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It was a whole new sweetness

Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney.

 (Faber ISBN 0571207626, Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 0374146837, published 2001)

Review by Philip Harvey first published in Tin Tean.

Seamus Heaney keeps rolling along. His ordered cadences and grounded tones, we can also say ground tones both in the sense of gravelly and well-honed, come at us familiarly in this new collection. Linguistically, Heaney continues to behave as though the major poetic fashions of his own lifetime never happened. At times, the brilliant and meticulous measure of his lines sound like the last word in Johnsonian impeccability. We always find him with both feet firmly on the earth, a case of gravity empowering gravity. Certainly, at the end of the 20th century, it’s a relief to find a poet who remains so consistently sane.

Some of those infamous preoccupations, synonymous with being Heaney, occupy these 79 pages. First, there are the wily analogies he uses to talk of Ireland, “the child that’s due” as he says in ‘Bann Valley Eclogue’, the poet wishing to “sing / better times for her and her guardian.”

Second, there are the memory poems, normally not so much autobiographical excursions as attempts at moments of presence, of meaning drawn back from chaos through the existence of others, family, friends, even strangers and saints. Take ‘The Clothes Shrine’:

It was a whole new sweetness
In the early days to find
Light white muslin blouses
On a see-through nylon line
Drip-drying in the bathroom
Or a nylon slip in the shine
Of its own electricity -
As if St Brigid once more
Had rigged up a ray of sun
Like the one she’d strung on air
To dry her own cloak on
(Hard-pressed Brigid, so
Unstoppably on the go) -
The damp and slump and unfair
Drag of the workaday
Made light of and got through
As usual, brilliantly.

This poetry often depicts a safer Ireland of childhood and youth, pre-bookish, pre-academic, and significantly, pre-Troubles. In a recent interview in The Irish Times Heaney even points to a state of being that brought this poetry about. “It’s a ruminant book in the sense of chewing the cud. It is stuff that’s in the system, in the memory, that is being revisited.” He also says, “I think that post-1994, post the cessation of violence, the cessations, something changed in me, something changed in everybody. Things were restored to a more equable condition. Actually, I realised how deprived we had been really for 25 years,” and later he continues, “... in the 1970s and 1980s, the inner being of anybody conscious and answerable on the island was cornered in a different way than now. The spirit is in a different posture, and now it’s opener, it’s less battened down, less huddled.” That the poetic content is becoming nostalgic, even sentimental round the edges, may be a sign of age, and of living in a more comfortable Ireland, where such memory play is indulged rather than purely valued. It puts in a new perspective his large corpus of personal memory poetry, the staking out of a value system learnt in childhood and put to the test by extreme circumstance. His poem for Brian Friel (‘The Real Names’) on the poet’s classmates playing Shakespeare opens up the comic and sweet ironies of Ulster children getting the hang of perfect  Englishness. How, after a staging of ‘The Tempest’ or ‘Macbeth’, in refectory “we, in fourteens, moon-calves, know-nothings, / stood by our chairs and waited for the grace.”

A third preoccupation is Heaney’s conversation with literature, which takes a risible turn this time around when, like the uncle in ‘The Cherry Orchard’, he addresses his bookcase. Unlike the Chekhov character, Heaney knows the contents very well, quoting Bede, for example, who wrote that “...scrapings off the leaves of books from Ireland / when steeped in water palliate the effect / of snake-bite. ‘For on this isle’, he states, / ‘almost everything confers immunity.’” This powerful preoccupation with the European inheritance blossoms anew. Conversations with ancient civilizations, in this book especially with the Greeks, free him too from the claustrophobia of the trying Irish questions. In the interview he observed, “I suppose there’s more subjectivity in the book. It’s readier to go down into the bedding in the mind, instead of building it into a shape.” One other sign of Heaney’s age is the second section, comprising elegies to poets and old friends. His poem to Ted Hughes places Heaney firmly outside mere Theory with its opening line, “Post-this, post-that, post-the-other, yet in the end / not past a thing. Not understanding or telling / or forgiveness.” Reading this, we know he’s for real when he says elsewhere, “I believe in the flow of rage and trust that goes on underneath.”

In a world where it’s almost a sin to be critical of a Nobel Prize winner, it may seem errant behaviour to admit that at times Heaney’s verse weighs its arguments too carefully. Will he ever again take the risks that kept us up all night reading ‘North’ or the great Sweeney sequences? Some tricks start to show themselves and the woof and weft, “the must  and drift”, “the bob and flash” can look more like padding than filigree. All the same, to be in the presence of a great Heaney poem, and there are several in this book,  is to be lulled anew by his “old sense of a tragedy going on / uncomprehended” and his undemonstrative way of taking us to the centre of that concern. It is to renew our acquaintance with an imaginative journey. As he says himself in the same interview, “the quest of writing poetry has allowed the first part of me not to be lost, and I hope to keep some kind of pace, keep some kind of co-ordination with the second, third, fourth, the developing part of me because I think that any consciousness, if it’s going to keep itself integrated, has to keep moving out and at the same time mustn’t utterly lose its first point.” That he could never abandon or neglect his gift is evinced when he states that “poetry tries to keep the most intimate and most inquisitive intellectually imaginative part of yourself together in some kind of balance. To try and be a whole person and at the same time acknowledge all your different bits.”

Nostalgia and books, but what then to make of Heaney’s own estimation of the collection? “The poem in the book that to me is new and different is Out Of The Bag which goes back almost to the origins of consciousness; my own child imagining where I came in the doctor’s bag. .... He went up to the room, then when he came down a child would be there. In those days that was a sufficient explanation.”


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