Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle consists primarily of lyric verse composed in a variety of forms. Most notably, Heaney returns to and elaborates upon many themes that have remained central to his poetic vision. Some poems in this volume—including “Anahorish 1944,” “The Tollund Man In Springtime,” and “The Blackbird of Glanmore”—directly reference earlier works. Other poems in District and Circle contain more subtle resonances with earlier poems. District and Circle’s “The Harrow-Pin,” with the lines “Horses’ collars lined with sweat-veined ticking,/ Old cobwebbed reins and hames and eye-patched winkers,/ The tackle of the mighty, simple dead,” calls to mind the opening lines of “Gone” from the 1969 collection Door Into the Dark: “Green froth that lathered each end/ Of the shining bit/ Is a cobweb of grass-dust.”
In 2007, the book won the Poetry Book Society’s T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. Reviewers and readers have hailed the book as a touchstone volume.
The book’s title words, “district” and “circle,” function both as nouns and verbs. On the one hand, a district can refer to a particular place or area, a space with clear parameters or unique jurisdictions. A circle is a distinctive shape as well as a group of acquaintances or intimates (for example, a family circle or a circle of friends). Read another way, the terms also convey a sense of action. “District” describes the act of dividing or organizing an area or space into discrete parts, while “circle” evokes a move to return, encompass, surround, or gather around. Taken as verbs, “district” and “circle” are expressed in the present tense, conveying the idea that these acts occur perpetually, without ceasing. “District” and “circle” also refer to lines on the Tube, London’s subway. Significantly, the title poem takes place in London, and others, such as “To George Sefaris in the Underworld” and “Out of This World,” allude to nether realms for which the Tube stations and subway platforms serve merely as earthly imitations.
Parsing the title yields some insight into Heaney’s organization of the volume as a whole and illuminates some of the paradoxes he often describes or suggests in most of the poems, many of which center on a specific memory or the act of remembering. Another device Heaney uses is the juxtaposition of old, sometimes ancient, objects (including words and poems themselves) with contemporary things, people, and events. The book begins with several poems that contemplate implements (a turnip snedder, a sledgehammer, a trowel) and vocations (butchering, masonry) that are rare today. Heaney suggests that a powerful connection exists between these tools and those who use them, reminding readers that such gear is itself the result of craft and handiwork. He makes this point clear in “Poet to Blacksmith,” a translation of an Irish verse in which a poet instructs a blacksmith to fashion a turf-cutter that is “[t]astily finished and trim and right for the hand.” As a result, technology and practiced skill inherently affirm ingenuity and creativity, both of which also serve as equipment for the poet.
Heaney ironically elaborates on the connections between craft, muscle-memory, and poetic work as the volume progresses. In “Anahorish 1944,” for example, the poet describes Irish hog butchers and children watching U.S. soldiers marching on the roads of Northern Ireland en route to their Normandy deployment during World War II. The sight of them with their mass-produced gear, “guns on their shoulders” and accompanied by “[a]rmoured cars and tanks and open jeers,” provides a curious if not jarring contrast to the slaughterhouse awash in “sunlight and gutter-blood” and men in “gloves and aprons coming down the hill.” Heaney juxtaposes the...
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