Seamus Heaney died this week: a much loved poet. I have had cause to read a lot of his poetry in recent years, but back in the day, I read only one: “The Milk Factory”.
It was the early 1990s and I was studying Literature. The poem completely stumped me. Not a clue. So, I went to the tutorial and said, “I don’t know what it’s about; I don’t get it,” to which the tutor said, “It’s about a milk factory.”
So, more than twenty years later, I’ll have another wee read of it and see what springs forth.
I think the poem is set outside a milk factory, but with the poet and some others at some distance – on the other side of something – a road, river or something. At the same time as being distant, the people can see right in to the workers. The poem begins:
“Scuts of froth swirled from the discharge pipe
We halted on the other bank and watched”
The first word even stumps me. “Scuts” One definition is to do with wee rabbits’ tails; other definitions are associated with excrement. So, for my own mind’s eye, I’ll go with the rabbits tails as a visual, and take the connotations of the other, which do match with the “discharge pipe”, I suppose.
This sight is clearly worth looking at, as the poet and his company stop. Why “halt” I wonder? And what do they see?
“… milky water run from the pierced side/Of milk itself”
So,, immediately we get a crucifixion image, but instead of blood and water, we have milk and water running down the pierced side – of what? A cow? The factory? And I don’t get how you can pierce the side of milk itself. Is the factory “milk itself”?
This unity of something and milk is then continued in the next line with reference to “the crock of its substance split”. I side-step the lovely onomatopoeia and alliteration and arrive back at a blank space for an object that both contains and is milk.
The next part is clearer, the milk that is spilt goes over the floor, the:
“white limbo floors where shift-workers / Waded round the clock”
“limbo floors” So, from the distance of the onlookers to a sense of unity of the milk with itself and its container, we now have the betwixt and between concept of limbo thrown into the poem. How can a factory have “limbo floors”? I suppose, instead of it being a reference to souls who are neither here nor there, it is the workers who are working around the clock, neither in day nor night. I like the “waded”, giving a sense of their toil and the liquid spilt around them as they work.
Then it goes on:
“And the factory / Kept its distance like a bright-decked star ship”
So, is the factory separate from the whole milk-spilling episode? Or does it happen inside it’s boundaries, but it remains aloof, as far as a factory can? (Is the factory the cow? Am I missing the whole point?)
Certainly Heaney selects a good image for distance – a star ship has to be in orbit, far up and away.
There is then a stanza break and a baffling conclusion:
“There we go, soft-eyed calves of the dew
Astonished and assumed into fluorescence”
So, is Heaney placing the voice of the poem as a cow or a calf watching this? Is the milk factory alien to the calves and yet they eventually get drawn into its light to get the milk taken off?
So, twenty years of poetry analysis later, I still do not know what this poem is about. The Professor’s unhelpful response is still all I have.
It’s about a milk factory.
The only addition I can make is that I think it is about distance, involvement and essence.
But I don’t know why.