Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

District and Circle by Seamus Heaney

Wishing you all a Happy St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow!


On the cover flap of this book, much is made of it being about “the eerie new conditions of a menaced twenty-first century”, though I found it firmly planted in the first half of the twentieth. Not only was there a number of poems about WW2, such as Anahorish1944, where soldiers march down a street past a yard where pigs are being butchered. But the old-fashioned settings and themes made it feel more about the past than the future. But these are not Norman Rockwell reminisces, they are snapshots of not only times gone by, but practices that have faded from collective memory. When the author describes working in a field, swinging a sledgehammer or bricklaying, he verbally enacts the motions of the body, so that the reader also feels their muscles expand with the heft of a farm tool. It takes a certain skill to be able to impart such a moment.
That is not to say that Heaney ignores the modern world, there are some clever juxtapositions, such as a cell phone in a blacksmith shop or a sandal in an orchard near a Bach CD playing. But he sees a strong influence of past upon the present, whether it’s a snow covered tractor reminding him of Good Friday or summer thunder setting off thoughts of Greek mythology.
My favorite poem, strangely enough, was about the discovery of a prehistoric man preserved in an Irish peat bog and what he experienced while waiting, called The Tollund Man in Springtime. Another I liked very much was The Lift, describing the funeral of an older lady, popular in the community and how the sadness of her burial contrasted with the glorious blooms of spring. The title poem is a long, sectional work on riding a subway, but at first it appears about an air raid, then metamorphs into symbolism and veiled references. There are wonderful phrases throughout the book, “…in an Advent silence” and “white floss on reed and bush… that turn up like gold flakes and add to the enjoyment of a lovely collection of poems.

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2006 78 pp. ISBN-13:978-0-374-14092-2

5 comments on “District and Circle by Seamus Heaney

  1. hilarye
    March 16, 2009

    Thank you for this lovely review, Jackie – you make this book sound beautiful, and you remind me that I must read more poetry.

    I’d love to read the title poem, as I ride the District and Circle line to somewhere or other most weeks of my life, and have grown up with the image of Londoners sheltering from air-raids in underground stations.

  2. Lisa
    March 16, 2009

    Yes, I agree with Hilary. It sounds very beautiful. One to get from the library, I think.

  3. Moira
    March 16, 2009

    I’m a huge Seamus Heaney fan … but this is one I don’t have. I must go seek …

  4. clom
    March 18, 2009

    My favourite is “The Sally Rod”, a quiet, simple poem that is astoundingly wise about aging, friendship, memory, regret, exile and irish masculinity.

  5. Pingback: Candid opinions from a crowded Den « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on March 16, 2009 by in Entries by Jackie, Poetry: 20th Century and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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