Heaney, the survivor

Electric Light. By Seamus Heaney. Faber & Faber. 80 pp. pbk £8.99, hbk £14.99

Electric Light. By Seamus Heaney. Faber & Faber. 80 pp. pbk £8.99, hbk £14.99

Electric Light, Seamus Heaney new volume, contains 38 poems (some of them in several parts) and two translations (Virgil's `Eclogue IX' and a poem from the old Irish). Heaney's poetry begins, now, to exhibit many elegies both for personal friends and for poets who have been important to him - Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown. Marking their disappearance, Heaney, the survivor, adapts (with nods to Eliot and - via Milton - Horace) Pushkin's poem in which Arion (saved from shipwreck by a dolphin) speaks a postlude:

The helmsman and the sailors perished.

Only I, still singing, washed


Ashore by the long sea-swell, sing on,

A mystery to my poet self,

And safe and sound beneath a rock shelf

Have spread my wet clothes in the sun

Exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney's work, but while the young poems came fresh to that mystery, the new poems come to it with layers of memory that both obscure it further and reveal it newly. The first poem here, `At Toomebridge', inventories the strata of memory at a single site. In childhood, Toomebridge was the place "Where the flat water/Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh"; later (now) it is "Where the checkpoint used to be". In the light of history, it is "Where the rebel boy was hanged in '98". In young manhood (Heaney's 1969 `Lough Neagh Sequence') it was where poetry was evoked by "The slime and silver of the fattened eel". Now, Toomebridge is the site of this poem - provoked not by event but by charged recollection: it is "Where negative ions in the open air/Are poetry to me".

Those unstable ozone-like "negative ions" release their sharp tang each time a memory-cluster presents itself to the poet: and the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The most daring sequence in this collection, one about illness and health, begins with the childhood fantasies that attached themselves (in the precociously active imagination of the child Heaney) to the repeated arrivals of the doctor who "brought" a new baby in his bag:

All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag.

He'd arrive with it, disappear to the room

And by the time he'd reappear to wash

Those nosy, rosy, big, soft hands of his

In the scullery basin, its lined insides

(The colour of a spaniel's inside lug)

Were empty for all to see

But where was the baby before the doctor brought it? And how had it been fitted into the doctor's bag? The child imagines that the doctor's surgery contains a locked room full of spare baby-parts - "little, pendent, teat-hued infant parts/Strung neatly from a line up near the ceiling". At the end of the sequence we return to the new birth - but between its beginning and end the poem goes to Greece, where the adult Heaney, visiting the shrine of Asclepius, connects, in a surreal vision, the origins of medicine in Greece, his childhood vision of Dr Kerlin putting together the "baby bits", his adolescent experience of almost fainting at Lourdes, and thoughts of a friend about to undergo chemotherapy.

As the end returns to the beginning, the child-Heaney is escorted into the room where his mother lies:

She closes

And opens her eyes, then lapses back

Into a faraway smile whose precinct of vision

I would enter every time, to assist and be asked

In that hoarsened whisper of triumph,

"And what do you think of the new wee baby the doctor brought for us all

When I was asleep?"

Increasingly, Heaney has found that an expansive sequence ranging over a wide terrain is the right vehicle for such memory-layers. `The Loose Box' is another such, beginning with the manger at the Heaney farm and the parish Christmas crib, going on to a threshing scene connected in adolescence with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and ending with the ambush of Michael Collins. In such sequences (among them the riveting title poem), Heaney takes the poet's right to compose following his own internal connections, inviting readers to drift with him from site to site. These poems do not aim at the crystal-lattice effect of brief lyric, nor at the expository-narrative effect of, say, `Station Island'. Instead, they show us the ruminative associations that surprise even the thinker as, in later life, one moment recalls another, and another.

The most touching of these sequences is `The Real Names', which opens with the students of St Columb's putting on Shakespeare (all the female parts necessarily acted by boys); it goes as far ahead as Heaney's experience as a schoolteacher before returning to the transformation of the young by Shakespeare's language. The transcription of ordinary speech - something Heaney determined on in the second part of his North collection and has rung many changes on since - spurts up in `The Real Names' again and again, whether in the teacher's brisk casting ("Frankie McMahon, you're Bassanio./ Irwin, Launcelot Gobbo. Bredin, Portia") or in the noise coming from "the back of the raiders' lorry hammering on/For the Monaghan border, blood loosed in a scrim/From the tailboard, the volunteer screaming 0 Jesus! 0 merciful Jesus", or in a doctor's shouted plea to an obsessively rocking catatonic boy ("Bobby, for Christ's sake, Bobby, catch yourself on."). Heaney is Wordsworthian in his determination that poetry must include the ordinary language of the day, but he is equally Wordsworthian in his affirmation of the right to compose a pure lyric of the natural world (see `Ballynahinch Lake').

There are diary poems here (`Sonnets from Hellas', `The Little Canticles of Asturias', and, notably, `Known World' - an account of an exuberant Macedonian Poetry Festival in 1978 horrifyingly crosscut with glimpses of the present conflict between Serbs and Albanians). Sometimes Heaney sketches place (apples and horsechestnuts in Greece) for the sheer joy of it, but even in the long-desired drive through Greece he does not escape news of Northern Ireland violence. Seeing, in Olympia, a bas-relief of Hercules about to divert a river to clean the filth of the Augean Stables, Heaney comments:

And it was there in Olympia, down among green willows,

The lustral wash and run of river shallows,

That we heard of Sean Brown's murder in the grounds

Of Bellaghy GAA Club. And imagined

Hose-water smashing hard back off the asphalt

In the car park where his athlete's blood ran cold.

The Augean stables will never be cleansed, the clash between the musical accord of willows and shallows and the gross discord of "Sean Brown's murder" will never end. This is Heaney at his harshest, with reason to be harsh.

What is surprising is that Heaney, post60, continues to hold tenaciously to his gladder intuitions of "summer, shimmer, perfect days" (as his translation from the old Irish puts it). The prescient senses of the child remain in him, preternaturally alert and responsive, demanding expression. "Therefore, on every morning, are we wreathing/A flowery band to bind us to the earth/Spite of despondence"- these lines of Keats from Endymion hold true for Heaney. He remains an arresting writer because neither blood nor summer shimmer wins the day; he is, in order to be truthful, the poet of both. And neither lyric melody nor blunt speech claims the stage singly; they sit down at the same table, uneasy, perhaps, in each other's presence but insisting on their separate rights of utterance. And neither the light epigram nor the laden sequence dominates; each does its work here as needed. Pieces of the past push up, demanding entrance; pieces of the present dart in, demanding inclusion; the lightweight moment occupies the page opposite the deathbed; glancing words parallel burdened words; the drifting poem is succeeded by the architectonic one. This pungently-worded and firmly-shaped volume marks the end of Heaney's full harvest of the 1990s, and records, for the future, how the closing chapter of the century was experienced by one extraordinary sensibility.

Helen Vendler, who teaches at Harvard, has recently written The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets and a book on Seamus Heaney (Harper Collins, 1998). She is working on a book on the verse styles of W.B. Yeats