David Koehn: On Heaney’s “The Turnip-Snedder”

The full text of “The Turnip-Snedder” can be found in the link at the end of this essay.

In my notes on Seamus Heaney’s “The Turnip-Snedder” I need be careful else I’ll turn the discussion into some paltry, gushing commendation. In many ways, the work of poetry—its earliest resonance as art—beyond the gross manipulations of the personal—began for me in college with the reading of Heaney.

Heaney was my earliest teacher on several fronts. Heaney never averted his eye from the work at hand. His rhythms varied between classical and contemporary. The historical moment and the historical aura of all things emanate from the artifacts, the objects, in his poems.

Heaney treated things, everyday things, materiality itself, with a kind of magic that made sense to me. The illumination of objects by Heaney as they are, as they operated in historical context, as they manifest in the present, and as they operate both now and into the future in our language suggested to me the very infinities of writing—and especially the reading of poetry.

Heaney’s objects were also lugubrious words, the clay of language, sometimes arcane, sometimes abstruse, never used haphazardly, always used as appropriate—with care. Sometimes the work of the poem is the work of the hands that is the work of the man. These are just a few of the lessons that deepened my earliest understanding of what a poem could be.

With death of Heaney on on August 31st, 2013 I turned to his work once again, looking for objects to meet my sense of loss and gratitude. Looking for some way to ground my connection to the work of Heaney. For this reason, I turn even now, away from tears, to his work and to the work done, with a lack of sentimentality, in “The Turnip-Snedder.”

The work done by the early imagery in “The Turnip-Snedder” is threefold. The “bare hands” and “cast iron” and “clamp-on meat-mincer” situate the poem in time space—the exact year might not be named but we have a nostalgic image of a rural life primarily driven by the use of iron and manual labor. What was the age of the turnip?

The images at the outset also set in motion the physical cyclicalness of the poem’s motion. The “clamp-on meat-mincer,” driven by its manual gears, grinds and turns. The click of interlocking teeth while the mouth chews the sinew fed to it by hand.

Conversely but in the same action of the poem, the “double flywheeled water pump” has two inter-related pulley-levers—axles, circular levers, that work in union to pull the water from its deep reservoir. What drives the pump? The hands.

What are these early items built of? Iron. In a gyre of iron, water, and meat we get the title image, “turnip snedder” with its “heels” that are “dug” in “among the slops.” This farm is not an anachronism, but is alive with the life of the troughs. Life in the poem is represented by the troughs and by relation the pigs.

The poem, at the end of this third couplet, takes its first departure. From scene, to setting, and now we delve into a characterization of the central object, the “turnip snedder.” Here the mythical qualities of the snedder come to the fore. Inhuman, but somehow magically monstrous—even super-human with its skin “hotter than body heat in summertime” and its samurai armature “cold in winter.”

The personification of the snedder with its “body armor” and “barrel chested chestplate” and its leggings, its “braced greaves” evoke images of some ancient warrior. We anticipate the blades the snedder might unsheath. This soldier in full battle regalia is “standing guard.”

These second sets of three couplets evoke, war, death, protection, and even, in a strange way, calls forth a quality of service provided by the snedder. What does it stand guard against? What does it protect? Who or what does it do battle for or with? Perhaps, the snedder guards itself. Guards its inner cyclical scything. The snedder defends its own role in the life of the turnip.

In the next three couplets, our magical snedder, this not-quite warrior, four-legged cereberus does defend itself—no sword is drawn—the snedder speaks with a voice of God—or at least a voice that speaks for God. By default it is the voice of the process of life—the voice of the process of life by default here—is poetry.

Poetry speaks, the poem speaks for God. Poetry gives voice to what one might think of as the equivalent of the voice of god. A voice rooted if you will in a scything, masticating, turnip snedder. My reading here may suggest a theological viewpoint—I assure, I have no personal viewpoint.

The snedder begins, “This is the way that God sees life.” The snedder takes a priori not only that there is a God, but that God has a perspective, and that perspective has been shared with the snedder—that perspective includes the snedder. That perspective assures the importance of the snedder. For the perspective of God is a view “from seedling-braird to snedder.”

In harvest rotations, turnips precede the planting of barley. Turnips grow best in loam. Brassica rapa, the wild turnip, buds then soon sprouts weed-like upwards in shoots of bright yellow flowers. I want to note Heaney’s use of “braird.”

