As selected by the author, Opened Ground includes the essential work from Heaney's twelve previous books of poetry, as well as new sequences drawn from two of his landmark translations, The Cure at Troy and Sweeney Astray, and several previously uncollected poems. Heaney's voice is like no other--"by turns mythological and journalistic, rural and sophisticated, reminiscent and impatient, stern and yielding, curt and expansive" (Helen Vendler, The New Yorker)--and this is a one-volume testament to the musicality and precision of that voice. The book closes with Heaney's Nobel Lecture: "Crediting Poetry."
For Seamus Heaney, "opened ground" is a necessity--a way of getting to the root of things. The book bearing that name spans three decades, beginning with "Digging," his exhilarating portrait of the artist as a young revolutionary. "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun," Heaney boasts (although by the end of the poem, his weapon has metamorphosed into something closer to the spade his grandfather and father once relied upon). The last entry, the sonnet "Postscript," appears some 400 pages later, which makes Opened Ground
a capacious selection of his work. But at this point Heaney requires the largest of hold-alls. There are beautiful, pastoral lyrics here, sequences such as "Glanmore Sonnets" and "Clearances," and a multitude of love poems, not solely to his wife but to his parents and children. And in Heaney's hands, small domestic moments and objects--a scrabble board, a swing, a kite, a bed sawn in half to get it downstairs--invariably become both reality and soaring myth.
At the same time, his Ireland is the site of "neighborly murders," and the past and larger world he confronts is one threatened by history and brutal sectarianism. Heaney has declared, "Fear is the emotion that the muse thrives on. That's always there"--and terror is pervasive in his "land of password, handgrip, wink and nod, / Of open minds as open as a trap." Many of his poems that explore the Troubles reflect his own considerable concern that he has long "confused evasion and artistic tact." Others might be termed self-reflexive, since Heaney uses them to unearth his own role. "Kinship" features a simple, brilliant (not to mention canine!) simile:
I step through origins
like a dog turning
its memories of wilderness
on the kitchen mat.
In a later poem, "From the Frontier of Writing," he compares the struggle for inspiration to being stopped at a roadblock: "And everything is pure interrogation / until a rifle motions you and you move / with guarded unconcerned acceleration." Heaney's gift is dazzling, and would be almost unbearable were it not matched by vigilance, self-doubt, and regret--and his longing for the day in which "justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme." --Kerry Fried