May 312016
 

Cairn-maker

For Barrie Cooke

Poem dedicated to the British born artist and family friend living in Ireland since 1954 (Cooke painted a portrait of the poet). Heaney reveals to DOD (p148) that as he and his wife actively contemplated changes in the direction of their lives they visited Cooke who had fashioned a self-sufficient existence for himself in Kilkenny.

The poet went on outings with Cooke, a 2-and 3-dimensional artist fascinated by natural materials and designs. The clues mount up: on a walk cairns would have provided Cooke with a creative distraction. He is the cairn-maker.

Cairns are a feature of the Burren landscape since the earliest times and Heaney’s Cairn-maker latest in a line of builders. The poet observes the man at work (That whole day) responding to what he is seeing and affirming the cairn’s wider contribution to Irish culture.

The man’s stone procurement amounted to theft (He robbed the stones’ nests), the demolition of previous closely bonded stone relationships (uncradled ( ) orphaned) and loving re-assembly: he … betrothed rock/ To rock.

New to the practice (unaccustomed hand) Heaney’s cairn maker moved back and forth across the landscape upon hillock/ And bogland constructing a meaningful landmark (see note below) (chambering).

The poet records the Cooke technique: fixing firmly (Clamping); distributing weight evenly (balancing); keeping things as simple as possible (He did not find and add to them); steadfast pursuit of a small-scale task (piled up small cairn after cairn).

As artists do (clue), the ‘maker’ added his ‘signature’ (dressed some stones with his own mark) with a reported sense of awe (Which he tells of with almost fear) and uncanny respect for his materials (strange affiliation/ To what was touched and handled there).

The poet sings his lyrical praise: cairns are things of beauty – chance symbols of shared productivity (Unexpected hives), as solid as small-scale defences (castlings), of anonymous provenance (claimed by no hand), taken over and decorated (Pennanted now) with emblems of Irish loveliness (Rush and ladysmock , heather-bells) a-flutter in the breeze (Blowing in each aftermath of wind).

  • cairn: mound of rough stone built as memorial or landmark, often placed on the sky-line; cairns are plentiful on the Burren (more than 120 recorded), varying hugely in size from multiple burial hilltop examples to small sites with single burial chambers. Cairns were not simply places to house the dead; many may have had practical and symbolic functions beyond those associated with burial; they were also built to mark routeways and boundary areas;
  • cradle: a baby’s first bed;
  • orphaned: said of a child who has lost both parents;
  • betroth: formally engaged to be married;
  • chambering: suggestive of burial chambers;
  • hillock: (diminutive) small hill;
  • clamping: fixing firmly together, securing;
  • balancing: placing in a stable position;
  • Burren: a karst landscape located on the mid-western coast of Ireland provides a rich natural and cultural heritage. Covering about 360sq km it boasts distinct geology, flora, archaeology and evidence of agricultural practices. Today’s rocky landscape is the result of glacial erosion, natural weathering and 6000 years of agricultural activity. The landscape is archaeologically special today because of the high density of preserved monuments .
  • dressed: decorated;
  • affiliation: membership, belonging to a group;
  • hives: homes of bee communities;
  • castlings: ‘-ling’ added as a suffix , a diminutive denoting something smaller than, inferior to the real thing;
  • pennanted: with a flag blowing at its highest point;
  • rush: plant growing profusely in wetlands;
  • ladysmock: flowering plant also known as Cuckoo flower;
  • heather bells: plants of the Erica family with bell shaped flowers;
  • aftermath: after-effect of an event; consequence;
  • 4 quatrains in 3 sentences, the longest split by both (;) and (:);

  • line length of 7-9 syllables; no formal rhyme scheme but some loose assonant end of line pairings;

  • past tense;

  • ‘…ing’ participles echoed later by ‘ling’ diminutive; note also diminutive ‘hillock’;

  • comparison: stones, bird’s eggs (very Wordsworthian?);

  • picture of rookie builder both child-snatcher (‘robbed … uncradled … orphaned’) and match-maker (‘betrothed’);

  • neologism: ‘chambering’; notion of delving underground, leaving cavities below stones extracted from the ground;

  • creative man used to signing his pictures dares to do the same to his stonework but sheepishly ‘almost fear’; vocabulary of intimate relationship between creator and his materials; constructions are anonymous ‘claimed by no hand’;

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: ten 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:
  • the first lines, for example, brings together a cluster of plosives: velar [k], bilabial [b], alveolar [t] [d] interspersed with nasal [n][m] and sibilant [s] variations;
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.