District and Circle by Seamus Heaney

The bog man cometh (again)
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The Independent Culture

Seamus Heaney begins District and Circle with a flurry of military images. A farmyard implement's parts are likened to a breast-plate and greaves; a sledgehammer-wielding man braces his lower back like "shields in a testudo"; "Anahorish 1944" recalls the US army's arrival in Ireland ahead of D-Day; and the sonnet "Polish Sleepers" touches on the Holocaust ever so lightly, if a little queasily. That this violence and death are never overblown is a mark of the versification's subtlety.

Characteristically, Heaney balances violence with healing. The fifth poem, "To Mick Joyce in Heaven", affectionately recalls a demobbed soldier who served as a stretcher-bearer. The next considers the post-war erasure from the landscape of an aerodrome, while the following poem returns to destruction with a version of Horace echoing the attack on the World Trade Center: "Anything can happen, /the tallest towers / Be overturned." An example of Heaney's care in shaping a book, this strategy replaces surprise with deliberation.

In District and Circle, the literati rub shoulders with the locals, and the dead outnumber the living. Poems remember Czeslaw Milosz, Ted Hughes (remembering T S Eliot!) and George Seferis, the latter "in the Underworld". Translations of Cavafy and Rilke reinforce a subterranean ambit while "A Stove Lid for W H Auden", one of two poems focused on fire, sees the object of the title as a "hell-mouth stopper". If the underground of the book's title poem is another kind of hell, then there must be resurrections. The Iron Age corpse excavated from a peat bog was first considered by Heaney in the 1970s. Revived here, "The Tollund Man in Springtime" is given a voice:

a spade-plate slid and soughed and plied

At my buried ear, and the levered sod

Got lifted up

This is one of several references back. A water-pump in the opening poem returns us to "Sunlight", one of the dedicatory poems of the landmark volume, North (1975), while the little brother so affectingly elegised in "Mid-Term Break", from Heaney's first book, Death of a Naturalist, reappears here in the final poem "Cavorting through the yard, /So glad to see me home". This inter-textuality extends, oddly, to more than one mention of translations Heaney has undertaken. He also draws this volume's four-line epigraph from his 2001 collection, Electric Light, and dramatises the writing of the very poem we are reading: "'To Mick Joyce in Heaven' -/ The title just came to me, /Mick".

This circling back is the other meaning of the collection's title. It signals not only more poems of childhood and home ground but more bookishness. An atmosphere of the study seeps into the work, competing with rather than complementing the mimetic brilliance for which Heaney is justly famous. A tendency that began some 20 years ago with increasingly literary subject-matter, it includes Heaney's fondness for yoking art to his own life: Electric Light, for example, includes "my father did remind me/Of Hopkins's Felix Randal," and "it was there in Olympia [...] That we heard of Sean Brown's murder". In the new book, the poet recommends jam to Pablo Neruda and, having heard of Irish millennium celebrations, quotes George Herbert "And then imagined/Barney putting it to me:/ 'You'll maybe write a poem.'"

Seamus Heaney has been a persuasive spokesman for poetry, and his generosity is evident in his essays as well as in his championing of younger writers like Paul Muldoon, a poet with whom he has little in common. But, translated to poetry, the ambassadorial manner can result in a lack of edge. Compare two of his contemporaries on death and violence. Heaney could never scare us - would not wish to scare us - as Philip Larkin does in "Aubade", a death-fixated-masterpiece. Neither does Heaney offer us the unnerving empathy of Ted Hughes for nature's violence. These are poets with whom we can argue; their poetry is powerfully unreasonable, affronting us in a way Heaney's never does. His is an aesthetic of plenty, of consolation rather than goad; its uplift does not acknowledge the early-hours-of-the-morning fear, the thoughts of jumping.

Published 40 years after Seamus Heaney's debut, District and Circle is a solid achievement by a poet who remains one of the finest writing in English today. But it is nothing like as immediate as his earlier work, and perhaps we should not expect it to be. On the other hand, W B Yeats, the poet with whom Seamus Heaney has been casually compared, enjoyed a late flowering. Why shouldn't Heaney?

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