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Poetry in Gritty Native Ground : POETRY : THE SPIRIT LEVEL, By Seamus Heaney (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $18; 82 pp.)

June 09, 1996|RICHARD EDER

A dusty clump resembling a nettle grew near the rubbish heap behind Seamus Heaney's childhood home. It was mint, though. Its pungency:

spelled promise

And newness in the backyard of our life

As if something callow yet tenacious

Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.

"Mint" is one of many childhood recollections in Heaney's new collection, "The Spirit Level." His Irish farmhouse beginnings have been the launch point and beacon for a poetry that has gone immeasurably beyond them. So have such themes as soils and subsoils, daily labors, saint's legends and the double residency of Northern Irelanders in the Question as well as the Place. They are all revisited here; and now with a suggestion of valediction. "My last things will be first things slipping from me," Heaney writes.

Heraclitus declared that everything flows away and you can't bathe twice in the same river. What is possible, though, is to stand on the bank and remember the bathing. Remembrance has an incantatory power not accessible to experience.

"The Spirit Level" hints at weariness. In some of the poems this produces an exercise of the poet's art more than art itself. In one or two it comes close to producing an exercise of his stature. (The five-part "Mycenae Lookout" faintly suggests a great poet discharging his responsibility to ancient Greece.) But in at least a dozen splendid poems, weariness emerges as only the latest of the realities that it has been Heaney's lifelong calling to transmute. It saunters in green alleys.

He is the last of a trio of poets and friends to win the Nobel Prize over the past nine years. All have had the particularity, in a literary age shaky about external reality, of transmuting something more than implications and combinations of language. Each found his material in an autobiography that was both personal and national. Derek Walcott's nation is the West Indies, the late Josef Brodsky's was the nation of exile, Heaney's is that of an Irishman wandering between his country and the world and imagining both.

In poetry there are private refiners and public proclaimers. The former have included many considerable American names: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, James Merrill. The latter have been less prominent here than abroad, though currently there are stirrings in the form of rap and of poetry slams.

Art as the wizardry of style, on the one hand, and art as personal and public expression, on the other. Not many can fuse the two nowadays, and no one writing in English does it so well as Heaney. He employs poetry's power to tell truth, and the artist's power to make us know that it is a truth we need. His poems, elegant fountains, are also water; we realize it and grow thirsty.

His messages are sensible, humane, and not particularly esoteric. A clergyman might voice them, or a valiant political figure, and we would be grateful but not astonished. With Heaney, though, the figure of solace is also the magician. The dove is suddenly there, fluttering, inside our own shirt. Rarely in this collection--only, I think, in the otherwise attractive "Poplars"--the reader may complain: There goes Heaney being decent. Braced on this decent ground his many splendid poems are catapulted, by a phrase or 10, over their parapet of meaning.

"To a Dutch Potter in Ireland," for instance, addresses itself to a woman who has carried her art through the World War II bombings in the Netherlands; we read a comparison with Heaney's own history of writing neither apart from nor implicated with the conflict in his own country. It goes beyond: to the possibility of discovering poetry in the gritty native ground--something specific to all potters and applicable to all art.

The Irish soil he knew "ran dirty":

In that slabbery, clabbery, wintry puddled ground.

Until I found Bann clay. Like wet daylight

Or viscous satin under the felt and frieze

Of humus layers. The true diatomite

Discovered in a little sucky hole. . . .

He takes the image further, from the origins of art to its ordeal and annealing. A decent message becomes a superb poem:

You watched the bombers kill; then, heaven-sent,

Came backlit from the fire through war and wartime

And ever after, every blessed time,

Through glazes of fired quartz and iron and lime.

And if glazes, as you say, bring down the sun,

Your potter's wheel is bringing up the earth.

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