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This article is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.

Going Underground: on Seamus Heaney Adam Piette

SEAMUS HEANEY, District and Circle (Faber) £12.99

In the title-poem of Seamus Heaney's new collection, the poet encounters a busker on the London underground, like Baudelaire with his tramp - but unlike Baudelaire neglects to beat him up. Instead, Heaney listens attentively to the music and pays the musician with 'a hot coin'. The journey underground turns out to be Dantesque - the voyage down 'dreamy ramparts / Of escalators' the final trip down all stairs, busker playing Charon. The artificial comparison has allusions to Eliot, spiced with a tinge of fine Irish prejudice (London is hell and we are in it). What makes the journey of heartfelt interest is the moment to which the five-sonnet sequence builds up: Heaney seeing his 'father's glazed face' superimposed over his own reflection in the tube window 'mirror-backed / By blasted weeping rock-walls'. It is a chilling moment, capturing the eeriness of the underground journeys through 'galleried earth' so well; and not only because it suggests the desolation of a political climate haunted by death on trains. Mostly, the moment moves us because of the fact of Heaney's lonely isolation from the previous generation of his kin - the dead are, for Heaney as he approaches the age of seventy, 'the only relict / Of all that I belonged to'; he is 'hurtled forward' towards death's kingdom. Surviving the people who generated all sense of district, all sense of family circle, is to live with the mixture of bereft ...


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