Work words

Flax dam

I love the way Seamus Heaney loves work-words. Not jargon, which is in-group talk meant to keep outsiders at bay, but the specialized words needed for the specialized tools needed to carry out a task. The Nobel laureate grew up in County Derry, in a farm house where horses could be heard knocking and snorting on the other side of the wall, and his poetry brims over with the names of implements, terms for daily chores and the unyielding routines of farm life. In “Following,” Heaney’s admiration for his father’s expertise with a plow rings from every line:

An expert. He would set the wing                                    
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Set the wing. Fit the sockHeadrig. Pluck. Learning the words is part of learning the job. Even if you don’t know anything about farming, Heaney’s verse conjures up images of the plow being set in place, the knife adjusted to cut through the thick-woven sod on the surface, and the blades of the plow slipping into the cut and unzipping the ground, pushing the sod up in long rolls so that its falls away on either side of the plow, opening the soil beneath for cultivation.

The title poem of  his 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist introduced the term “flax dam” to my suburban-reared consciousness:

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

As it turns out, preparing flax for cleaning and spinning into yarn involves soaking the bundled stems in a flax dam or lint hole, an artificial pond where the bundles (called “beets”) are kept submerged for weeks with clods of earth or large stones. As the flax stems rot and soften, the gas fizzing up through the water produces an appalling smell. The image used at the top of this post is “The Flax Dam at Dunseverick,” an acrylic painting by Brian Willis based on a photo of an actual flax dam.

Nature being what it is, the artificial pond created for work quickly becomes a stage for all kinds of other things that would appeal to a curious young boy:

There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

 I’ve been listening to the audio version of “Death of a Naturalist,” and Seamus Heaneywhen the poem arrives at the lines about Miss Walls, Heaney’s voice becomes soft and singsong, like a condescending schoolteacher turning the messy processes of nature into a tidy Beatrix Potter tale: “Miss Walls would tell us how/ The daddy frog was called a bullfrog/ And how he croaked and how the mammy frog/ Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was/ Frogspawn.” That final “frogspawn” is practically a sigh. It evokes a teacher gently filing something away, tucking it into a mental drawer. As the end of the poem demonstrates, there’s no filing away the gross fecundity of life.

Just how fecund, and just how gross, quickly becomes apparent:

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

“Death of a Naturalist” is an ironic title: the “naturalist” is a boy who is repulsed and alienated by the discovery that life will not sit neatly displayed on windowsills, and that its aggressive expansiveness can even seem faintly sinister to anyone not prepared to meet it.

And, since there is hardly a word or phrase in Heaney’s collected poems that does not serve multiple purposes, I suppose it’s no accident that the boy seems to be of an age when procreation, which Miss Wall has reduced to little stories about mammy frogs and daddy frogs, is about to take on an icky immediacy. The great slime kings have their revenge on us all, in a manner of speaking.

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3 thoughts on “Work words

  1. Bob says:

    He writes like Van Morrison sings.

  2. John Tranter says:

    You say admiringly that Heaney writes:

    You could tell the weather by frogs too
    For they were yellow in the sun and brown
    In rain.

    Are you serious? He needed to look at a f—ing *frog* to tell if it was raining???

  3. Steven Hart says:

    Well, you know, poets have other things on their minds than the weather.

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