounds, hyphenated adjectives/ nouns: two-lugged; air-holes; plough-socks; mouse-grey; face-down etc.;
  • the music of the poem would seek to reflect the slowly increasing threat, gathering speed for the fear and drama of nightmare scenarios reaching its paroxysm as child fails to shun the fear above (there is no bed or blanket for him to hide under)  then gagging/ sobbing to spell out the fearsomeness of the final line;
  • gilded motes: clever juxtaposition for light effect; specks of dust float visibly through the gold of sunlight;
  • musty dark: juxtaposition of words associating two senses, smell and sight (non-sight in darkness perhaps!);


  • a child’s initiation into fear (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.66);
  • Gothic menace (ibid)
  • nightmare ends in metamorphosis as inanimate things come to life;
  • ends with an explicit statement of new knowledge acquired during the incidents described (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney p. 6.)