Taking Bearings: Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle
District and Circle is Seamus Heaney's twelfth book and it is very much a re-visiting of his own past, a circling and remapping of terrain familiar from forty years of previous work. Few poets are likely to abandon their lifetime's concerns and preoccupation and jump on board some skittish new craft, but what's remarkable about this collection is the extent to which it situates itself in the essential elements of the earlier work – as if the poet wanted to re-ground himself by testing the old sources again and subjecting them to the pressure of experience and craft. In their solidity and immediacy the early poems in the book give the same kind of pleasure as the first Heaney collections, though it’s a pleasure somewhat diluted by familiarity. From the outset Heaney was a poet of extraordinary materiality: the visible world swarmed in to be reconstituted in dense stacks of language – those processions of thickly textured nouns and adjectives, that lust for exactitude, for a language that answered the demands of memory and clanged with the force of hammer on anvil.
District and Circle is full of the physicality and richly textured responsiveness that announced itself forcefully in Death of a Naturalist, charged with the 'thingness' of totemic implements: turnip-snedder, hammer, spade, harrow-pin, 'the weight of the trowel' with its ‘lozenge-shaped/Blade’, the blows of Barney Devlin’s 'midnight anvil'. The poems set themselves to pinning down 'the mass and majesty of the world'; they’re a bit like the remembered railway sleepers in one poem, 'block-built criss-cross and four-squared'. Take a poem like 'Höfn', for example, with its turbo-charged Anglo-Saxon pith:
The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats
And the miles-deep shag-ice makes its move?
I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff.....
All this 'thingness', this vivid intensity, is lent an extra force by the book's sense of working on the edge, on the boundaries between life and death, between the real and the imagined – or unimaginable, as in 'Anything Can Happen', the poet’s response to 11 September – or between one realm of experience and another, as in the prose pieces which evoke the arrival at the school porch with its 'rows of coathooks nailed up at different heights along the wall', or the arrival of gypsies in the district, 'as if a gate had been left open in the usual life, as if something might get in or get out'. The book is haunted by death; there are elegies for Czeslaw Milosz, Ted Hughes, George Seferis, and the superb 'The Lift' for his sister.
One of the highlights of the collection is the title poem, set, like the opening poem in Station Island in the 'vaulted tunnels' of the London Underground, a place realised in extraordinary concrete detail, intensely alive and yet a visionary underworld to which the poet has descended like Dante or Orpheus to meet 'My father's face glazed in my own waning/And craning' and to be ‘transported/Through galleried earth with them, the only relict/Of all that I belonged to. . .' Like many of the poems in this book, it is hyper-alert to the world's surfaces, and glazes every realised thing with an eerie plangency. Some have seen this as a response to the July 2005 bombings in London but it is really another Heaney underground or underworld poem – as a poet gets on he begins to be 'aware of the underground journey a bit more', as he said in a recent interview. Like almost all of the poems in the book it is as much a journey into his own past, as much as the district as the wider circle. The strap-hanging figure in the underground train, 'well-girded, yet on edge,/Spot-rooted, buoyed, aloof,/Listening to the dwindling noises off' is the poet performing his delicate balancing act on the 'flicker-lit' threshold of past and present, life and death.
We see the same investment in the weight of the real in the poem to which the pieces that make up 'District and Circle' originally belonged, 'The Tollund Man in Springtime', which returns after more than thirty years to one of Heaney’s most famous poems. The original poem concluded with a fatalistic identification with the sacrificial victim; the new take is a denser imagining, the Tollund Man spirited from the man-killing parishes to investigate the world that has revived him, 'the thickened traffic/Swarm at a roundabout five fields away/And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue.' Again it's a poem thick with the world, this ghostly presence like a 'bulrush, head in air, far from its lough' hovering over 'check-out lines, at cash-points, in those queues/Of wired, far-faced smilers.' But the Tollund Man is also a guardian-like figure come to release Heaney from his Parnassian obligations. In an interview in The Telegraph he described him as a kind of releasing revenant: 'He came again to remind me that lyric poetry was OK. The Tollund Man releases me into pleasure… love poems… bits and pieces… little quickies… more personal stuff towards the end. They're more spontaneous.' In a way maybe this is part of the point of a book like District and Circle. Most of it is a consolidating kind of book, the book that someone would write at the latter end of a career, the book of a poet at ease with his material and his craft, reconfirming, re solidifying, remaking that, reminding us of what went before.
If self is a location, so is love:
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.
This is a books that takes bearings and markings and stands by them, the poet saying this is my map, these are the co-ordinates, this is its scenery, its psycho-geography, its sustaining comforts. Nothing is left unremembered or unmemorialised. Once that consolidating impulse has been satisfied, maybe the poet will be released out of habitual Heaneyness into a dimension of risk and unease, and maybe this is what is intended by the closing poem, 'The Blackbird of Glanmore' with its echoes of previous Heaney poems and its Janus-like glance at life and death:
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.
Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.
Seamus Heaney, District and Circle. Faber and Faber, 2006. 74pp. UK £12.99.