Nobel Laureate Heaney (Beowulf, 2000, etc.) has called words tools for digging, and his language usually has the tactility of a good toolkit. Moreover, as in his previous works, the subjects of the poems collected here often are drawn from the world of farming—digging, plowing, and other ways of turning the earth. Heaney manipulates the tools of his craft as wisely as any farmer, and with the certain self-effacing wit of someone who thinks of himself as a sound craftsman first and foremost. He can juggle the parts of speech in a line (“In the everything flows and steady go of the world”) or present a more than passable imitation of late Auden in a tribute to Joseph Brodsky, and he is equally at home with Virgilian eclogues (of which there are several in the current volume) and the boozy good will of a drinking song. At the heart of this collection is an elegiac tone, leavened by a certain humor, a sense of the passage of time and the losses it brings. This tone is nowhere more apparent than in the second section (the concluding 30 pages), which consists mostly of poems about and for departed friends (Brodsky, Ted Hughes, Zbigniew Herbert, and others less well-known), and in the title poem (a bittersweet recollection of Heaney’s childhood and the electrification of rural Ireland).
In this vein, Heaney has few equals; he burnishes memory to a fine tawny glow, not sentimentalizing but not shying away from feeling, the potential for bathos held in check by his great formal skills.