Strolling Through Hell At a Distance

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The New York Sun

Seamus Heaney’s latest collection, “District and Circle” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 78 pages, $20), is extraordinary. From first poem to last, the poet follows a trail of confusion and uncertainty to a final vision of renewal, love, and childlike awe at the world, an arc that mimics “The Divine Comedy.” Dante took longer to work his wonder, yet Mr. Heaney’s work doesn’t suffer because it was done in 78 pages.

The use of Dante’s structural approach is as common among poets and novelists as political and religious murder used to be in Mr. Heaney’s Northern Ireland, where he refused to use his work as a sounding board for his Catholic side. Forty years after his first book, this is among the best.

Mr. Heaney uses many subjects to make the trip from hell to paradise: personal and family reminiscence; nature; farmers, laborers, and other workers; contemporary life and technology; war and war poets; other poets; writing and the consciousness of words’ unbridgeable remove from reality. The despair preceding paradise in the first four-fifths of “District and Circle” has flashes of goodness.

The first poem, “The Turnip-Snedder,” about that unglamorous vegetable, works well; its praise of “bare hands / and cast iron” is a blow against the modernity the poet will defy. The realm of recollection frequently takes the form here of prose poems. In one on Mr. Heaney’s childhood classroom, he “heard … voices laughing and calling”; another is about a circus visit, with its band of traveling Gypsies, about whom there was “always a feeling they were coming in to you out of story-time.” Mr. Heaney writes positive lines on nature in “The Tollund Man in Springtime,” whose speaker says, “the meadow hay / still buttercupped and daisied, sky was new,” yet this feeling is undercut by “exhaust fumes” from “transatlantic flights.” “Home Help,” a perfect sequence about lady workers near the end of the collection, has nothing in the way of second thoughts: “Her oatmeal tweed / With pinpoints of red haw and yellow whin, / Its threadbare workadayness hard and common; / Her quick step; her dry hand; all things well-sped; / Her open and closed relations with earth’s work.”

War is a big theme during our hell stroll, so it is apt that military images (“armor,” “standing guard”) appear in “The Turnip-Snedder,” even though it is not a poem about war. The fourth poem, “Anahorish 1944,” is spoken by a worker killing pigs at a slaughterhouse who sees American forces in their “armored cars” tossing the workers “gum and tubes of colored sweets.” “Unknown, unnamed,” the soldiers are, but their fates may be like those of the pigs.

“The Aerodrome” recounts an Easter Monday 1944 trip – Mr. Heaney was born in 1939 – to a fairground taken over by the army: “No catchpenny stalls for us.” His mother’s hand reaches down to “tighten around mine,” but love, at this point, is limited to “options,” “distance,” “dug heels,” “obstinacies,” a “stance.” Mr. Heaney writes, “we were somewhere else,” “waiting by the perimeter,” and the position on the bit of land he’s standing on isn’t all he is referring to. He is hinting about his never having fought in war, his not staying in Ireland all through the Troubles. “Nothing resettles right,” “anything can happen,” Mr. Heaney writes in the next poem, about September 11, 2001. Even Boston fireman Bobby Breen’s helmet, once presented to Mr. Heaney as a gift, becomes ammunition for self-recrimination at staying distant – not just from the many house fires Breen regularly put out (the next poem is titled “After the Fire”), but for the poet’s distance from war’s real blood: “As if I were up to it, as if I had / Served time under it.” In “One Christmas Day in the Morning,” a prose memory, Mr. Heaney writes, “I was blabbing on about guns, how they weren’t a Catholic thing”; here there is also self-critical hint that no one should make generalizations about Catholics or guns who is himself so distant from the experience of firing.

In a recollection during wartime (“The Nod”) of Mr. Heaney’s dad “shelling out” for beef at a butcher, it’s his neighbors, not he, who have “guns, parading up and down.” The parcel “wrapped up … bow-tied neat and clean,” seeping blood, could be read as a criticism of Mr. Heaney’s poetry, so beautiful, so un-messy, so removed from war’s horrors, but seeping harmless blood long after the unwatched, gruesome butchering is done. Even a hopeful poem about a river near the book’s end contains suggestions of self blame: “Step into her for me / some fresh faced afternoon.” I can’t help but see this as a way of highlighting Mr. Heaney’s necessary, heartbreaking removal from even the loveliest of rivers he must ask others to wade into instead of himself, because of the way he insists, and has insisted through his work, his remaining on the sidelines.

The notion of others enacting deeds for Mr. Heaney is related to the idea of actions occurring elsewhere. “The loss occurred off stage,” Mr. Heaney writes in “Out of This World,” and this kind of pain is connected to “Harry Boyle’s one-room, one chimney house” that was “our first barber shop,” in “A Clip.” But Harry’s place was home to something else, something unknown, maybe terrible. For all the secrets, remembrances with all the details intact abound. In “The Lift,” after a funeral takes place on the most beautiful of spring days, the poet recalls:

I remembered her aghast,
Foetal, shaking, sweating, shrunk, wet-haired,
A beaten breath, a misting mask, the flash
Of one wild glance, like ghost surveillance.

And, later in this poem, Mr. Heaney describes “Children’s deaths in snowdrops and the may, // Whole requiems at the sight of plants and gardens…”

Our journey through the inferno – including the fires Mr. Heaney never doused; being war’s reporter, not participant; reviver of a woman’s horrific death; teller of unknowns weighing someone down like a penance – wouldn’t be the same without a trip on the London Underground. Mr. Heaney’s nightmare image of modernity at its worst, in the five-page title poem, has not just crowds, noise, jerking stops and starts, strange music, but also “my watcher on the tiles … I was always going to find,” a beggar, whose “un accusing look” is easy to deal with next to the subway’s mobbed but lonely “centrifugal / haulage of speed through every dragging socket.” The next poem is the brilliantly placed “To George Seferis in the Underworld.” This one mentions the tyrant Herod and “his ilk.”

I can only quote a few lines of “Planting the Alder,” close to the end, but the nature Mr. Heaney now honors is done without reserve:

For the alder-wood, flame-red when torn
Branch from branch.
But mostly for the swinging locks
Of yellow catkins,
Plant it, plant it,
Steel-head in the rain.

When a positive sense of love returns, it is all the more powerful because it is in a poem so stripped of the words that used to make Mr. Heaney fret and second-guess everything. Here’s “A Hagging Match” in its entirety:

Axe-thumps outside
like wave-hits through
a night ferry:
whom I cleave to, hew to,
splitting firewood.

The fact that the bird of the last poem, “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” “cavorting through the yard, / So glad to see me home,” has arrived following so much awfulness is enough to break your heart. And when Mr. Heaney in that same poem uses some cliched poetic language – “It’s you, blackbird, I love” – it works because we know what he’s been through. If that line had been placed in the beginning, many readers would have thought the poet had lost his bearings. After the trials, including the wish to use others’ words, this too almost brings a tear to your eye.

Mr. Richman last wrote for these pages about the wine importer Kermit Lynch.

The New York Sun

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