GOING UNDERGROUND

District and Circle
, Seamus Heaney
[76pp, 12.99, Hbk, Faber, 2006]


Have you ever read a negative review of anything by Heaney? Anything less than effusive about his poetry, prose or translations? No, nor have I... but here's the whispered punchline: this latest collection is a touch disappointing. Even, dare one say it, a bit derivative and... sharp intake of breath... not as good as his earlier poetry.

There, it's been said. This collection spends much of its time revisiting earlier themes, even poems so well known as to immediately make the reader cry out
no, don't....the Tollund Man, for instance, or agricultural implements, or Anahorish. We are entitled to ask: is there any profit in this?

It will be well-known to regular Heaney aficionados how carefully nourished he has been from his childhood: his autobiographical writings and the endlessly anthologised early work such as 'Digging', 'Death of a Naturalist', 'Mid-Term Break' and 'Personal Helicon' bear witness to this. His rural, sensuous exploration of these areas is firmly embedded in the rich peat of his compound terms and vividly tactile imagery. Once read, for instance, the imagery used to picture the frogspawn in the second poem on this list, for example, or the 'glossy purple clot' of 'Blackberry-Picking' to cite a further instance, never leaves the reader.

There is nothing quite so powerful in this collection and, in my opinion, the more successful pieces are those which tentatively open new ground. In
Electric Light (2001), Heaney gave us eclogues and the electric lightbulb, loyalties and Loyola, and yet several poems seemed most engaged when examining again the furniture of childhood: clotheslines and bookcases, the fields and eels encountered before in his 'Lough Neagh Sequence' from Door into the Dark (1969). We are still in the agricultural parishes of memory and violence, yet several pieces stake out newer territory: the found prose sequence revisits schooldays, the three brief passages vividly recreating a prelapsarian Ireland. It is entirely new-minted and persuasive: a pity Heaney did not continue with it. 'The Aerodrome' and 'Polish Sleepers' hint at wider wartime horrors. 'Edward Thomas on the Lagans Road' is a spectral encounter rather in the Hardy vein, and there is a grim, twinkling awareness of mortality which now shines from some lines in this collection, recalling Hardy in particular.

Auden is another peer mentioned here, as he was in
Electric Light, and some of the occasional tribute poems to other writers (Nerude, Cavafy, Wordsworth) do recall the name-sprinkled light verse of Auden's entertaining, but slight, late period. The title sequence, however, is clearly designed to be another important entry in Heaney's major works: stepping down into the London Underground, with all the Hades-like shadows surrounding it, becomes a ghostly passage into the unknown, past the 'watcher on the tiles', busking, 'along the dreamy ramparts/of escalators', Heaney finds himself with others 'underneath the vault'. He holds on to the 'stubby black roof-wort', hears the ''one-off treble/ of iron on iron' then experiences 'a long centrifugal/ haulage of speed through every dragging socket'; we take leave of the poet speeding around the tube lines, lit by brief shadows. It is a frightening, nightmarish description which somehow recalled Owen's 'Strange Meeting', being similarly inconclusive in style.

In his Nobel lecture of 1995, Heaney says: 'I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous.' This volume, though not a consistent success, does at times make good on that promise. It feels churlish to complain at the over-familiarity of subject-matter when, over the years, it has become quite clear just how much the various early influences mean to Heaney. To conclude on a positive note, 'The Blackbird of Glanmore', the last piece in the volume, dares to revisit one of his most moving early poems, 'Mid-Term Break', and the heartbreaking narrative of the death of his brother. Yet now, Heaney himself, late in his life, internationally respected and lauded with honours, endures a standoff with the bird: 'Hedgehop, I am absolute/for you' he proclaims, yet the poem concludes balanced on a knife-edge of omen and symbolism: 'on the grass when I arrive,// in the ivy when I leave'. This is not a laboured, clever, performance, being a naturally rendered encounter, moving with the precision and inevitability of all those early poems in
Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark. Not all the poems herein are this successful, but to be still writing with this kind of awareness and clarity after all Heaney has achieved is something many writers would envy.

       M.C. Caseley 2006