Feb 242012
 

Senior Infants

 

A short sequence in poetry and prose recalling characters from Primary schooldays (that is, before the age of reason) and the lessons learnt from later contacts with them.

  1. The Sally Rod

 

Heaney bumps into a Primary school class-mate in the street; memories and details flood back. The shared memory is one of physical punishment suffered once upon a winter’s day (compare this with the standard fairy-tale opening ‘Once upon a time…’ to re-awaken the notion of ‘lost domain’.). It was the physical punishment administered across the legs by a named teacher using her willow stick, in retribution for a ‘crime’: Miss Walls/ Lost her head and cut the legs off us/ For dirty talk we didn’t think she’d hear.

The reunion of these two men now elderly is warm: Duffy … / with his stick in the air and two wide open arms. How could either of them forget that wooden rod with which wicked boys were beaten: ‘For Jesus’ sake! Do you mind the sally rod?

  • Senior Infants: the top classes just before transfer to Secondary, a time when innocence is being lost and dirty talk develops (amongst boys in particular);
  • sally rod: a long, thin wooden stick, generally of willow (Latin: salix), and used in Ireland as a means of discipline before corporal punishment became illegal;
  • 9 lines based on 10/11 syllables; first sentence totally enjambed; the second in the form of a question;
  • assonants: [i:] street/ reason/ Senior later she’d hear; echoing [ɪin/ in Infants/ winter’s/ Miss alongside sibilant [s] once/ winter’s/ Miss Walls, then [ʌ] cut/ us;
  • subtle use of preposition ‘coming at potentially threatening until identity is established; unsteadiness ; ultimately body language interpreted: stick/ two wide open arms;
  • [ai] wide/ mind;
  • mind: Ulster usage, ‘remember’;              
  • In ‘Senior Infants’, when a schoolmate is encountered after many decades, now walking with a stick, it is the physical memory of another, chastising stick which unites the two men. The Northern Irish ‘mind’ (for remember) is perfectly judged, and anything but casual. Childhood, Heaney makes us feel, is something lodged in the body’s memory as well as that of the remembering mind. Peter McDonald in The Literary Review

 

2. A Chow

A youngster gives in to temptation and reaps the consequences.

Memory is prompted, perhaps, by scratched initials still evident in the sandstone of Anahorish bridge. They are familiar to Heaney; he once saw them freshly carved by Robert Donnelly/ Beside me. The story is told as if in the present.

The boy, on an errand for his father, offers him an illicit chew (‘chow’) of tobacco. Heaney clearly remembers the textures of Warhorse Plug – / Bog-bank brown, embossed and his ‘sinful’ involvement with forbidden man-fruit.

He accepts the offer and lives to regret it: The roof of my mouth is thatch set fire to; anything to escape the biting taste I want to lick/ Bran from a bucket, grit off the coping stone.

The more street-wise boy offers mock-adult wisdom: ‘a chow’s no good/ Unless you spit like hell’, before demonstrating the art: his ginger calf’s lick/ Like a scorch of flame, his quid-squirt fulgent.

