I have been working steadily through Heaney’s poetry in order of publication and this collection builds very comfortably on his previous work. His use of language is exquisite, especially when describing everyday situations, as in his description of a bricklayer at work in the poem 'Damsen'. Over and over, the slur, the scrape and mix
As he trowelled and retrowelled and laid down
Courses of glum mortar. Then the bricks
Jiggled and settled, tocked and tapped in line.
As long as he writes like this, I am content to read volume after volume of his work, even if it were restricted to the utterly mundane and ordinary. In fact, the material is quite diverse, including ‘Mycenae Lookout’, a poem sequence that deals with aspects of the ancient Greek’s war against Troy.
‘Keeping Going’, a tribute to the steady and cheerful persistence of his brother as a farmer in a small community, would work as a reference to Heaney’s departure from this pleasant but perhaps restricted environment to be a teacher and poet, in the way that Patrick Kavanagh for example wrote of his need to leave farming for poetry, but jarringly this poem suddenly incorporates the drive-by shooting of a young acquaintance, targeted as an army reservist, giving a quite different sense to the quiet determination of his brother to simply keep going. But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, ...
The poem ‘Two Lorries’ employs a beautiful and whimsical account of a coal delivery to his mother, as a startling contrast to the use of a lorry loaded with explosives to “blow the bus station to dust and ashes.”
It would be possible to read through these two poems without being distracted from the generally benign tone of the collection, because there is no change of pace to signal the intrusion of sectarian violence into his rural scenes, and it is hard to determine the nature of his political commitment, other than the refusal to experience these atrocities in sectarian or ideological terms. It as though Heaney wishes – or feels obliged - to acknowledge the presence of this violence without being drawn into its frame on any level beyond the personal.
As in earlier collections, his silence is in fact very telling and I think appropriate. Nevertheless, these two poems in particular would be useful reading for those presently concerned with the UK’s Brexit negotiations and considering the risks of any return to the same political violence. It can become so banal, so unremarkable, which ought to terrify us.