Monday, April 8, 2013

Mothers, Milk, and Female Imagery in Seamus Heaney's "Churning Day"

For context for this article, the following article may be helpful: To Be a Feminist is to be a Vegan. It explains the premise that this analysis starts from--that is, that the dairy industry and its use of female bodies for profit is a feminist concern. This provides necessary background for my look at the two mothers depicted in Heaney's poem, as well as my effort towards a kinda of vegan criticism.

Churning Day - Seamus Heaney For Jennifer

A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast,
hardened gradually on top of the four crocks
that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.
After the hot brewery of gland, cud and udder
cool porous earthenware fermented the buttermilk
for churning day, when the hooped churn was scoured
with plumping kettles and the busy scrubber
echoed daintily on the seasoned wood.
It stood then, purified, on the flagged kitchen floor.

Out came the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip
of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn.
The staff, like a great whiskey muddler fashioned
in deal wood, was plunged in, the lid fitted.
My mother took first turn, set up rhythms
that slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached.
Hands blistered. Cheeks and clothes were spattered
with flabby milk.

Where finally gold flecks
began to dance. They poured hot water then,
sterilized a birchwood-bowl
and little corrugated butter-spades.
Their short stroke quickened, suddenly
a yellow curd was weighting the churned up white,
heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight
that they fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer,
heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl.

The house would stink long after churning day,
acrid as a sulphur mine. The empty crocks
were ranged along the wall again, the butter
in soft printed slabs was piled on pantry shelves.
And in the house we moved with gravid ease,
our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns,
the plash and gurgle of the sour-breathed milk,
the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.

-----

The predominant image in the poem is of milk, shown in all its stages on the way to becoming butter. From a vegan perspective, or at the least looking at the poem with a view to the animals, human and non-human, depicted therein, milk is necessarily a powerful image. Produced by mammals for the feeding of infants to provide quick development and growth and coming only from female bodies, it is necessarily a feminine image. To divorce it from the idea of motherhood is neither honest nor prudent, especially considering the familial theme of Heaney's poem. The first image presented is of the "hot brewery of gland, cud and udder" (4), which interestingly presents the mother cow which produced the milk more as a machine than as a living being. "Brewery" suggests something intended for consumption, a mechanical way of looking at the situation which is at odds with the organic nature of the rest of the poem. Afterwards, more homey language is used, churns and wood and earthenware which have a more obvious influence of living hands, being "scoured/with plumping kettles and the busy scrubber/echoed" (6-8). This transitions into the presentation of the second mother seen in the poem, which is acknowledged openly as a mother. "My mother took first turn, set up rhythms/that slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached./Hands blistered. Cheeks and clothes were spattered/with flabby milk" (14-17). The image is certainly not pretty, as the amount of effort needed to transform the milk into butter is great.

The final obvious image of motherhood is presented in line thirty-one, which is part of an illustration of the house after churning day, when the butter is stored in the home. Heaney writes, "in the house we moved with gravid ease,/our brained turned crystals full of clean deal churns" (31-32). Gravid is a word meaning pregnant, or carrying young. This connection between churning day and pregnancy may be only a coincidence, the pregnancy being metaphorical, but criticism does not deal in coincidences. The feeling of motherhood, of something impending, and of the brains transformed into receptacles for churns, is a complicated and perhaps baffling image. However, piecing it together in a vegan feminist context makes for an interesting reading of the poem. The milk being taken from the mother and child it would have belonged to without human intervention, the churns nevertheless, with their hollowness and potential for creation, echo back to the womb implied in the word "gravid", as well as the mother cow and the human mother who took another's milk to provide sustenance for her family. This knowledge, or at least unsconscious feeling, of  the feminine aspects of churning butter, the use of female bodies in its production, mixes interestingly with the images in the last stanza of the poem.

"The house would stink," Heaney says, "acrid as a sulphur mine" (27,28).  The butter is in slabs on the shelves; the milk is "sour-breathed", and spades are used to deal out the butter (30,33,34). It is difficult, looking at the other images, not to read a sense of guilt or shame into the tone of the last stanza. While accomplishement flecks the third stanza, the house is left with an unpleasant smell, a reminder of what has happened in this household. It is not the intention of this writer to in any way imply that Heaney's intent in writing this poem was to question or demean the idea of churning butter. However, poems may change in implication with the audience that reads them. As Heaney's poems frequently involve some sense of guilt or shame, whether over violence in the present or in Irish history, this kind of imagery and lingering guilt seems present in this poem when read from a vegan and feminist perspective. I'd like to apologize to my readers if any of this seems stretched or off-base. However, the poem's dual mothers and interesting tone have proven an interesting examination of dairy as a feminist issue, or at least as an issue of the use of female bodies, which is the same thing.

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