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
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