The Magazine

Modern Romance

The world according to Heaney and Strand.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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Seven pages later, in "2032," Death reappears:

It is evening in the town of X

where Death, who used to love me, sits

in a limo with a blanket spread across his thighs,

waiting for his driver to appear. His hair

is white, his eyes have gotten small, his cheeks

have lost their luster. He has not swung his scythe

in years, or touched his hourglass.

An intervening 30-year span has resulted in Death's decrepitude. What is the serious point of the humor here? It is the refusal to live in fear of "a handful of dust," in fear of not living, something the time-haunted moderns never managed. Strand's position is much like that of Wordsworth's "Leech-Gatherer," of "Resolution and Independence," except Strand's humor applies torsion to Wordsworth's "fear that kills," converting it not to prayer (as found at the end of "Resolution and Independence") but to wry acceptance.

Heaney is a realist who celebrates particular lives and events, while Strand is a fabulist who tests more general conditions--time, order, reason, mortality. Heaney occupies himself with patterns evidenced in local circumstance, while Strand questions our overall sense of pattern.

Heaney's "The Aerodrome" ends:

If self is a location, so is love:

Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,

Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,

Here and there and now and then, a stance.

In contrast, Strand's "Elevator" tests one's "stance" against the absurdities of repetitive pattern:

1

The elevator went to the basement. The door opened.

A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.

"I'm going down," I said. "I won't be going up."

2

The elevator went to the basement. The doors opened.

A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.

"I'm going down," I said. "I won't be going up."

In his collection of lectures, The Redress of Poetry, Heaney says poetry is a "condition of illuminated rightness" that counterweights what is unjust with "the virtue of hope." By it we move from "delight to wisdom." These ideas are consistent with a literary history extending back to Sidney and Horace, a history that Heaney has made his own with a relaxed ease that the modernists Pound and Eliot, who touted the contemporaneous past, seem to have been too earnest to have enjoyed very much. And though Heaney differs considerably from his fellow countryman Yeats, the latter, too, is an important part of the past for Heaney, as is George Herbert.

Heaney praises Yeats for "beating on the wall of the physical world in order to provoke an answer from the other side," and Herbert he celebrates for "his via media." These virtues are essential to Heaney: pressing the visible world for its invisible counterpart but doing so with the centering influences of faith, history, and reason.

As Heaney puts it, "The vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative." In his view, Yeats and Herbert succeed at this. And they are not alone. Heaney's poem "Words worth's Skates" ends describing a transformative Wordsworth "As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored." For his own part, Heaney's poem "Sugan" opens, "The fluster of that soft supply and feed--" and concludes, "a power to bind and loose / Eked out and into each last tug and lap." Sugan is a hand-twisted rope. Heaney is describing the work and the world of common people. The work here is by hand, and it is physically transformative; heather or straw twisted by hand into rope.

In "Out of This World," a poem about religious faith, Heaney tells us that "The loss occurred off stage. And yet I cannot / disavow words like 'thanksgiving' or 'host.'" These words "have an undying / tremor and draw, like well water far down." Such poems as "In Iowa" and "On the Spot" continue the tension between "loss" and "draw," but resolving these there is the powerful example of two domestic workers, Sarah and Mary, whose lives are celebrated in "Home Help." And in "Home Fires" there is another instance of transformation found in the metaphorical results of tending a "cast-iron stove," part of a section dedicated to his fellow line-laborer W.H. Auden:

So one more time

I tote it, hell-mouth stopper, flat-earth disc,

And replace it safely. Wherefore rake and rattle,

Watch sparks die in the ashpan, poke again,

Think of dark matter in the starlit coalhouse.