Poet Beyond Borders

Seamus Heaney

by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 188 pp., $22.95

In the first five poems in Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney’s comprehensive new selection from the first thirty years of his career, the reader is arrested by the words “gun,” “grenades,” “armoury,” “blood,” and “bombs.” Since Heaney comes from Northern Ireland, a place that is only now emerging from decades of violent conflict, this hardly seems remarkable. These poems, however, were first published in 1966, three years before guns and bombs began to dominate the politics of Northern Ireland. They are, moreover, poems whose ostensible subject is a rustic childhood and whose universe is the enclosed domain of the Heaney family’s house and farm in County Derry in Northern Ireland, where he was born in 1939 into a Catholic household. The gun, in fact, is a simile for the poet’s pen. The grenades are frogs. The armory contains only some familiar farmyard implements. The blood is the juice of a blackberry. Crocks full of cream about to be churned into homemade butter, a nostalgic image, one might think, of old-fashioned abundance, are “large pottery bombs.”

The evocation of violence in these phrases is not untypical of the early Heaney. Time and again, fear, murder, and sexual disturbance insinuate themselves into what seem, at first glance, to be innocent idylls. The poppy, which we might expect to be a poetic emblem of sun and summer, is, in “Mid-Term Break,” the “poppy bruise” on the temple of the poet’s four-year-old brother, lying in his coffin after being struck by a motorcar. Children who have been picking blackberries have “palms sticky as Bluebeard’s,” linking them to a legendary mass murderer. “The Barn” begins with a pleasant vision of heaps of threshed corn but ends with the child lying face-down on the floor, terrified of the dark spaces and the unseen movements of bats, birds, and rats.

In “Death of a Naturalist,” the transformation of frogs from “nimble-swimming tadpoles” to “great slime kings/…gathered there for vengeance” represents the passage from childhood to the obscene, feverish sexuality of adolescence. In “Churning Day,” the making of butter acquires a surreal sexuality as “the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip/of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn.” It is, indeed, these dark undercurrents that gave Heaney’s voice its power. Without sex and violence, his memories of a rustic childhood would be clichéd and sentimental. If there had not been a personal sense of disturbance in his early work, it is unlikely that he would have been able to connect so powerfully with the political violence that engulfed Northern Ireland after 1968.

From whence, then, do those early unsettling intimations come? In part, the force and physicality of Heaney’s poems is a memory of hard labor. Their world is archaic, even in Irish terms. They commemorate and celebrate activities and trades that were, in the 1940s, already on the way out: farmers plowing with horses, thatchers making roofs from rushes, diviners finding hidden sources of water, black-smiths working in their forges. Helen Vendler, in her splendidly lucid…

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