This collection begins with a poem about turnips.
Unromantic? I suppose. Original? Sure.
It’s actually about a machine which turns turnip to mush, which I suppose doesn’t make it any more picturesque. But as a work, it goes a good way to summarising and introducing a collection which tackles deep philosophical concerns about our modern world, and looks back towards a childhood, and the aeons which preceded it.
The snedding of turnips, in ‘The Turnip Snedder’, is a metaphor for the life cycle; we’re essentially on the same conveyor belt to eventual demise as these insentient vegetables, says Heaney, but it’s not as depressing as all that really. It closes with a hidden and unsentimental celebration of this continuous and inevitable process, there’s something inherently beautiful in this turnip snedding process and humanity’s equivalent: ‘as it dropped its raw sliced mess / Bucketful by glistering bucketful’ (bold added). Unlike ‘The Lift’, a poem which mocks and defamiliarises clichés surrounding death, and the only one in District and Circle which directly tackles death and grief, ‘The Turnip Snedder’ is the first of a number of poems around whose fringes that colossal issue lurks: Heaney addresses poems ‘To Mick Joyce in Heaven’ and ‘George Seferis in the Underworld’ and sees the modern world through the consciousness of a resurrected bog body in ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’. It’s something which is inevitable, which should be considered, which is looming, but it’s never something which is feared, or dwelt upon in unhealthy measure.
And poem’s distinctly Irish vibe remains strong throughout the collection; Heaney is dipping in and out of a childhood tightly woven with his national heritage, and fathoming how it all fits in to a wider context. In ‘Anahorish 1944’ and ‘Polish Sleepers’ he considers it against the backdrop of WW2, troubled by the conflict of his innocence at the time with painful retrospect. ‘The Nod’ makes clever use of the sonnet form to explore the tensions in Ireland, with its persistent undercurrent of violence. In the ‘Nonce Words’ and the three-poem series ‘Out of this World’, Heaney delves into his relationship with religion, an essential component of his identity and roots, puzzled but loyal.
In ‘In Iowa’ we’re transported to America, where Heaney, in a prophet-like epiphany, dwells on the same considerations. But, with its end-focussed, doubly charged biblical allusion to ‘rising waters’, Heaney seems to be drawing his focus away from home concerns, and in the following two poems, ‘Höfn’ and ‘On the Spot’, as if once begun on the subject he can’t stop, his lamentations swell to a powerful criticism of our treatment of our planet. Mirroring the concerns raised in ‘Tollund Man’ surrounding today’s society, ‘Anything Can Happen’ mocks the cliché of its title and asks how, in the aftermath of 9/11, a civilisation no longer reliant on religion can come to terms with such atrocity. And ‘Out of Shot’, urging us to consider, with Heaney’s poet’s eyes, what lies just outside of the camera’s focus, continues this mood of contemplating pressing social concerns.
As an introduction to the collection, ‘The Turnip Snedder’, therefore, gives a pretty good flavour of what’s to come. But it can’t show the full picture, and what it crucially lacks is the defining voice of the collection. Heaney’s evaluative accent comes in at the close, and its overall impersonal tone is necessary for its grand considerations of ‘an age of bare hands / and cast iron’, but there is nowhere to be found Heaney as a boy, Heaney as a man, Heaney as a hybrid of these two mindsets, or Heaney as a poet.
And the latter is key. Wordsworth, his sister, and T S Eliot all make their appearances in District and Circle, the title poem plays on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and with translations of Rilke, and poems dedicated to Hughie O’Donoghue, Czesław Miłosz, and Ted Hughes, the collection pulsates with Heaney’s consciousness of influence. His simple, folklore-style translation of the Irish ‘Instructions to Séamus MacGearalit’ titled ‘Poet to Blacksmith’ uses the metaphor of a perfectly crafted ‘side-arm’ (OED: a weapon worn at a person’s side, such as a pistol or formerly a sword) to communicate the complexities and pressures, but ultimately the rewards, of the art of creation.
So whilst Heaney is exploring questions of existence and modern life, his poetry in District and Circle is also very much infused with a consciousness of and concern with the creative process. Thus he lays his challenge as a poet at our feet: attempting to answer the questions which being a human raises, but, in the first place, getting them into a question and answer format which is at once comprehensible, eloquent, and evocative.