With the publication of STATION ISLAND in 1985, Seamus Heaney was hailed by many critics as one of the masters of contemporary poetry. THE HAW LANTERN will neither disappoint his admirers nor persuade the unconverted. For the most part, this is not a book of new departures, although in one group of poems (“From the Frontier of Writing,” “From the Republic of Conscience,” “From the Land of the Unspoken,” “From the Canton of Expectation”) Heaney experiments with a form which he has not used much before: the allegory or parable, in which specificity of reference is sacrificed for suggestive range. There are some very strong poems here (among them “Alphabets” and the brief title poem) and some very weak ones as well--most notably “The Summer of Lost Rachel,” about the death of a girl, a poem which handles its treacherous subject with an embarrassing unsureness of tone.
At the center of the book is “Clearances,” a sequence of eight sonnets in memory of the poet’s mother, who died in 1984. Here, in contrast to “The Summer of Lost Rachel,” Heaney channels powerful emotions into memorable verse, never cloying but deeply moving in its encounter with death. In this sequence, and throughout the book, one senses a tension in Heaney: an ambivalence in his relation to the Catholicism in which he was reared (and, more fundamentally, to Christianity itself.) Implicitly he seems to reject the faith; sonnet 3 of “The Clearances,” for example, notes that while the parish priest at Heaney’s mother’s bedside “Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying/And some were responding and some crying,” Heaney himself was recalling the times when, as a boy, with “all the others ... away at Mass,” he and his mother peeled potatoes: “Never closer the whole rest of our lives.” Yet poem after poem echoes biblical language, biblical locutions--not for the sake of allusiveness, but with an undercurrent of yearning, a desire to believe, which the poet is unwilling to confront directly.