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District and Circle
Seamus Heaney

Tom Chivers
posted 9 May 2006

The title of Seamus Heaney's latest collection, District and Circle, is a real coup, and typical of a poet whose language is always packed to bursting point with metaphor and suggestion. It also offers - like Door into the Dark, The Spirit Level and Opened Ground before it - a way into his oeuvre, a torch to guide us through forty years of sustained activity.

From the publication of his very first book in 1966, Heaney's work has been rooted in the geographical and temporal 'district' of his childhood growing up on a farm in Derry. Even now he returns to it, through the visceral language of 'The Turnip-Snedder' and 'The Nod'. But these kinds of poem are always more than just personal recollections; their pull is universal. Everything in Heaney's poetry - from turnips to departed friends - takes its place in a worldview in which the acts of nature and of man repeat themselves endlessly… and that's the 'circle'.

The principle narrative vehicle in much of District and Circle is myth. But whilst in his previous collection, Electric Light, Heaney wears his learning rather awkwardly, here he's found a means of reconciling the classical allusions and nods to his peers with the muscular sound-language that's become his trademark. This is particularly true of the title poem, in which the narrator descends from street-level into a terrifying - but recognisable - vision of the London Underground, a modern Hades complete with the dead ('A crowd half straggle-ravelled and half strung'), a ferry ('the now-or-never whelm / Of one and all the full length of the train') and instruments of torture ('strap-hanging, / My lofted arm a-swivel like a flail'). And like Virgil's Aeneas, Heaney encounters his dead father, a reflection in the 'mirror-backed' window of the tube carriage:

My father's glazed face in my own waning
And craning …

This is the work of a poet entering his later years, and in some poems reaching back to the past to ground himself. The sequence 'Senior Infants' is concerned with Heaney's early childhood in Derry: bumping into an old school friend; tasting the 'forbidden man-fruit' of chewing tobacco for the first time; recollections of Tommy Evans' 'air-gun […] my envy of the polished hardwood stock'. But this is more than just nostalgia. There's a nagging sense of unease to it all, that this process of remembering merely reinforces the certainties of mortality. In a brace of poems, 'Home Help', the speaker cares for two elderly women. In one the patient is 'heavy, helpless', her 'hurting bulk' lugged upstairs every night like a piece of meat. The other is more upbeat, the patient dignified and 'with tuck and tightening of blouse […] young / Again'. There's even a typically Heaney conclusion: faced with the inevitable, language is shown to be inadequate.

Her quick step; her dry hand; all things well-sped;
Her open and closed relations with earth's work;
And everything passed on without a word.

Well-crafted stuff, but hardly original within his repertoire. 'The Blackbird of Glanmore' (Heaney's own favourite in this book) is more powerful, and one of few poems to choose economy of expression over the dense, alliterative style. We watch a blackbird on the grass, the speaker recalling a line of poetry and then his dead brother before the bird startles off at the sound of a car door. Many readers will recognise the allusion to 'Mid-Term Break', but that's not essential. This is what Heaney does so well: a fleeting moment recalled, captured and made luminous. There's no need to raid the word-hoard here. The language is restrained, leaving space to breathe.

I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: 'I want away
To the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.'

For similar reasons I enjoy his two translations of Rilke, a poet who like Heaney found stimulus from looking back. 'After the Fire' is a particularly fine assertion of the writer's vocation. The remains of a house wrecked by fire are used as a playground for youths until 'the son of the place' appears and recovers 'an out-of-shape old can or kettle' from the ashes '[t]o make them realise what had stood so'.

For now that it was gone, it all seemed
Far stranger: more fantastical than Pharaoh.
And he was changed: a foreigner among them.

With such a powerful affirmation of the poet's role within a society from which s/he is necessarily detached, one might expect this collection to mark a return to the kind of political engagement of North (1975). Indeed, if there's anything in this collection that critics will talk about, it's that Heaney confronts the dual threats of terrorism and global warming that dominate current headlines. You could build an industry on the debate about 'political Heaney', but in reality poems such as 'In Iowa', 'Höfn' and 'Anything Can Happen' show little change: when he approaches contemporary topics, he does so obliquely and through metaphor. In 'Anything Can Happen' an allusion to 9/11 - 'the tallest towers // Be overturned' - is slipped into a loose translation of Horace, whilst the title poem evokes powerful memories for Londoners. It may not be enough for some, but then Heaney has never been that kind of political poet.

This collection will appeal to those familiar with Heaney's back catalogue but may disappoint if you're after something new, although it does include some decent prose poems. There is much revisiting of old material (bogs, agricultural equipment, childhood) and Heaney is still using the same verbal mannerisms that first made his name forty years ago. There are certainly a few outstanding poems - and I'd recommend the book on these alone - but District and Circle shows all too often an accomplished poet working well within his comfort zone.


Tom Chivers promotes contemporary poetry through live events, projects and publications and broadcasts London's only dedicated poetry show on Resonance FM. His own first collection of poems is forthcoming in 2007.

 

 
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