by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2006
Reviewed by Matt Soucy
Though Seamus Heaney wrestles on occasion with the American and global political climate in his new book District and Circle, it is apparent to the reader, or any reader of his older work for that matter, that Heaney comes from a very far off place with little identity in the 2006 United States. There is common ground to be found, however, from individual to individual, especially in relation to timeless human experiences like longing and manual labor. From this come the strengths and weaknesses of this set of poems.
The book opens with Heaney’s acknowledgment of his lost world of labor and personal industry. In ‘The Turnip Snedder,’ the world of “bare hands / and cast iron” is mutilated gorgeously into shining pulp. The ensuing poems read like lamentations that are nearly impossible to relate to unless you’re an elderly Irishman; however, the reader is unwittingly transitioned into recognition of the current condition of war and the sad similarities that mark every era. “The Aerodrome” reflects back on a bygone airstrip where once a son and mother waited for a father to come back from war. The poem concludes:
If self is a location, so is love
Bearing taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.
These lines emphasize the role of the individual and individual pressures in the midst of global chaos. Certain human experiences, it seems, are timeless. “Anything Can Happen” takes this from more of a current-events standpoint, referring to 9/11 while comparing such shocking acts to the unexpected wrath of Jupiter, the Atlantic to the River Styx, and the United States to the ruling classes of 2000 years ago.
As the book progresses there is a feeling of being mired in a past that is beautiful, but is certainly being viewed rather than felt. Unfortunately the poem “District and Circle” gives nothing much better than a great book title. Having ridden on District and Circle, I can report that the Underground experience Heaney describes is accurate. The most attractive poems are about working and labor; although the tools and the means have changed, anyone with the stresses and satisfactions of hard labor in their bones will at least be able to sympathize with them. “Sugan,” for example, isn’t quite Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” but validates in the same way:
The fluster of that soft supply and feed -
Hay being coaxed in handfuls from a ruck,
Paid out to be taken in furl and swivel,
Turned and tightened, rickety-rope, to rope -
District and Circle remains knee-deep in reminiscence until the final 20 pages, which start with “The Tollund Man in Springtime.” This poem is the book’s redemption point. Without explanation, it justifies each poem in the book no matter how distant or obscure. It begins:
Into your virtual city I’ll have passed
Unregistered by scans, screens, hidden eyes,
Lapping myself in time, an absorbed face
Coming and going, neither god nor ghost,
Not at odds or at one, but simply lost
The narrator views himself as a man alive in the wrong time, something he describes with both real humor and feelings of tragedy. He associates himself more with the earth than with modern day society and lets the reader know that if he or she can’t get that, they can piss off.
After continued human/nature metaphor and confusion, District and Circle revisits the favored theme of manual labor and the joys and sorrows of lives constricted and defined by work. Finally, it seems that the poet does want to give some credit to the transcendent experience of art and the depth of human life in “The Birch Grove,” “Cavafy,” and the wonderful closer, “The Blackbird of Glanmore.” If the reader is not already familiar with Heaney’s past work, this book will take some effort to love. However, a few close readings and special attention to its half-dozen gems will show the reader a tight, purposeful book of poetry that is as deep as it is sweet.