District and Circle
Seamus Heaney’s reputation as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats has been based not only on his beautifully crafted, richly textured language but also on his ability to be true to the difficult times in which he has lived. As a Catholic who grew up in Northern Ireland, he often found himself as the poet with nationalist sensibilities to whom readers turned for a poetic witness to “The Troubles.” In District and Circle, Heaney pays passing tribute to the world’s difficult times, but mainly he pays tribute to poetry’s ability to give pleasure simply because of its sentence shape, its metrical complexity, and its evocation of small pleasures and losses rather than bloody, international miseries.
In his poem “Anything Can Happen,” based on Horace’s Odes (23 b.c.e., 13 b.c.e.), Heaney writes about the mythic Roman world in which Jupiter tosses lightning from his galloping thunder cart. He notes also that “the tallest towers” can be “overturned, those in high places daunted,/ Those overlooked regarded.” It would be difficult not to recognize why Heaney selected Ode 34 rather than another Horacian ode for his poem base: Clearly reference is being made to the World Trade Center and the start of the war on terror.
Though he recognizes that “anything can happen” in the political realm, in this volume Heaney is more interested in the possibilities afforded by memory, by elegy, and by art than by the struggles of politics. In the first poem in the collection, Heaney resurrects the turnip-snedder, an archaic farm instrument, and describes a violent realm where “turnip-heads were let fall and fed/ to the juiced-up inner blades” of the shredder that “dropped its raw sliced mess,/ bucketful by glistering bucketful.” In earlier poems, Heaney might have spoken about human heads meeting blades and the mess of that, but here in District and Circle, turnips replace people in the sacrifice.
In “A Clip,” another poem of memory, there is nothing more violent than hair being cut. Heaney, however, as is typical, invests the simple scene with the air of surprise: He remarks on “the plain mysteriousness/ Of your sheeted self inside that neck-tied cope/ Half sleeveless surplice, half hoodless Ku Klux cape.” The blood rites of religious and racist practices here are used to help convey the air of the unfamiliar, a child’s sense of confused wonder at the one-room, one-chimney house that served as his “first barber shop.” The poem ends not with any great revelation or cosmic happening, but simply the eerie image of “Loose hair in windfalls blown across the floor/ Under the collie’s nose. The collie’s stare.” It is beautiful.
Heaney can use poetry to evoke a scene, but he also can use the scene to express regret, as he does in “Chairing Mary,” part 2 of a poem called “Home Help.” The home help he refers to here is helping to get the handicapped, “helpless” Mary, who is confined to a chairnot metal but made of “braced timber”up the stairs every night. The woman is heavy, described as a “hurting bulk,” and the two needed to lift her struggle with the chairing choir. However, Heaney does not speak of the miseries of the lifting alone, but rather of the regret he feels now: “I think of her warm brow we might have once/ Bent to and kissed before we kissed it cold.” This is a poem that leans toward the sentimental, but any poet unwilling to risk sentimentality will inevitably end up cold and aloofnot Heaney who is warm-blooded, nonironic, a chronicler with a heart.
Heaney is not one to shy away from the mischievous, the seemingly puerile, or the mildly funny. He recollects that nearly universal phenomenon, the first experiment with tobacco, in a light poem called “A Chow.” It begins in a comic manner with Heaney, or the speaker, “staring at the freshly scratched initials/ Of Robert Donnelly in the sandstone coping/ Of Anahorish Bridge, with Robert Donnelly/ Beside me. . . .” Though poets often search for ways to avoid repeating words, “Robert Donnelly” is an...
(The entire section is 1708 words.)