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Notes From Underground

The volume's linchpin and masterpiece is the title sequence, an eerie, halting descent into the London Underground where icons from Greek myth and Dante's "Inferno" hold vigil over the speaker as he tallies his allegiances, fears and betrayals. The poem begins swiftly -- a tin whistle signals his anxious entrance into the Underground station, where a conspicuously unnamed "watcher" awaits:

As the music larked and capered

I'd trigger and untrigger a hot coin

Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered

For was our traffic not in recognition?

Accorded passage, I would re-pocket and nod,

And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.

With its mute tension, its air of shrewd conspiracy and its allusions to covert violence ("Digging" also begins with a reference to a handgun), this early passage lends the poem the same personal and political urgency that Heaney has masterfully balanced throughout his career. In the thrilling final stanza, the train, packed with clamoring passengers, shudders into movement and plunges into the tunnel's darkness:

And so by night and day to be transported

Through galleried earth with them, the only relict

Of all that I belonged to, hurtled forward,

Reflecting in a window mirror-backed

By blasted weeping rock-walls.

Flicker-lit.

If literary history (and its brutal instrument, the anthology) preserves only this poem from so impressive a volume, it will be enough to remind us why Heaney remains such a celebrated poet, why many place him firmly among the best of the 20th century and why his work continues to be worth rereading long after it has, in his words,"set the darkness echoing" behind it. ยท

Anthony Cuda teaches at Emory University and reviews modern poetry for the New Criterion, American Book Review and FIELD: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.


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