Poor Women in a City Church
A study of inner city devotions is inspired by the sight of Catholic women in an unheated Belfast church. The poem creates a canvas that recalls classical paintings of groups of worshippers in like circumstances.
Heaney concentrates, first, on light effects: small wax candles melt to light, casting varying shadows as they flicker in marble or creating pinpoints of light on the curvature of shiny, metal surfaces: bright/ Asterisks.
The eye-camera moves to an ‘chapel’ devoted to Mother Mary, a revered Catholic figure beloved of women in particular; it comes to rest before the Virgin’s altar; the candles here are caught by more powerful currents of air: Blue flames …. Jerking on wicks.
The women present are collectively old, sallow-skinned, chilled, widowed and devoted: Old dough-faced women on their knees with black shawls/ Drawn down tight.
The scene lacks both warmth and permanence: candles have Cold-yellow … tongues; cold blue flames retain some playfulness: mince and caper. Prayers seeking solace from some divine presence are whispered calls/ (that) Take wing up to the Holy Name.
Thus, so it is that, in daily, obedient devotion, the women fall silent before Golden shrines, altar lace,/ Marble columns and cool shadows.
As if to suggest the spiritual rewards the women glean, Heaney offers them unblemished skin textures: In the gloom you cannot trace/ A wrinkle on their beeswax brows. The same light that subdues colour airbrushes the marks of age and poverty.
These women might be poor in status and poor in pocket but they are rich in spirit.
- 15 lines of mainly 8 syllables in 3 stanzas;
- Heaney works through the challenges and restrictions of a sophisticated rhyme scheme aabab, ccdcd etc;
- use of the word Poor in his title offers us a selection of interpretations: the women are not well off; he feels sympathy for them laying themselves open to such unfavourable conditions; he doesn’t share their religious zeal;
- Heaney’s considered use of prepositions illustrates close observation: in marble recognises a reflective effect seemingly beneath the surface of polished marble (as opposed to on the surface of brass); prepositions abound (6 in the first 5 lines);
- Heaney studies flames: they flicker … reflect … jerk…lick (tongues); some are affected and playful: mince and caper; the only evidence of heat: the waxes literally become liquefied: melt to light (the term ‘melt is equally used in cinematography to indicate the imperceptible merging of 1 image into another as the poet’s eye moves around);
- prayers take wing: the earliest allegorical, religious paintings transmit the invisibility of ’holy’ ‘messages via bird images.
- alliterative and assonant effect are generally in pairs: sacred place/ wax candles; asterisks/ candlesticks; shawls/ drawn; old dough…;beeswax brows.