District and Circle

by Seamus Heaney
76 pages,
ISBN: 0571230962

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Antaeus in the Age of Concrete
by Mark Callanan

Dip into any Seamus Heaney collection and you'll find past, present and future bound together. His poems travel in the now even as they glance back at the receding farmland of his youth and look ahead for new, fertile ground. Helen Vendler has characterized his career as one of perpetual revision. "As each decade of poetry unfolds," she writes in her book-length study, Seamus Heaney, "it illuminates and corrects the previous ones."
This predilection for reworking previously employed forms and themes is especially evident in those pieces that speak directly to prior excursions. The poem "Glanmore Revisited" from Seeing Things is, for instance, both an extension of and variation on its predecessor, the "Glanmore Sonnets" which appeared twelve years before in Field Work. There are many other pieces in which genealogy can easily be traced back to earlier work. District and Circle, Heaney's twelfth collection, is no exception to this general rule.
As a few reviews have already pointed out, the title can be taken as something of a mission statement for the collection: in short, Heaney intends to run the circuit of already trodden ground. And yet, it is not as simple as that bare assessment implies, for the title points not only towards notions of artistic, experiential and geographic familiarity, but also¨in its allusion to the London underground as it exists for us now¨to our fear of death.
"The Tollund Man in Springtime" functions as both re-visitation and revitalization of what was unearthed in "The Tollund Man" of Wintering Out. Both poems may take the preserved Iron Age body discovered in Aarhus as their subject, but they go about their business differently. "The Tollund Man" sees Heaney tentatively approaching the "peat-brown head, / The mild pods of his eyelids," to uncover the years between death and exhumation. In "The Tollund Man in Springtime" (as in the earlier poem "Bog Queen" from North) he boldly assumes the voice of the dead. "Into your virtual city I'll have passed," the reanimated Tollund Man intones, "Unregistered by scans, screens, hidden eyes, / Lapping myself in time, an absorbed face / Coming and going, neither god nor ghost"; immediately, Heaney sets him apart from the world even as he (the Tollund Man, though Heaney also) monitors its developments, the electronic and mechanical progressions of the modern age.
"The Turnip-Snedder" likewise has close analogies in earlier poems such as "The Pitchfork". Both object studies emphasize the thin line between instrument and weapon, but while the holder of the pitchfork from the latter poem may be "the warrior or the athlete", Heaney concludes that "perfection . . . is imagined / Not in the aiming but the opening hand"¨which seems to imply that the distinction lies in intent. Compare this to the decidedly militaristic diction used to describe the turnip-snedder, "a barrel-chested breast-plate // standing guard / on four braced greaves," the stresses sounding out like a military drum. Heaney takes his imaginings a step further, giving voice to the object itself: "'This is the way God sees life, / . . . from seedling-braird to snedder,'" it says. When Heaney writes how the snedder "dropped its raw sliced mess," we begin to realise how direct a commentary he is making on life's cyclically violent nature.
Much has been made of the substratum of mortality-tinged anxiety that lies beneath District and Circle, but that's an imperfect analogy¨more appropriately, objects and ideas shimmer between two states like holographic images tilted so that both pictures appear at once. There is the level of the mundane, but always, within and around the pedestrian, a tension, a base fear of impending aggression. The title poem is a fine example of this. In "District and Circle" Heaney continues his campaign of military imagery, describing the escalators of the London underground as "dreamy ramparts." Standing on the train, the speaker-poet clutches a roof-mounted handle, his "lofted arm a-swivel like a flail."
The poet's journey down into the bowels of the earth, into the manmade tunnels of the subway¨with all its classical associations of underworld journeys and its thematic resonance with an earlier poem, "The Underground"¨is necessarily transformed by world affairs. It is impossible to read the "blasted weeping rock-walls. / Flicker-lit" that finishes the poem without thinking of the London tube bombings. The simple act of riding the subway has been forever changed, its setting now linked with zealotry and barbarism, remade into an urban battleground. Of course, this is nothing new to Heaney whose experience of "the troubles" in Ireland tells him this current climate of world affairs is just more of the same. But rather than offer us the subversive quality of myth as he did in "The Haw Lantern", in which a British checkpoint soldier is, ironically, "Diogenes / with his lantern, seeking one just man," in "District and Circle" Heaney has composed a hymn to modern dread.
Having sniffed out this strain of dormant violence in Heaney's new collection (though sometimes it is more explicit, more sensational, as in the "cart that had loosed five mortar shells / In the bazaar district" from the poem "Out of Shot"), it is easy to give in to paranoid fantasy, to read each poem as pronouncement on the brutality of the contemporary world. But there are many types of poems in this collection and most of them not as dire or apocalyptic as "the tallest towers // . . . overturned" in the Horace-inspired piece "Anything Can Happen". "The Harrow-Pin" and "Home Help" have more in common with earliest Heaney, being recollections from childhood uncomplicated by intrusion of the political world. "Stern" and "Out of this World" serve as memorials to poets Ted Hughes and Czeslaw Milosz, respectively.
And then there is the just plain silly. "Wordsworth's Skates" seems more the journeyman's warped, imperfect carpentry than the work of one of modern literature's master craftsmen:
Star in the window.
Slate scrape. Bird or branch?
Or the whet and scud of steel on placid ice?

The first three lines are risible for their affected gravitas, the fourth for its unconscious self-parody. "Fiddleheads" is far too limp in form and substance to have warranted anything more than a personal note for "Toraiwa", to whom the poem is addressed. There are other moments here where Heaney runs the scales as quickly as he can, his mind too focused on the music, too little on the soul that lends the notes transcendent power.
In his New Criterion review of District and Circle, William Logan calls Heaney "an old master," but goes on to say that "mastery must be refreshed and deepened if it's not to congeal into mannerism." While Logan's point is certainly well taken, this latest collection is hardly cause for his concluding remark that Heaney, if he isn't more cautious in his poetry, risks becoming "the equivalent of a faux Irish pub, plastic shamrocks on the bar, Styrofoam shillelaghs on the wall, and green ale on tap." Frankly, it's not all as dire as that. For one, there are some truly impressive sonnets and near-sonnets in this book. They are undeniably Heaney sonnets, yes, but can a writer honestly be faulted for sounding like himself? Perhaps, but only when the anxiety of his own influence is so great that artistic progress beyond a certain point is impossible. And Heaney is nowhere near that point.
But that's the trouble with being Heaney. Having frequently razed our preconceptions as to what poetry can make of personal and political landscapes, he is now expected to maintain such innovation on every outing. Critics gather round to point out fissures in his latest brickwork. Heaney may no longer be the writer of North's monumental strength, of the kind of impermeable stone and earthen fortresses of his early work or the airy cathedrals of his mid-career, but District and Circle stands as evidence that he is still one of the greatest living writers in the English language. I, for one, will take a blemish-bearing Heaney over a lesser craftsman any day.

Mark Callanan lives in St. John's, Newfoundland. Scarecrow, his first collection of poems, was published by Killick Press. A selection of his poetry appears in Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets.

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