Nov 222013
 

Sheelagh na Gig

A three-poem sequence that celebrates a stone block Sheelagh na Gig, one of many, projecting from beneath the eaves of 12th century Norman/ Romanesque church at Kilpeck near the city of Hereford in England.

I

The positioning of the block is pinpointed. The figure crouches hunkering, high on the church-wall: We look up at her…/ under the eaves. The block has a structural rôle as if she bears the whole stone burden (that of the church roof) on the small of her back and shoulders; her elbows are locked in position: pinioned.

She has an astute mouth (face or vulva is not made clear) and the gripping fingers that hold her lower body openinvite copulation: push, push hard/ push harder.

The observer’s eye travels up the body where hips go high as far as the disproportionately large globe of its tadpole forehead/… rounded out in sunlight.

The Sheelagh is surrounded by other pagan Saxon/Norman symbols some of them hellishly dramatic: a mouth devouring heads.

  • hunkering: 18th century Scottish word, ‘crouching’, ‘squatting’;
  • eaves: the outer limit of a pitched roof;
  • small of the back: the point where the backbone joins the hips;
  • pinion: the original noun can refer to the wings of flying creatures; the verb suggests to ‘pin’, ‘prevent from moving’;
  • tadpole: the larval stage of an amphibian, the head far out of proportion to the rest of the organism;
  • the Celtic/ Viking provenance of the effigy appears to strike a chord in Heaney’s heart; it is that of pagan divinity, Earth-mother and trickster, said to hold sway over birth, death, rebirth and sought for questions of fertility, sexual energy and trickery; the Kilpeck Sheelagh holds wide her vulva inviting copulation. Whilst overtly sexual the figure is primitive and grotesque;
  • a four sentence construct; five triplets; line length variable between 3 and 9 syllables; no rhyme pattern;
  • a balance between enjambed and punctuated lines, the latter following stage-by-stage
  • movement of the speaker’s eye;
  • the language seeks to establish the architectural function of a figure that has further significance;
  • the allegorical, distorted, humanoid resemblance of the effigy including its blatant sexual posture reveal careful management of language centred round ‘push’;
  • analogy between effigy’s head-shape and that of a pond creature;

 

  • the music of the poem: nine assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: in T1 thevoiced velar plosive [g] of the title is picked up with its voiceless counterpart [k]; T2 uses bilabial plosives [p] [b] alongside alveolar fricatives [s] [z]; the nasal [n] is carried over into T3 with repeated [p]; T4 introduces a pair of continuant [h] then a medley of plosives [t] [d] [p]; T5 employs a trill of [r] and final bilabial [m] pair;

II

The position of the Sheelagh’s hands recalls an association with the speaker’s farming past, likehuman hands in a barn, holding open a grain bag with its lapped and supple mouth/ running grain.

The scene is rich with sense-memory: the sight of the dark mouth and eye/ of a bird’s nest or a rat hole; odours, some pleasant others less so: rose on the wall/ mildew … earthen floor; touch: warm depth of the eaves. The sack itself triggers memory of a further incident when he put it to different use in the yard … under heavy rain, pulled monk-like over his head like a caul.

  • lapped: doubled over;
  • mildew: a sticky fungus that grows on walls;
  • caul: a close-fitting cap worn over the head;
  • a four sentence construct; five triplets; line length variable between 8 and 10 syllables; no rhyme pattern;
  • enjambed lines are in the majority; mid-line punctuation creates breaks to vary the rhythm; commas are present as the speaker’s eye flits about,
  • the farm analogy describing the posture of the effigy is rid of perceived indecency; the ‘sack’ metaphor is widened to introduce visual and sense data;
  • ‘and’ prepares for the final metaphor likening the sack to a monk’s headwear;

 

  • the music of the poem: nine assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: continuant [h] dominated T1; T2 features alveolar [l] alongside nasals [m] [n]; in T3 listen for voiceless dental fricative [θ] (thin) and alveolar plosive [t]; T4 combines nasals [m] [n] with bilabial continuant [w]; the nasals are echoed in T5;

 

 

 

III

The piece returns to the churchyard. Adept in the use of prepositions Heaney now offers his respect to the emblematic figure via the tiniest of alterations to the very first line of the sequence:: We look up to her.

The shapes and textures of the Sheelagh na Gig excite his attention: her strong steady eyes surrounded by carved concentric circles (ring fort eyes); the curve of her little slippy shoulders; hertwo-dimensional nose, incised and flat; her nubbed physique: twig boned.

The initial impression of a goddess of fertility holding her vulva open might easily have been confused with a figure sitting astride a horse:saddle sexed.

Matured and with the initial shock of her immodesty fading (Grown-up, grown ordinary)she points the observer’s attention towards six other allegorical representations equally worthy of note.

  • ring-fort: a visual impression successfully transposed into words: the earth works of iron age forts created concentric circles;

 

  • a three sentence construct; five triplets; line length variable between 4 and 9 syllables; no rhyme pattern beyond a strong assonant echo in the last five lines;
  • a single enjambed line so very much an enumeration of features;
  • series of compound adjectives stitches multiple ideas economically into hyphenated phrases;
  • the effigy is given a voice; the speaker does as he is told;
  • the other effigies are described economically;

 

  • the music of the poem: nine assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: in T1 voiceless alveolar plosive [t] sits with trill of [r] and alveolar [l]; T2 is dominated by alveolar plosive pair [t] [d], to which in T3 voiced velar plosive [g] and sibilant fricative [s] are added; T4 sees [l] alongside velar plosives [k] [g]; T 5 provides a mixture of sounds with a final ‘st’ flourish;