The poem begins with the image of the poet’s pen resting between his fingers. This is not th prelude to a reflection on the difficulty of poetical composition or the artist’s inability to communicate.
The sound of the poet’s father digging in the garden takes the poet back some twenty years: when his father rhythmically dug his potato field and the poet, then a child, used to run and pick fresh potatoes up from the earth. This image from the past evokes another image, of the poet’s grandfather. He too could handle a spade and was the best peat digger on Toner’s bog.
The movements, sounds, smells of the past come alive for the poet. He has no spade though, only his pen. He will dig with that. Pen and spade, in the end, merge into a composite image that unites past and present, father and son, manual and intellectual work.
The poem is built on separate sections which describe different stages in the present and past of the poet. The stanzas are made up of a different number of lines and are written in free verse.
Onomatopoetic words are used, for example: “a clean rasping sound / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground”. The ”living roots” are both real and symbolic of the poet’s own roots: his family and Ireland.
The man who died was an acquaintance of the poet’s, who admired him for his quiet simple ways.
the poem’s description of the man makes a typical Irishman come wonderfully alive. His life is told in short lines of great compactness. He probably is a fisherman and he seems to have been a solitary, silent man, who spent most of his day in a pub drinking by himself.
The language of the poem is not easy. It is full of compressed colloquial or everyday phrases.
The poet and the man had no real common interest but they shared the same world. Theirs was a quiet friendship. The man was shot three nights after thirteen Catholics were killed in Londonderry, near Befast. The graffiti on the walls recorded this in the form of a football match score: “Paras Thirteen […] Bogside nil”. The poem exposes the hatred and violence of the troubles in all their cruelty and stupidity. To these the poet opposes the compassion of the last three lines. They read like an epitaph to a simple man who is never mentioned by name in the poem. He becomes a sort of Everyman, a universal representative of the tragedy of Northern Ireland, where the death of a man is registered as just another casualty.