Heaney's new poems touch on the past

The Nobel laureate's 12th book is full of craftsmanship and scope, but it also feels like familiar terrain.

Readers have certain expectations of a poet like Seamus Heaney: They want superb craftsmanship, a broad scope to the work, and that indefinable something that makes the writing not just excellent but essential.

With District and Circle, Heaney's 12th book of poems, both the craftsmanship and the scope are present. In fact, the two are so intertwined that one could not exist without the other.

Those who know the poet's work won't be surprised to see this marriage continue. (It's one reason why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and is often compared to William Butler Yeats.) Beginning with the opening poem, Heaney pairs a familiar device – fusing and layering words together – with a glance toward the past, in this case via a farm tool.

The result is a "look" back that involves both the eye and the ear:

The Turnip-Snedder

In an age of bare hands

and cast iron,

the clamp-on meat-mincer,

the double flywheeled water-pump,

it dug its heels in among wooden tubs

and troughs of slops,

hotter than body heat

in summertime, cold in winter....

These lines help the reader connect with an earlier time, which becomes a touchstone, a gateway for the poet to explore the present. A few stanzas later, he hints at how one era informs another:

"This is the way that God sees life,"

it said, "from seedling-braird to snedder,

as the handle turned

and turnip-heads were let fall and fed

to the juiced-up inner blades,

"This is the turnip-cycle,"

as it dropped its raw sliced mess,

bucketful by glistering bucketful.

The starkness here colors many pages, even when the poet considers other forms of craftsmanship – sleeping cars, trowels, a firefighter's hat – things that often make people feel more grounded.

But those feelings don't last long, if at all, and modern-day anxieties – about environmental changes, isolation, lack of safety – surface again and again.

That is especially true in the title poem, one of the strongest in the book, where Heaney conveys the vulnerability he feels when entering the underground:

District and Circle

Tunes from a tin whistle underground

Curled up a corridor I'd be walking down

To where I knew I was always going to find

My watcher on the tiles, cap by his side,

His fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me

In an unaccusing look I'd not avoid....

The cloud of unease never totally lifts, even when the encounter ends:

As the music larked and capered

I'd trigger and untrigger a hot coin

Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered

For was our traffic not in recognition?

Accorded passage, I would re-pocket and nod,

And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.

This underlying tension, a sense of what might happen at any time, gives the book much of its thrust. Heaney's poem about 9/11 is aptly named "Anything Can Happen."

Yet "Anything" also illustrates how an overreliance on craftsmanship or the past can limit a writer. Readers would expect Heaney to say something profound about terrorism. Yet instead he leans on Horace's "Odes" and mythology, making the god Jupiter as responsible for the tragedy as terrorists.

That kind of artistry can easily fall flat, as do the prose poems in the collection – or "Found Prose" as they are called.

Here, Heaney looks at his own experience, but never goes beyond reporting the facts. The passages are dry, and the reader keeps waiting for something more – some insight or emotion that isn't being shared.

That expectation isn't met in other poems either, since Heaney prefers to take the long view. He raises moral questions and addresses other great artists, such as Rilke, Hughes, and Auden, rather than putting himself on the page.

This is not to suggest that personal revelation is the only way to make poems moving. But even the best writers must break new ground and push beyond what they've done before. "District and Circle" feels more like familiar terrain.

The closing poem, "The Blackbird of Glanmore," is more personal, without sacrificing control or artistry. And the past, as always, informs the poem.

Yet there is also a looseness, and a warmth toward the bird, which represents both loss and hope.

"It's you, blackbird, I love," Heaney writes. May his next book continue further down that path.

Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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