I carried a copy of Seamus Heaney’s latest collection, District and Circle, with me to Europe this summer, reading it on buses and trains and at outdoor restaurants in London. (This was the rainless summer when London hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time in recorded history; happily, I was elsewhere that day.)
It was great fun to dip into the book at various points and notice themes that recur in Heaney’s poetry, along with some fresh developments. The author seems more at ease now, secure in his reputation and willing to take chances on new forms and new ideas. Not since Station Island has he been so ambitious and playful. But religion still tugs at his mind and heart, and he returns to worry the old bones once again, this time invoking an old mentor from his California days, the eminent Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a fellow Catholic and Nobelist before him. They met at U.C.L.A. in the 1970’s; Milosz struggled with the role of religion in a poet’s life, with the added burden of living in a Communist society for many years.
Like his mentor, Heaney has had his problems with the Catholic Church over the years, not in any official way but in the searching and critical way of intellectuals. Demythologizing comes naturally to such thinkers, whether it be of state or church. But what poet could survive without myths of one kind or another? Homer set the ball rolling long before Christianity appeared, and the Irishman and the Pole have collaborated in keeping it going. Happily, Catholicism, as its name suggests, eschews the narrow either-or of more dialectical Christian traditions and boldly embraces a both-and approach to the world we inhabit. Not matter versus spirit, but matter and spirit inseparably bound together. And so when the topic turns religious it is not at all surprising that Heaney turns to Milosz (though the latter is from a different time and place).
His tripartite poem in memory of Milosz, “Out of This World,” takes up these issues in some autobiographical detail. The tense is past in part one, as he recalls his participation in the Mass:
Like everybody else I bowed my head
During the consecration of the bread and wine,
Lifted my eyes to the raised host and raised chalice,
Believed (whatever it means) that a occurred.
He goes on to describe receiving Communion, making an act of thanksgiving:
There was never a scene
When I had it out with myself or with another.
The loss occurred off stage. And yet I cannot
Disavow words like “thanksgiving” or “host”
Or “communion bread.” They have an undying
Tremor and draw, like well water far down.
Part 2 of the same poem (Brancardier) describes his pilgrimage to Lourdes as a young stretcher-bearer joining in all the rituals of the place, happy and excited to be exploring a new world and language while still surrounded by the age-old rituals of home. He learns how to request tea instead of wine in French, and cherishes his “coloured bandolier,” which signifies his role as stretcher-bearer. The word “cure” conveys both the hope that draws pilgrims and the mystery of its working: “And the unam sanctam catholicam acoustic/ Of that underground basilica..../ The concrete reinforcement of the Mystic-/ al Body, the Eleusis of its age.”
Part 3, Saw Music, begins with words that echo the baptismal liturgy: Q. Do you renounce the world?/ A. I do renounce it. Interestingly, Heaney uses only a portion of this ritual dialogue, the renouncing part, but omits the far more crucial lines about clinging to Christ and his church. The poet now invokes a local Irish painter whose “god beams” can transform “the light of heaven” into “sheets of fluted silk or rayon” but whose palette is ever “sludge and smudge,” which then triggers another memory of a man who played his saw at Christmas in a doorway of a Belfast store: “Flop-wobble gracenote of high banshee whine.”
What all these have in common, of course, is transformation, turning the crude things of the world into revelations, as much the task of art as of revelation or, indeed, transubstantiation. And here Heaney borrows Milosz’s words both to salute him in death and to claim companionship on the journey of transfiguration. “The art of oil painting—/ Daubs fixed on canvas—is a paltry thing/ Compared with what cries out to be expressed.” Heaney puts in this addendum: “And would not have renounced, however paltry.” A renouncement of renouncement, perhaps for Heaney, too? And the second longest poem in the book, to boot.
The rest of the volume would certainly lead one to think so. It is filled with celebrations of all kinds. “Poet to Blacksmith” transforms a set of instructions, translated from the Irish, for the making of an ideal shovel into a paean of skill and balance: “Lightsome and pleasant to lean on or cut with or lift/ Tastily finished and trim and right for the hand.” It takes the reader back to his earliest poems, with their pleasure in the material world, very like his own pleasure in finding fitting words for his thoughts. “And best thing of all, the ring of it, sweet as a bell,” echoed in the “Midnight Anvil,” another celebration of hard metal and sweet tone.
And to conclude, a few words about the four title sonnets, “District and Circle”: Heaney’s fondness for the sonnet form is well known and well represented throughout his oeuvre, indeed it is his most constant form.
He turns it to good use once again for exploring the “underworld” known to millions of us in the great cities. It is a cat-and-mouse game he plays with a tin-whistle artist, “my watcher on the tiles.” But, of course, it is also about the underworld itself, a classical motif that he has turned to good advantage before, like Homer and Virgil before him. It takes us back to that player of the saw who waits patiently for the loose coin to drop into his hat, player and listener locked in a game of their own. A game of winks and nods. Contrasted with that are the “parks at lunchtime where the sunners lay/ On body-heated mown grass regardless,/ A resurrection scene minutes before/ The resurrection, habitués/ Of their garden of delights, of staggered summer.”
Like Hades, the underground has its levels, and the poet re-entered the safety of numbers; he sees them now as “a human chain,” “jostling and purling” like a skein of wool, at once loud, “then succumbing to herd-quiet….”
But he is still aware of his counterpart, the tin whistler, and worries that he may have betrayed their bond. This is a recurring theme in his poems that marks him as a man of conscience who would like at times to escape its harsh demands.
The final two sonnets capture perfectly the feel of such infernal travel: “I reached to grab/ The stubby black roof-wort and take my stand/ From planted ball of heel to heel of hand/ As sweet traction and heavy down-slump stayed me.” Notice how carefully the poet matches word to motion and interjects blunt monosyllables to take the strain.
The final sonnet introduces another frequent theme in his poetry: his “father’s glazed face in my own waning and craning.” Rarely have father and son been so often flung together by a contemporary poet, and with so little bitterness and so much affection. And we should note as well the careful wordplay of the final lines. In the end he becomes “the only relict/ Of all that I belonged to,” and surely we are meant to hear in that the Catholic word relic. The final image has its own resonance:
Reflecting in a window mirror-backed
By blasted weeping rock-walls.