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Stillness at the Heart of Things

The Greatest Irish Poet Since Yeats Continues to Dazzle in his Latest Volume

ELECTRIC LIGHT Poems; By Seamus Heaney; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 98 pp., $20

April 22, 2001|JOE TREASURE | Joe Treasure, a poet, is an occasional contributor to the Times Literary Supplement (London)

In his early collections, beginning with "Death of a Naturalist" in 1966, Seamus Heaney explored memories of childhood and evoked the landscape of his upbringing in the nNorth of Ireland, finding rhythms of continuity in the working lives of farmers and rural craftsmen. He continues to do so.

The convulsions of sectarian violence in the 1970s dragged him into the public arena. In "North," his fourth collection, published in 1975, he created powerful poetry out of the struggle to respond without rhetoric, to speak for the human spirit rather than a political cause. The search for an adequate language took him further into the realms of archeology and myth. In later collections, these layers of concern have developed and broadened. The echoes of the prehistoric past, classical mythology and Celtic mysticism have been sounded without any loss of immediacy: Heaney's capacity for capturing sensory experience is undiminished.

In "Electric Light," his 11th collection, Heaney travels widely-through Greece, Spain and Yugoslavia as well as Ireland, his own past and among writers he reveres-in search of origins. There are moments of illumination; some literal, as in the poem that gives the collection its title; some literary, including an adolescent encounter with Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles'; many in response to the apparently ordinary transactions of the world. There is an account, both comic and triumphant, of Heaney's tasting of the Castalian Spring on Mt. Parnassus, a site sacred to the muses, in defiance of the thunder-faced curator.

In a collection that brims with joy, there is also a powerful, elegiac feeling, as Heaney honors the memory of a variety of old friends and fellow poets in dedications, quotations and anecdotes. There is a sense of urgency here, a desire to recall and acknowledge while there is still time, and there is a feeling in the longer pieces of the need to expand what the lyric poem can accommodate.

In In "'Bann Valley Eclogue," in his newest collection, "Electric Light," Heaney creates a dialogue between Virgil and a modern poet who is soon to be a father. There is an easy familiarity between the poets, speaking across two millenniums in the same accents and with same sense of nature's abundance. Virgil utters prophecies for the unborn child: "Eclipses won't be for this child. The cool she'll know/Will be the pram hood over her vestal head./Big dog daisies will get fanked up in the spokes." The sense of childbirth as both an utterly ordinary event and an earth-shaking miracle is suggested by the poet's words to his child-to-be: "Planet earth like a teething ring suspended/Hangs by its world-chain. Your pram waits in the corner./Cows are let out. They're sluicing the milk-house floor."

Birth is at the heart also of "Out of the Bag," a poem that builds on the childish misapprehension that it is the doctor who brings new babies to the house. The poem begins with the simple assertion that "All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag." The source of this confusion we learn only in the final lines of the poem, as his mother "opens her eyes, then lapses back/Into a faraway smile," asking "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?" '

Within the same poem, we are taken on a journey of interconnected narratives-of the doctor's visits to the house, of the poet as teenager in Lourdes, carrying the thurible in an open-air procession, of a trip as an adult to the ancient sanatorium at Epidaurus. These memories are linked by the idea of healing as an epiphany, an encounter with the god.

Doctor Kerlin comes alive as a character, vividly recognizable and down-to-earth, washing "Those nosy, rosy, big, soft hands of his/In the scullery basin." The suggestion of the professional probing of the obstetrician in the word "nosy," tightly sandwiched by rhyme, is as close as we get to the real business of these home visits. The childish observer has a strong sense of the man's status, "as he toweled hard and fast,/Then held his arms out suddenly behind him/To be squired and silk-lined into the camel coat."

We are given a sharp glimpse of the upstairs room where the expectant mother waits: "a whiff/Of disinfectant, a Dutch interior gleam/Of waistcoat satin and highlights on the forceps." The childish imagination provides the rest. The doctor is a magician whose bag was "empty for all to see," a "hypnotist," a sinister Dr. Frankenstein, constructing babies out of "little, pendent, teat-hued infant parts/Strung neatly from a line up near the ceiling-/A toe, a foot and shin, an arm, a cock/A bit like the rosebud in his button hole."

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