OVER THE PAST THREE WEEKS I have read and reread Seamus Heaney's new book of poems entitled, with rural appropriatensess, Field Work , under a variety of distinctly urban conditions: on the waiting for subways, buses, and trains, to the harsh music of hi-fi troubadours, but also to the decidedly more pleasant accompaniment of Heaney's own voice taped during a reading at Fordham University in 1975. Whatever the surroundings, each time I found those pleasures peculiar to poetry destined to last: a shift of intonation here, an echo of the tradition subtly transposed there, and everywhere a mastery of form.
And all of this in poetry that pointedly celebrates the sensuous quality of life -- the touch and taste and smell of fields and rivers, the body of earth and the body of woman, the daily rituals of friendship and the abrupt partings of fratricide. During the reading I attended four years ago, Heaney insisted on the simplicity and straightforwardness of his themes and forms (as Frost was vont to do), but no one listening to those poems or reading these could take the disclaimer literally. Like every poet, Heaney is a professional deciver, saying one thing and meaning another, in a tireless effort at rescuing our language from the half-attention we normally accord it. Words matter because they are his matter, and ours, the inescapable medium of exchange between two otherwise isolated sets of experience.
The very first poem in this collection, "Oysters," reveals just how complex Heaney's wordplay can be. It begins with a relished memory of food: Our shells clacked on the plates. My tongue was a filling estuary, My palate hung with starlight; As I tasted the salty Pleiades A lion dipped his foot into the water. The significane of that quiet classical note only becomes clear three stanzas later when these apparently innocent oysters conjure up images of Roman imperialism ("The frond-lipped, brine-stung/ Glut of privilege") which in turn shadows the contemporary celebration of friendship ("And was angry that my trust could not repose/In the clear light"). Is Rome here meant to suggest England, a natural connection for a classically educated Irishman sensitive to the nuances of political and economic subjugation? If so, the poet's ambivalence toward both friend and feast takes on a sharper point, and the poem's final lines provide a fitting preamble for the whole collection: I ate the day Deliberately, that its tang Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.
An ambitious aim for any poet, but what follows does not disappoint. The elegies for relatives and friends cut off by sectarian violence, for example, capture both the absurdity of random killing ("Until your candid forehead stopped/A pointblank teatime bullet") and the individuality of each victim that makes the horror personal ("I loved this whole manner,/ Sure-footed but too sly,/ His deadpan sideling tact,/His fisherman's quick eye/And turned observant back.") The variety and poetic "surefootedness" of these elegies alone would be cause for astonishment. "The Strand at Lough Beg" memorializes a cousin in Miltonic blank verse ("Where you weren't known and far from what you knew") while another ends on a note of remembered celebraton that wraps his now -dead host in the mantle of Sophocles and Horace: "Chorus-leading, splashing out the wine").
This subtle thread of allusion, which weaves its way through so many of these poems, is only one element in Heaney's repertoire, but it quietly announces his claim on the poetic tradition of the West. In his previous collection, North , the Nordic sagas echoed most strongly. It is the south of Europe that permeates Field Work and, not surprisingly, Dante is the dominant presence, not just in the blank verse translation of the Ugolino story that concludes the volume, but more powerfully still in a poem like "An Afterwords." Here the same episode of the Inferno provides the frame for an ironic commentary on the character of poets from their wives' viewpoint: She would plung all poets in the ninth circle And fix them, tooth n skull, tonguing for brain; For backbiting in life she'd make their hell A rabid egotistical daisy-chain.
Heaney follows this introductory, allusion-laden stanza with another characteristic touch, the piling up of vocables. Here they are adjectives ("Unyielding, spurred, ambitious, unblunted,/Lockjawed, mantrapped . . ."); more often they are nouns, and their profusion serves to ground the poetry firmly in plysical reality ("Silos, chill gates, wet slates, the greens and reds/Of outhouse roofs") while also celebrating the poet's dedicaton to the natural music of language: Your voice was a harassed pulpit Leading the melody It kept at bay, It was independent, rattling, non-transcendent Ulster -- old decency And Old Bushmills, soda farls, strong tea New rope, rock salt, kale plants, Potato-bread and Woodbine.
In the "Glanmore Sonnets," which form a centerpiece to this collection, Heaney exploits this music for all its haunting effects. The chill of the unheimlich, so beloved of Freud and the Romantic tradition, is there ("a black rat/Sways on the briar like infected fruit"; "What welters through this dark hush of the crops"?), and so is the familiar litany of names ("Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea"). But my favorite is a sonnet (V) that moves effortlessly back and forth between word shifts and sensual memories. The "boortree" of local dialect is also "our bower as children, a greenish, dank-And snapping memory as I get older." Its correct name, learned later, brings adult association: "Elderberry? It is shires dreaming wine." But the paradisal note lingers on, along with tactile memories that fuse the feel of the trees' "corrugations" with the more intimate game "touching tongues" played around its trunk. So intricate has the pattern become at this point that the poet must be allowed the final word, with its hint of Eden lost and sought again: So, etymologists of roots and graftings, I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.
The temptation to go on quoting great chunks of these poems is almost irresistible, but space is limited and my choices have already scanted several of Heaney's best efforts. Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that this collection put Seamus Heaney in the front ranks of contemporary poets. His "Elegy" for Robert Lowell, for example, mixes admiration and distance in just the right proportions to establish-his own poetic identity without envy or disparagement, just as his poem, "The Skunk," salutes the elder poet's conclusion to Life Studies before going its own way to become a fondly ironic love poem for his wife.