Second Thoughts

The Haw Lantern

by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 51 pp., $12.95

Here are thirty-two new poems by Seamus Heaney—the yield since Station Island (1985). Heaney is a poet of abundance who is undergoing in middle age the experience of natural loss. As the earth loses for him the mass and gravity of familiar presences—parents and friends taken by death—desiccation and weightlessness threaten the former fullness of the sensual life.

The moment of emptiness can be found in other poets. “Already I take up less emotional space / Than a snowdrop,” James Merrill wrote at such a point in his own evolution. Lowell’s grim engine, churning powerfully on through the late sonnets, did not quite admit the chill of such a moment until Day by Day:

We are things thrown in the air alive in flight…
our rust the color of the chameleon.

It is very difficult for poets of brick and mortar solidity, like Lowell, or of rooted heaviness, like Heaney, to become light, airy, desiccated. In their new style they cannot abandon their former selves. The struggle to be one’s old self and one’s new self together is the struggle of poetry itself, which must accumulate new layers rather than discard old ones.

Heaney must thus continue to be a poet rich in tactile language, while expressing emptiness, absence, distance. The Haw Lantern, poised between these contradictory imperatives of adult life, is almost penitentially faithful to each, determined to forsake neither. Here is the earlier Heaney writing fifteen years ago about moist clay:

They loaded on to the bank
Slabs like the squared-off clots
Of a blue cream….
Once, cleaning a drain
I shovelled up livery slicks
Till the water gradually ran

Clear on its old floor.
Under the humus and roots
This smooth weight. I labour
Towards it still. It holds and gluts.1

Image and sound both bear witness here to the rich fluidity of the natural world. Now, in The Haw Lantern, Heaney finds he must, to be truthful to his past, add manufacture to nature. When he looks with adult eyes at his natal earth, he finds machinery there as well as organic matter; and he writes not with fluidity but with aphoristic brevity:

When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.

If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney
And a dormant mountain.

If listened, an engine shunting
And a trotting horse.
. . .

My left hand placed the standard iron weight.
My right tilted a last grain in the balance.

“Is it any wonder,” the poet asks, “when I thought / I would have second thoughts?” (“Terminus”).

The Haw Lantern is a book of strict, even stiff, second thoughts. Such analytical poetry cannot permit itself a first careless rapture. No longer (at least, not often) do we follow the delightful slope of narrative: “And then, and then.” Instead, we see the mind balancing debits and credits.…

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