Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun,
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
S1 and S2 …His father was skilled at the use of the spade in the garden. SH compares his poetic skill in contrast … and he fires away in the opening lines – snug as a gun. At the same time he can watch the work of his Father from the window. He incorporates this distraction into words … it is as though Father and Son are working together each dedicated and focused.
S3 and S4 … However, when his straining rump comes up twenty years away there is indication that this is a reflection … so the words may not be coming directly from his seated position looking out the window as his Dad works but from memory. And the picking of the potatoes – to scatter new potatoes that we picked … perhaps he is recalling when as a child he helped in the garden. (The lug is the shoulder of a spade)
What is clear is the digging skill of his Father and Grand-father. And emphasied by the two lines and exclamation in stanza five.
S6 and S7… And in comparison with others his Dad was quite a champion at digging and when interrupted and given a drink he is quick to take up work again … a momentary break – as indicated by the break between stanzas six and seven. Repetion gives emphasis to his focus on digging.
S8 … The next stanza gives sensual feeling to this family digging work, both smell and sound. Digging goes deep into family history connecting the two with his words – the curt cuts of an edge through living roots. But this type of work is not for SH.
S9 … A repeat of words from S1 – the squat pen rests. Squat gives weight to his implement to contrast with the spade where the foot is replaced by the finger. Seamous Heaney was as dedicated to poetry as his past family were to digging. Poetry was a new branch to the family tree. And of course he truly becme a well-respected champion at his art.
In this poem SH states his calling and gives emphasis that he is taking a different path from previous generations, and perhaps the expectation of family. He solidly makes known his calling with this wonderful example of his poetic skill.
It is great if a person knows what they should be doing in life and follows it even though it might be very different and against tradition and against family opposition.