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Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
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Death of a Naturalist (1966)

by Seamus Heaney

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Familiar with a number of Heaney’s poems, I wanted to read the less anthologised ones as well, hence my purchase of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – and I have found this collection interesting in the way each poem informs the others. I always thought, for example, that the evocative ‘Blackberry-Picking’, as well as capturing the excitement of all those blackberries waiting to be collected, was about the difficulty of accepting our transience. The final line suggests this: ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not’. The curtness derived from the structure of this sentence with the lack not just of a conjunction but also a subject for the third verb indicates the depth of disillusionment, ironically a disillusionment that comes every year. But reading this book a few pages later I came across ‘The Early Purges’, a poem which initially seems to be against the callous killing of animals, whether kittens, rats, hens or puppies, but then ends up dismissing urban dwellers for their ‘prevention of cruelty talk’ and accuses them of considering ‘death unnatural’. The we also have the violence of shooting at rabbits in ‘Dawn Shoot’, the casualness of this emphasized both by the way they don’t even collect the rabbit they shot but also by the oblique way Heaney puts this – ‘the ones that slipped back after the all-clear got round/ Would be first to examine him’. Add to that the boys ‘dandered off’, an effectively created word to suggest the mach0 boys club. By making it seem as if the rabbits are in an airraid anthropomorphises them to a degree but this conceit is rather whimsical and rather than elevating them and making us empathise with them, it instead is meant, I think, to add a touch of humour which leaves me feeling uneasy – another celebration of the violence he introduces in ‘The Early Purges’.

What is immediately attractive about Heaney’s writing is the way he can conjure up quotidian situations bringing out a sense of just what was happening and how people felt. He clearly sees graft as cleansing and fulfilling not just in ‘Follower’ which of course shares that bitterness in the end found in ‘Blackberry-Picking’ but also, more whole-heartedly, in ‘Churning Day’, a poem Heaney chose to put alongside ‘Blackberry-Picking’.

The eponymous poem seems at first reading to be simply about a boy’s sense of revulsion when tadpoles, which he’d embraced so to speak, became ugly frogs, destroying his all-consuming interest in these creatures. Typically Heaney is able to conjure up this childhood experience and characteristically again I think he’s using it to talk about the inevitability of disillusionment, a tone which seems to link a lot of the poems. What makes Heaney’s writing linger in my mind is the way it seems to take up a space there, offering me moments to reflect on what he has written. There is a veracity about it all, from the initial sketches to what lies behind them. I heard on the radio the other day James Wood in conversation at the Sydney Writers Festival saying that novelists have to strike the right balance in their novels between preaching and disguising this – and it strikes me that Heaney has managed this in this book. He offers us firsthand accounts from his experiences, moves the reader in a certain moral direction and then leaves us to come to conclusions.

Some poems simply catch with great immediacy and recognisability scenes from nature such as ‘Trout’, even its title without the definite article capturing some of its speed compared in the poem as it is to weapons of war. Similarly with ‘Waterfall’ ‘a helter-skelter of muslin and glass’. Then his later poems in the collection move from childhood memories to love and marriage, his poem for Marie suggesting the way she will help him achieve his goals and then moving to ‘Honeymoon Flight’ which captures some of the ingenuous nature of early air travel. ‘Personal Helicon’, the last in this book, reminds me of why I like Heaney so much – his thoughts about wells reverberate and encourage our own thoughts to develop. For me he and Les Murray are the most thought-provoking and evocative poets alive today. ( )
  evening | May 30, 2013 |
Heaney's first collection is that slender volume of poetry you wish you'd written. For the most part thematically organized, the poems show Heaney's early promise and sophistication. They also demonstrate the young poet's sometimes-laborious use of rhyme and word choice. An interesting comparison to his more seasoned works, such as North, which includes my favorites, the bog poems. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
A straightforward and relaxing collection of poetry. Fans of Robert Frost and Billy Collins will enjoy Heaney's work here---as a collection, the poems stand together powerfully and gracefully. Worth exploring and re-exploring for any poetry readers. ( )
1 vote whitewavedarling | Dec 27, 2010 |
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

Reissues Seamus Heaney's collection, which on its appearance in 1966 won the Cholmondeley Award, the E C Gregory Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
2 vote antimuzak | Jan 24, 2007 |
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Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
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