I like to bake. They say, nowadays, that commercial flour is so fine that there’s no longer any need to sift it like we were taught to do. Nonetheless, I sift on. I like the ritual of sifting. Watching the tiny, milled particles separate and drift, being left with a fine dusting on the work surface like the halo around a full moon on a frosty night. For, no matter how neat and careful you are about sifting, you’ll always get flour on your kitchen work surface. Then there’s the satisfaction of sifting sugar and being left with tiny lumps at the bottom of the sieve. I usually speed their journey through with the back of a spoon, sometimes with my thumb, or (if I am being cavalier with the recipe) I might tip the sugary pebbles back into a sugar bowl; they’ll do for a cup of tea later. The messiest, but surely the most satisfying, is sifting icing sugar: the pretty, fine, snowy dust that suddenly elevates your sponge cake and brownies to ‘look-at-me’ status. It’s the baking equivalent of fastening a Graff necklace around the neck of the gown wearing Oscar night nominee: the finishing touch.

Then there’s sifting what we see, what we hear, what we feel – everything that our senses take in. Just like baking, sifting through what we sponge up in the course of a day takes time. Sifting for writing needs care, attention, thought and a bit of foraging for the ingredients. I try to be a wide and varied sifter: conversations, shop signs, snippets of a text message, spray painted snarls on a gable wall, other people’s poems. Shreds, shards, phrases and words get collected from different places, all to be turned out at the end of the day, like the pockets of an eight year old after day trip to the seaside. In that pocket, you might find anything: a button, a piece of seaglass, a bottle cap, sand, a football card, a stone, a pound coin, a mermaid’s purse, a plastic bead, an end of frayed rope, a wrapperless sweet, partially sucked so it’s now stuck fast to the inside of the pocket. That’s how full and rich and varied and messy our minds when we delve in. And if your life is a bobsleigh ride, then all this sifting will happen without you, when you sleep.

 As a poetic man once wrote to tell me, “Night poetry is different from day poetry: one is illuminated from the outside, the other from the inside.” During the day, what goes on in the city streets, or country lanes, or suburban cul-de-sacs is illuminating, no matter how ordinary. Then in the quiet, dark, sleepy place of night, we sift without knowing it: those dropping off and waking up moments of pure clarity when thoughts slip like caster sugar through tiny holes of a sieve.

Life is made up of tiny, precious moments that can so easily pass us by if we forget to stop and notice and sift. Take an old woman baking scones in the afternoon, just as she has done for years. It is ordinary, everyday, mechanical, domestic and, if you are Seamus Heaney, it is magical, it is poetry.

From Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication, by Seamus Heaney

  1. Sunlight (for Mary Heaney)

There was a sunlit absence.

The helmeted pump in the yard

heated its iron,

water honeyed


in the slung bucket

and the sun stood

like a griddle cooling

against the wall


of each long afternoon.

So, her hands scuffled

over the bakeboard,

the reddening stove


sent its plaque of heat

against her where she stood

in a floury apron

by the window.


Now she dusts the board

with a goose’s wing,

now sits, broad-lapped,

with whitened nails


and measling shins:

here is a space

again, the scone rising

to the tick of two clocks.


And here is love

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin.

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