The 3rd of the poet laureate's volumes, North takes him from the simpler country poems of the first two to the darker world where he confronts the violence of Northern Ireland and ends up in exile just outside Dublin. The poet, who lived on the next door farm to my family's in Bellaghy, becomes far more ambitious in scope in North. The marvellously troubling 'bog poems' see him going underground to draw parallels between people who met violent ends centuries back and those who were being killed in the six counties. Heaney, a Catholic by birth, was brave to challenge the strategy of violence being followed in the early 1970s (when this volume was written). His celebration of Gunnar, the Icelandic hero, who "lay beautiful inside his burial mound...and unavenged" (in 'Funeral Rites') was a brave response to the assassins on the Catholic side. So it is no real surprise to find him in exile, and referring to Ovid's banishment, in the last poem of this book. With many poems I felt that Heaney was swimming into new, difficult waters and somehow managing to bring his eager readers with him into areas of growing emotional and linguistic complexity.
Heaney's effortless appropriation of bog-bodies continues through this remarkable volume. Putting Northern Irish politics inside the framework of Northern European history, Heaney fetishises the dead in order to reappraise the living. His voice has become mature, considered, reflective; he manages to avoid the cliched "cashing in" which Northern Irish poets are ocassionally accused of. As he says himself in "Exposure"; I am neither internee nor informer; An inner emigre, grown long-haired And thoughtful.
From the opening of 'North' Heaney is conscious of his marginalisation. In this collection the bog, neither land nor water and both the oppressing goddess and the passive womb, is a layer of mud on which Heaney's consciousness germinates. This is part of Heaney's pilgrimage both past and upto 'the Irish thing' and the poetry is slow, deep, reflective and brilliant as the bog reveals both 'gem stones' and layers of the poets wet and bottomless consciousness. Heaney moves lucidly from the 'Honeycombed workings' of this achealogical journey to set himself against a backdrop of myth in this gloriously muddy pursuit of his whole identity.