This Scottish word for “bud” adds a dimension that it is both noun and intransitive verb. So it means to be a bud and it means to cultivate a bud. Root, budding flower, produces a fruit which is the root of the flower. The root is the food. The flower, the visible trifle. As if the poem is the visible trifle and the root of the poem the food.

The iron snedder, with “handle turned” by hands, grinds, like the meat mincer, its meats; its meats being the meat of the turnips. So, the “turnip heads were let fall and fed / to the juiced-up inner blades.” So the living poem is lifted from the loam, the greave lopped off the root.

I also like the idea of “inner blades.” The process is to some degree hidden within the armor of the warrior-protector. Also, how about that casual “juiced-up.” Perhaps water was poured over the blades to keep them grinding? Water from the water pump? More likely the blades are awash in the blood of turnip juice. The snedder continues, adding “this is the turnip cycle.”

What is this turnip cycle? The end of a seasonal harvest? God’s perspective on life equates to food processing? The cycle is seasonal, it is natural, but the harvesting and slicing of the root (not the fruit) is also somehow, if not “natural,” a core part of the process: sprout, flower, harvest, ground for food or seed.

Casually, one might say, the poem, the poet, is lopped off and ground away into sluice. Ahh, but the root, the root dug clean of the loam, the root in the stew, has not served until it is feast, until it is food, until someone is fed.

In the final couplet we get the final turn. The poem’s first three couplets set scene and age and machination. The second three couplets give us the personification of our warrior snedder. The next three couplets give voice to the snedder as a representative of God. And after the snedder speaks we are returned from the holy or other worldly to the very simple nature of the actual—as “it dropped its raw sliced mess, / bucketful by glistering bucketful.”

Slices of turnip, round, and primarily white, have an imagist quality of halos. As if our flowering halos lopped off from our lives set us into a bucket with the halos of others. Is the end of the turnip cycle, but a bucketful of halos? A mess of halos?

And what happens to the bucket when it is full—for the many bucketfuls “glistering.” The buckets are picked up by hand and carried away. Glistering is arachaic—and can easily be misread as “glistening.”

This reading of glister as glisten is not an overly misleading reading, but glister has the added qualities of glint, glitter, and scintillance that glisten lacks. Here the starry quality of the sheen redoubles the heavenly quality of our bucketfuls of halos.

Also, we get the allusion to Shakespeare, the “all that glisters is not gold.” This also undercuts the airy quality of the slices for their quality is that they are turnips, nothing more. The root fruit, a slough food, a more lived luxuriousness and ordinariness than gold might ever suggest.

At the end of the process the spirit of the object is not more or less than the thing itself. In an ontological sense—a human’s soul as processed by the cycle of God’s processes is not better or worse than any other human’s soul. The poem calls forth the snedder to illustrate that the souls of all humans are but an undifferentiated mess. To a God’s eye, how could the field look any other way?

From this inference one must draw larger conclusions about systems of belief that differentiate in ways, to be conservative, that might be unreliable. Who is to say, what thing contains any less of God than anything else? The turnip, a root, a man, his spirit—no gold—the turnip “dropped” from the turnip snedder is a sliced turnip. And it is a beautiful “glistering” thing.

Even in death, we can see in “The Turnip Snedder,” Heaney’s acknowledgement of the equanimity of his soul heightens the depth of our understanding of his rootedness in humanity. My humanity, your humanity, his.

Seamus Heaney’s “The Turnip Snedder” (courtesy of Poetry International)

David Koehn received his MFA from the University of Florida, is a Vice President of Oracle Learn Cloud at the Oracle Corporation, is an Angel investor as part of the Sand Hill Angels, an Account Director at the pro bono volunteer organization Taproot, is an essayist for OmniVerse, and a father of five.

David has published poetry in 60 or so journals including Kenyon Review, Volt, New England Review, Phoebe, New York Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly, Cutbank, McSweeney’s, 32 Poems, Third Coast, Bitter Oleander, Puerto Del Sol, Painted Bride, Rhino, Carolina Quarterly, and many others.

David’s chapbook, Coil, won the University of Alaska’s Permafrost Midnight Sun chapbook contest. David’s prose appears in Jacket, New Hampshire Review, New York Quarterly, and elsewhere. David translates Latin poetry and was awarded a Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Literature and Language Grant to lead a Catullus Translation Workshop/Reading at Hendrix University.

For addtional info: davidkoehn.com