Notes From Underground
In his exhilarating 12th book, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney returns to the poetry of memory and work.

Reviewed by Anthony Cuda
Sunday, April 16, 2006

DISTRICT AND CIRCLE

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar Straus Giroux. 78 pp. $20

It was in "Digging"-- that much-anthologized lyric from his remarkably confident first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966) -- that the future Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney first caught the timbre of his own unique music. With an ear tuned to the "squelch and slap/Of soggy peat" and an eye focused on the rough-edged and rustic figures that loomed over his youth in rural Ireland, he struck something solid, and the clear ring of his spade against it soon became his celebrated, signature sound: dense clusters of consonants, athletic jumps and jolts, a delight in verbal heft and clang. Heaney's themes deepened in the following years, but the expansion of his imaginative scope brought with it a thinning of his verbal density. Now, five years since his last volume and 40 since "Digging," Heaney returns to the rag-and-bone shop of his earliest creative stirrings with District and Circle . The result is a book as original, startling and aesthetically compelling as any since his magisterial 1984 sequence, Station Island .

With its coiled, stubborn intensity, Heaney's early work recalled Robert Lowell's first breathtaking volumes, which (as Randall Jarrell memorably put it) seemed to "come from a man clenching every muscle, grinding his teeth together till his shut eyes ache." These new poems, however, show that Heaney can sustain such high-pressure linguistic torque alongside moments of exhilarating release. Take, for instance, the early lines in "A Shiver," which muster their alliterative, verbal energy as the speaker heaves a sledgehammer (instead of a spade), his "lower back shock-fast," his "spine and waist/A pivot for the tight-braced, tilting rib-cage." "Does it do you good," he asks knowingly before letting the hammer fall:

To have known it in your bones, directable,

Withholdable at will,

A first blow that could make air of a wall,

A last one so unanswerably landed

The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?

The difference between the violence of the first swing and the precision of the last, we might say, comes only from a lifetime of wrestling language into the exact grooves of poetic form. And that last line -- its bounding energy suddenly leveling out into an even, metrical assurance -- is Heaney at his best: delayed, unexpected, unanswerable.

Longtime readers of Heaney will be delighted to discover this volume bustling with such impressive moments of creative resurgence. We find them in his somber, Miltonic elegies for Pablo Neruda and Czeslaw Milosz; in his classical ode to a panicky blackbird at Glanmore; and in "The Tollund Man in Springtime," which exhumes the prophetic corpse from his well-known bog poems in North (1975). Like Lowell in his later years, Heaney has gravitated toward the sonnet as his most frequent form. And though his slant rhymes and strong caesuras fit it well, I wonder at times if the tighter couplets and shorter lines he uses elsewhere might not better balance his throbbing, powerful cadences.

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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