I don’t know how to write about poetry. I know what works for me when I read it, and after a bit of effort getting into it, this collection really worked!
The centerpiece is the long title poem, which is structured in twelve parts around the pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory on the island that gives the poem and collection their titles. The first time I read it I was lost, but caught glimmers of what was happening. I did a little digging about the pilgrimage there and its stations and it made more sense on second pass. Heaney makes of the pilgrimage a meeting of his mind with political and literary figures of Ireland’s past, and walks away, if not a believer, with a purpose to take his place in their ranks. I don’t know enough Irish history to get every reference, but it is a powerful work and statement of purpose.
Honestly, though, as is usually the case, I liked the shorter poems more than the long. Before the big poem, there is a collection of shorter works on various themes, and after it there is a set of poems written in the voice of Mad Sweeney, a figure from Irish mythology after a return to modern Ireland. I read every poem at least twice and was moved by many of them. The standouts, for me at least, in the first section were Away From it All, Remembering Malibu, Making Strange, An Aisling in the Burren, Widgeon, and my favorite of the whole book, A Kite For Michael and Christopher. In the back half, In the Beech, The Cleric, The Scribes, Unwinding, and, especially, Sweeney Redivivus.
I had read the odd poem here and there by Heaney before, and knew that he had won the Nobel Prize, but this was my first time reading him in earnest. If these poems, and the handful from the Selected collection I read afterwards are any indication, Heaney will likely join the short list of favorites that includes WB Yeats, WH Auden, Robinson Jeffers, and Anne Porter (and provisionally Gwendolyn Brooksand Elizabeth Bishop). I am looking forward to reading further collections and dipping into the Selected Poems.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 61/75