cover image Opened Ground

Opened Ground

Seamus Heaney. Farrar Straus Giroux, $25 (512pp) ISBN 978-0-374-23517-8

For those few readers of poetry unfamiliar with the Nobel laureate's work, and for others who wish for up-to-date representative samplings from a prolific career, this new volume from Heaney will be just the ticket, perhaps the poetry stocking-stuffer of the year. Although we already have a selected from Heaney, running through 1987, and nearly all of his previous 12 books of poems are in print (including an even earlier selected), the post-'87 material collected here is very generous: most of 1996's Spirit Level, as well as Heaney's Nobel Lecture. Looking at the entire arc of his work, one is reminded of the heavy lifting in the earlier books Death of a Naturalist, Wintering Out and North, in which Heaney struggles heroically to find purchase as a poet in a minefield of sectarian contentions. As Heaney finds his voice, that peculiarly wistful and earthy mixture of rural reverie and high public speech (Kavanagh meets Yeats), his interests broaden, and in the middle and later volumes the poet seeks out Greek myths, Irish epics and Scandinavian digs, looking for correlatives apt to his meditations. Throughout, the visceral impact of Heaney's speech is his signature-""All year the flax-dam festered in the heart/ Of the townland; green and heavy-headed/ Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods""-and not written to be tromped through speedily. Better, then, to take short walks in Opened Ground. Although it is not a critically important time for this compilation to appear, the effort to keep the shape of Heaney's continuing body of work in view is a worthy one. He is a major figure, working at full-bore still. (Nov.)