"WERE we not made for summer, shade and coolness / And gazing through an open door at sunlight? / For paradise lost?" So asked Seamus Heaney in his 2001 collection, "Electric Light." He views summer from the shade, from indoors, not just because it is cool, but because the shadows betoken the fall to come. He is that lover of nature who appreciates the whole package, from spring flower to moldy underbrush to arctic ice.
Writing about summer again in "District and Circle," Heaney reiterates his fear of a fall, but this time it is apocalyptic. Descending down into the lines of the London Underground, the poet thinks of the sunlit city above:
Parks at lunchtime where the sunners lay
On body-heated mown grass regardless,
A resurrection scene minutes before
The resurrection, habitues
Of their garden of delights, of staggered
Perhaps Heaney is thinking of that Hollywood convention in which stock images of preoccupied people -- sunbathers, children at play -- precede the image of a catastrophic fireball. Heaney would never envision the fireball itself; he does not write about things that would make him seem bigger, more prophetic or more tragic. During Ireland's political troubles in the 1970s, he often confined himself to symbolic treatment of the victims, personified in the ancient Tollund Man, who was a pagan sacrifice found preserved in a bog. Only since the 1990s has Heaney's poetry really embodied violence, and then it has usually been in the form of classical retellings, or in his awesome bestselling translation of "Beowulf."
Even in "District and Circle," one finds that his poem about Sept. 11, "Anything Can Happen," is a cunning adaptation of one of Horace's odes:
\o7It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore
Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the
crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.
Standing alone, these sentiments scan: The force of destruction is terrible. Yet earlier in the collection, Heaney has used similar language to describe the mere swing of a sledgehammer:
\o7The way you had to heft and then half-rest
Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage
About to be let fly: does it do you good
To have known it in your bones, directable,
Withholdable at will,
A first blow that could make air of a wall,
A last one so unanswerably landed
The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle? \f7
Since the first poem of his first collection ("Digging" in "Death of a Naturalist"), Heaney has documented the motions of human labor. He compared his pen, "snug as a gun," with his father's and grandfather's sharp spade, "nicking and slicing neatly." In this, his 12th collection, he returns to these images of vehement work with renewed interest, asking implicit questions about the impact of human life on Earth.
It would be possible to read this book and barely notice the poet's anxieties about climate change. A helicopter or a jet overshadows the cherished privacy of a place. Heaney finds rotten eggs where he used to find fresh. He makes a simile about "rising waters." He remembers what happened once when he tasted crab apple jelly:
and tear-duct melt down
and I spread the jelly on thick
as if there were no tomorrow.\f7
It is hard to ignore the presence of "melt down" and "no tomorrow" in a passage that savors nature's bounty. In a poem about a glacier, "Hofn," Heaney listens to the usual worries about what will happen "when boulder-milt / Comes wallowing across the delta flats / And the miles-deep shag ice makes its move." But Heaney recalls a fear beyond environmental fears, observing the sublime glacier itself, calling it "Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff." Without lessening the case of global-warming activists, Heaney reminds us that the "deepfreeze" of the glacier is our natural enemy.
The famous bog man of Heaney's earlier poetry volumes awakens, himself undead, in "The Tollund Man in Springtime." He wakes
\o7to a sixth-sensed threat:
Panicked snipe offshooting into twilight,
Then going awry, larks quietened in the sun,
Clear alteration in the bog-pooled rain\f7.
Inspired by these sickeningly subtle threats of climate change, the Tollund Man rises and joins our world, the "virtual city." This recalls Eliot's "The Waste Land," with its "unreal city," in which the speaker calls to an acquaintance: "That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout?" Heaney's bog man has certainly sprouted, and the barren Earth that Eliot feared as metaphor is now feared here as a probability.
Unlike Eliot, Heaney maintains his affection for paradise, even as it's lost. He remembers a favorite old river, now polluted, in "Moyulla":
\o7Step into her for me
some fresh-faced afternoon,
but not before
you step into thigh waders
to walk up to the bib
upstream, in the give and take
of her deepest, draggiest purchase,
\o7getting back at her, sourcing
her and your plashy self,
neither of you
ready to let up.
Heaney, whose voice has often sounded like an emanation of earth, rock and river, has also never ignored the effects of man. He does not abandon the spoiled river but wades into it.
It is a wonder that a poet as accomplished as Heaney can find so much new power as he does in "District and Circle." His longtime interest in antique human labor -- the play of the spade -- may once have seemed like a preservationist effort. Now it becomes a powerful way to think about the changing story of man versus nature. Heaney carries his own inconvenient truths: that we are strong and violent and have always toiled to alter our environment. But Heaney never fails to remind the reader to toil with excellence.