A wonderful collection

2008-02-01 00:00

In 1964, Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, wrote in his poem, Digging, of his commitment to the pen rather than to the spade, the tool wielded by his father and grandfather. Despite his choice of the cerebral above the physical, Heaney has always expressed admiration and respect for those with expertise in things manual. In his latest collection, District and Circle, he continues to do so, paying tribute, in carefully wrought work, to individuals who exhibit skill and strength in the handling of their implements.

In other poems and in three short prose pieces, Heaney recalls episodes from his childhood and adolescence in rural Northern Ireland. While there is considerable humour underlying many of these poems, there is also evidence of the tension of being a Catholic on Protestant turf.

Heaney's keen observation of the natural world is frequently apparent, as in The Blackbird of Glanmore, with its reference to the death of his young brother, whom readers will recall as the subject of his moving, early poem, Mid-Term Break.

A considerable number of poems are addressed to, or allude to, fellow poets, who might now be “out of this world”, like Polish Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, but who, in relinquishing it, nevertheless leave it “scored” (Wordsworth's Skates).

At the heart of the collection is Heaney's acute awareness of the threats and dangers of the modern world, particularly post 9/11. It is a world in which “Anything can happen, the tallest towers / Be overturned”. It is a world that Heaney's Tollund Man rejects.

Readers of Heaney will be familiar with his interest in Tollund Man, the fourth century BC figure recovered “unatrophied” from a Danish peat bog in 1950. In his brilliant revisiting of the subject, Heaney writes of a man whose body has been resurrected into an alien world (“your virtual city”) and whose spirit yearns for his own distant age, without “scans, screens, hidden eyes”, the accoutrements of neurosis.

In the title poem, District and Circle, Heaney vividly evokes the London Underground and, being “hurtled forward” on his designated train, he reflects on the brevity and ephemerality of existence.

Heaney's work is, of course, intelligent, humorous, well-wrought and finely tuned and this is a welcome and wonderful collection.

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