  • Plug: a form of loose leaf tobacco made into a solid cake and consumed by placing a portion of the tobacco between the cheek and gum or teeth and chewing it to release nicotine. Unwanted juices are then expectorated (spat out); it was sold in packets weighing an ounce (a pre-decimal unit of approximately 30 grams);
  • chow: a piece to chew;
  • coping: the top course of masonry on a wall or parapet;
  • dulse: in fact an edible seaweed, used perhaps to complement the reddish colour of the wrapping; embossed: the outer wrapping might have part of the design standing out from the rest: bog-bank: the wet, peat-based land around Heaney’s home provides many shades of brown colour;
  • thatch: a roof made of straw or reeds;
  • quid: alternative name for a chow;
  • sonnet form with one broken line; lines between 10 and 12 syllables; no rhyme scheme; varied use of punctuation and enjambment provides a variable rhythm for oral delivery
  • the title’s [au] of chow resounds through the piece: ounce/  brown/ mouth/  -out/ chow; the first 2 couplets are also flavoured by the variant sounds of the vowel [o];
  • the middle section combines assonant [ʌ] and [ɪ]: stuff, stripping/ dulse-thin/ unwrapped/ plug/ forbidden before adding alliterative bi-labial plosive [b] of Bog-bank brown, embossed/ forbidden/ buy and a cluster of [t] sounds; 
  • Heaney throws in the Old Testament reference to ’Original Sin’ and ‘forbidden fruit’ (that Adam and Eve consumed against the will of God and led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden); the youngster’s conscience gives him a guilt-feeling: chewing tobacco was for men, not boys;
  • The 3 lines following the volta revel in the after effects of experimentation, above all the unbearably hot after-taste echoed in the [ɪ] sounds of lick/ grit/ spit;
  • the final 3 detail the unsavoury spit itself: still hot in taste and colour: ginger/ scorch/ flame; a short-lasting, shiny, viscous almost heraldic expectoration: quid-spurt fulgent.;     
  • The Homepage of Anahorish Preserves claims as follows: “For over 6 generations the Gribbin Family have lived, farmed and produced food in a place called Anahorish. The name is derived from the Irish Anach Fhior Uisce which means Place/Hill of Clear Water or Place/Hill of Excellent Water. Nobel Prize Winning Poet Seamus Heaney () was born on a farm called Mossbawn in the next Townland of Tamniarn.  Seamus spent much of his early childhood in Anahorish and he attended Anahorish Primary School”.

3. One Christmas Day in the Morning.

The sight of Tommy Evans, another schoolboy from the past, recalls an incident that occurred whilst Heaney was having a Christmas Day drink years later in a pub at Castledawson at the height of the Troubles.
A prose-poem, it describes how the speaker is suddenly made aware that his conversation is too loose, that he might have misjudged the company and should have known better. It makes for a compelling piece of psychological drama even screenplay using ‘flashback’.

The build-up: Christmas bonhomie and routine enquiries between people who have known each other over time; first hints of ‘tribalism’ from the drinking mates of the acquaintance who know that Heaney is Catholic; Heaney’s fair but effectively naive comments on the danger of weaponry bring a change of atmosphere.

The pivotal moment when his eye upon me narrowed bring flash-back to memories of the habits and hobbies of Tommy Evans, who toting an airgun, drilled the pair of us left-right (‘drill’ can mean both ‘shoot’ and ‘practise marching’). Other hints, hitherto unrecognised, of para-military leanings surface: a chicken coop in shape of a sentry-box and Tommy’s target, the chrome lid of a bicycle bell.

The social ‘watch-yourself’ call is a recognition that boys in Ireland such as Tommy might easily have grown up to become adult gunmen: the little zings fairly brought me to my senses.

  • The nature of the incident and the tension it caused emanated from sectarian sensitivities within Irish communities during the period when those with extremist views formed or joined militias and took up arms. During the so-called ‘Troubles’ there were countless incidents of violence and murder between Catholic ‘republicans’ and Protestant ‘loyalists’. The wisest thing, as Heaney’s own father had intimated, was to keep your Catholic mouth shut in public for fear of causing offence with its subsequent potential for reprisal; the so-called Troubles began in the late 1960s and, beyond constant sectarian tension, erupted particularly viciously from time to time;
  • Heaney was only too aware of being part of the Catholic minority in Protestant dominated Ulster; he later commented to the effect that after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 he was able as a Catholic to walk the streets of Ulster carrying a green passport (that of the Irish Republic) and publish his poetry without looking constantly over his shoulder;
  • irony: the situation described is totally at odds with a title that echoes a Christmas carol of goodwill;
  • despite his choice of prose, Heaney loses nothing of the poet in himself: deliberate groups of assonant sounds, for example, the [ai] of the first and fourth paragraphs, the [ɪ] sounds of para 4 and clusters of alliterative consonants, for example  alveolar plosive [t] in the final para;.