Eelworks

by Seamus Heaney
from Times Online

i

To win the hand of the princess
what tasks the youngest son
had to perform.

For me, the first to come a-courting
in the fish factor’s house,
it was to eat with them

an eel supper.

ii

Cut of diesel oil in evening air,
tractor engines in the clinker-built
deep-bellied boats,

landlubbers’ craft,
heavy in water
as a cow down in a drain,

the men straight-backed,
standing firm
at stern and bow –

horse and cart men, really,
glad when the adze-dressed keel
cleaved to the mud.

Rum and peppermint men too
at the counter later on
in her father’s pub.

iii

That skin Alfie Kirkwood wore
at school, sweaty-lustrous, supple

and bisected into tails
for the tying of itself around itself –

for strength, according to Alfie.
Who would ease his lapped wrist

from the flap-mouthed cuff
of a jerkin rank with eel oil,

the abounding reek of it
among our summer desks

my first encounter with the up close
that had to be put up with.

iv

Sweaty-lustrous too
the butt of the freckled
elderberry shoot

I made a rod of,
a-fluster when I felt
not tugging but a trailing

on the line, not the utter
flip-stream frolic-fish
but a foot-long

slither of a fellow,
a young eel, greasy grey
and rightly wriggle-spined,

not yet the blueback
slick-backed waterwork
I’d live to reckon with,

my old familiar
pearl-purl
selkie-streaker.

v

“That tree,” said Walter de la Mare
(summer in his rare, recorded voice
so I could imagine

a lawn beyond French windows
and downs in the middle distance)
“That tree, saw it once

struck by lightning . . . The bark –”
in his accent ba-aak –
“the bark came off it

like a girl taking off her petticoat.”
White linen éblouissante
in a breath of air,

sylph-flash made flesh,
eelwork, sea-salt and dish cloth
getting a first hold,

then purchase for the thumb nail
and the thumb
under a v-nick in the neck,

the skinpeel drawing down
like a silk stocking
at a practised touch.

vi

On the hoarding and the signposts
“Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative”,

but ever on our lips and at the weir
“the eelworks”.

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