Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, has just released his latest collection – District & Circle. It’s a masterwork of extraordinary depth, piercing insight and pure emotional heft. It’s characteristically anecdotal, as he mines his childhood of indelible experiences and stout characters. You can take the man out of Bellaghy, but never the village out of the man. His totalitarian mastery of the language (and Ireland’s rural brogue) is evident in every stanza, with memory, meaning and relationship condensed in the most potent efficiency. The ‘long-nursed rage’ of a sledgehammer, the ‘long centrifugal / Haulage of speed through every dragging socket.’ of a subway, the B-men ‘some nodding at my father almost past him / As if deliberately they’d aimed and missed him’. And then this insight about gypsies…‘Every time they landed in the district an extra-ness in the air, as if a gate had been left open in the usual life, as if something might get in or get out’. There’s also a chilling timeliness to many of the poems, acknowledging terrorism, the scars of World Wars past, the Troubles and even a childhood trauma of uncovering year-old eggs ‘making death sweat of a morning dew’. It’s a rare pleasure to read poetry that’s so honest yet so lyrical, so startlingly mundane yet so carefully spiritual: ‘A stranger arrived / in a house with no upstairs, / But heaven enough / to be going on with’. There’s humour too, if even in a mock Gaelic vs. English debate: ‘And for me a chance to test the edge / of seggans, dialect blade / hoar and harder and more hand-to-hand / than what is common nowadays: / sedge - marshmallow, rubber-dagger stuff’. In all, District & Circle is Seamus Heaney at his best: ingenious, indigenous, respectfully rebellious and as ever, overwhelmingly Irish.
Disclaimer: my opinion here is wholly biased. Seamus Heaney is my Dad’s cousin, and my grandfather, Mick Joyce, receives a lovely portrait in ‘To Mick Joyce in Heaven’, where his soldier/bricklayer duality are cannily celebrated.