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Death of a Naturalist
ISBN 0571090249 / 9780571090242 / 0-571-09024-9
Publisher Faber & Faber
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First published in 1966, this debut collection by Seamus Heaney signals the talent that was to win him the Nobel Prize in 1995. Largely addressing his rural childhood in County Derry, the volume begins with "Digging", a poem which encapsulates Heaney's early concerns about roots, belonging and the supple joy of language. As he watches his father digging the flowerbed, he recalls him working the potato drills and lines of turf 20 years before. "By God, the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man." Heaney is renowned for getting inside language and revelling in its sensual glut. He talks of "the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots." He too severs roots, being the first generation not to depend on the land. "But I've no spade to follow men like them. / Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it." Heaney has the bewildering genius of being loose and tight at the same time, conversational and colloquial as well as formally rigorous. He's equally at home and as wildly inventive in blank and rhyming verse. In Death of a Naturalist, he takes the reader to the festering flax-dam where "bluebottles / Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell" and he gathered "the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn." He delights in excess, in textures--"a glossy purple clot" of ripe blackberry, its flesh like "thickened wine". "For the Commander of the Eliza" is savage in its depiction of the famine: "Six grown men with gaping mouths and eyes / Bursting the sockets like spring onions in drills." The captain of the ship refuses to give out food on Whitehall's orders. In "At a Potato Digging", Heaney compares contemporary potato-gatherers at their "seasonal altar of the sod" and the piles of spuds, "live skulls, blind-eyed" to those who "wolfed the blighted root and died". He renders the famine unavoidably stark and present. Almost every poem demonstrates his resourceful, elastic use of language and Heaney ably achieves what he aims to do: "I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing." --Cherry Smyth [via]