"Wild Irish": Leithauser Reviews New Work by Seamus Heaney

Monday, July 17, 2006 - 11:31
This review ran in the NY Times on July 16, 2006.

By Brad Leithauser

The reader -- who may well be you -- confronts a new book of poetry. How do you respond? What do you do with it? You read it, let's hope, but how do you evaluate its assertions, its questions, its incursions into a world that steadily and frenziedly unfolds independent of most poets and poetry?

I sometimes think there's no more reliable way of initially entering a poet's private domain than by examining what he or she rhymes with what. Certainly, the abbreviated signature of a good many poets could be read by assembling a sample list of the end-words of their lines. George Herbert, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, James Merrill -- in many cases a savvy reader could, with all the quiet exultation of a code-breaking cryptographer, identify the author purely through paired rhyme-words, independent of what the poem was actually about.

Add to that company the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate of 1995, whose rhymes are rough-hewn, hand-honed. Dungarees and rosaries? Whops and footsteps? Joys and tallboy? We're in Heaney country. His dissonances aren't for every poet; you might even say they're not for the younger Heaney, whose harmonies have grown harsher over time. W. H. Auden once promised his readers he'd never again rhyme an "s" sound and a "z" sound, however concordant they might look on the page (dose, rose). Similarly, late in life, Elizabeth Bishop explained to her students that although she'd once rhymed plural and singular (chests, rest), she planned never to do so again. You'll find both sorts of rhymes, as well as various jagged, irregular pairings less easy to characterize, in Heaney's new collection, "District and Circle."

What does it matter? Why should we care whether two words chime cleanly or clunkily? The issue can seem picayune -- until you recognize that it's through just such tiny touches, such minimal modifications of sound, that a poet fabricates an individual, distinguishing music.

"District and Circle" plays rich variations on old themes. For all its roughening rhyming, there's a remarkable consistency to Heaney's oeuvre over the decades -- a personal evolution strikingly clear of self-repudiations and dead-ends. The author of "District and Circle" is unmistakably the flourishing direct descendant of his first collection, "Death of a Naturalist" (1966). Among the significant poets of our time, Heaney stands out for a number of reasons -- but not least for his career's of-a-pieceness. He has a home, both geographical and literary. Time and again, his poems spring out of the fields and bogs and woods of the Irish countryside, and they're rendered in a blunt, often remote vocabulary (hame, braird, snedder, milt) that borrows from both local dialect and Anglo-Saxon roots ("hame" is found in "Beowulf," which Heaney translated in 2000) and that itself reminds us of his country's age-old struggle to wrest a livelihood from a frequently unpredictable and unforthcoming terrain.

This is a struggle -- the battle between farmers bent on survival and a landscape seemingly fixed on their elimination -- in which tools have proved decisive. From the onset of his career, Heaney has shown a craftsman's fascination with agricultural implements: spades, plows, pumps, hammers. "District and Circle" extends this preoccupation ("The Turnip-Snedder," "The Harrow-Pin," "Súgán"). Some of the book's most memorable moments have the stray, startling illuminations of sparks thrown off a forge, as in "A Shiver," about a sledgehammer:

The way you had to heft and then half-rest
Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage
About to be let fly: does it do you good
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?

If a poet's gradual settling on a voice and subject matter is a kind of homesteading (a proud claim to a certain local acreage), it is also, almost inevitably, a filing of a quit-claim deed: certain topics are off limits. Readers in a hundred years -- and Heaney will have readers in a hundred years -- will note how little the hurtling technological changes of the modern world impinged upon his work. In this regard, he's a younger sibling to Hopkins, Hardy and Yeats -- the three poets who, in time and landscape and temperament, seem his nearest kin. These days, the farms out in Connemara, much like those out in Iowa, belong less and less to something called agriculture and more and more to something called agribusiness, and occasionally an up-to-date object intrudes into "District and Circle": a cellphone, a CD. Mostly, though, the gaze is planted backward, often toward the modest-plotted rural Ireland of his childhood. Heaney is far more elegist than prophet.

But if the world most of us inhabit is passing quickly into oblivion -- being replaced by a universe faster and vaster, where machine memory grows as cultural memory shrinks -- what a marvelous elegist Heaney makes! "District and Circle" brims with lovely evocations, reconstructions, restorations: a fireman's helmet; a barber shop fitted into a "one-room, one-chimney house"; an aerodrome; a man playing a saw "inside the puddled doorway / of a downtown shop" in Belfast.

A person and a place come beautifully together in the love-poem "Moyulla," in which river and body flow in unison:

In those days she flowed
black-lick and quick
under the sallies,
the coldness off her
like the coldness off you --
your cheek and your clothes
and your moves -- when you come in
from gardening.
She was in the swim
of herself, her gravel shallows
swarmed, pollen sowings
tarnished her pools.

There's also a wonderful elegy to Czeslaw Milosz ("Out of This World"). Some of the other poems in "District and Circle" feel slight ("Stern," "Fiddleheads") -- but agreeably slight. Heaney has always had a gift for recounting chance encounters, poignant little anecdotes. His voice carries the authenticity and believability of the plainspoken -- even though (herein his magic) his words are anything but plainspoken. His stanzas are dense echo chambers of contending nuances and ricocheting sounds. And his is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say.

Brad Leithauser's new book of poems, Curves and Angles, will be published this fall.