This poem about sticks comes from Seamus Heaney’s The Spirit Level (FSG, 1996). As a parent, I see the sticks of childhood often, and notice their solidness and agency. As a reader—when I type in poems like this– I notice the limits of my own vocabulary. As a prose writer, I notice my offhand regard for punctuation. Poems are about many things; noticing, one of them.
Two Stick Drawings
Claire O’Reilly used her granny’s stick–
A crook-necked one—to snare the highest briars
That always grew the ripest blackberries.
When it came to gathering, Persephone
Was in the halfpenny place compared to Claire.
She’d trespass and climb gates and walk the railway
Where sootflakes blew into convolvulus
And the train tore past with the stoker yelling
Like a balked king from his iron chariot.
With its drovers canes and blackthorns and ashplants,
The ledge of my father’s car
Had turned into a kind of stick-shop window,
But the only one who ever window shopped
Was Jim of the hanging jaw, for Jim was simple
And rain or shine he’s make his desperate rounds
From windscreen to back window, hands held up
O both sides of his face, peering and groaning.
So every now and then the sticks would be
Brought out for him and stood up
Against the front mudguard; and one by one
I would take measure of them, sight
And wield and slice and poke and parry
The unhindering air; until he found
The true extension of himself in one
That made him jubilant. He’d run and crow,
Stooped forward, with his right elbow stuck out
And the stick held horizontal to the ground,
Angled in front of him, as if
He were leashed to it and it drew him on
Like a harness rod of the inexorable.
WORDS (with thanks to Merriam Webster)
Convolvulus: a genus or erect trailing or twining herbs and shrubs
Balk: Hindrance, check (one of 5 definitions)
Drover: one who drives cattle or sheep
Blackthorn: spiny plum
Ashplant: walking stick made from an ash sapling