The Mother Tongue

Electric Lightby By Seamus HeaneyFarrar, Straus, & Giroux. 98p $20.

Because Seamus Heaney and I are of an age, and because he has been my secret talisman and guide now for over 30 years, he an Irish Catholic from Derry, I a mongrel Catholic from New York, every book he has published since his first, Death of a Naturalist, has been an event for me. The question I keep asking myself is how he has done it and continues to do it. Each new book offers new surprises, and these take time to digest and absorb. Surprises in terms of language, in terms of metaphor, in terms of new gains in poetic consciousness. Electric Light is no exception.

Three books of critical prose, a play and thishis 17th book of poetry (if you include his two Selected Poems and his masterful translation of Beowulf). It’s a Janus-faced book, elegiac, heartbreaking even, like Heaney’s friend and predecessor, Robert Lowell, in his posthumous Day by Day, published in his 61st year. Here’s Heaney, the world-trotting poet among his fellow poetsRafael Alberti, Caj Westerburg, Hans Magnus Enzenburger at the Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia in 1978; here too that Harvard Nestor, Robert Fitzgerald, as well as two of his poet-friends, both ghosts now: the Russian expatriate and fellow Noble Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, and Zbigniew Herbert.


Here too, threaded throughout the book, are some of his literary influences, friends as well. W. H. Auden (as in Audenesque, which remembers the British poet’s elegy for the great Anglo-Irish poet). Or Yeats, everywhere, of course, but in particular in the way he duplicates and updates Yeats’s displacement of civilizations in Lapis Lazuli with his own guttural, physical, bruised list of refugees in Macedonia:

Come loaded on tractor mudguards and
farm carts,
On trailers, ruck-shifters, box-barrows,
On sticks, on crutches, on each other’s
I see its coil again like a syrup of Styx....

Other influences too, as he himself honors them in his poem The Bookcase: the Scots poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, the American Elizabeth Bishop, with her roots deep in New Brunswick, Hardy, Frost, Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Faulkner, the Venerable Bede, John Synge. And painters: Giotto’s rendering of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, Hygo Simberg’s haunting The Wounded Angel. Hopkins too is everywhere to be found here, in Heaney’s compound epithets. Perchin the poem of that nameNear the clay bank in alder-dapple and waver, grunts, little flood-slubs, runty and ready, adoze,/ Guzzling the current. Or the internal chiming and epithets in these lines:

As ferries churned and turned down
Belfast Lough
Towards the brow-to-glass transport
of a morning train,
The very there-you-are-and-where-
are you?

But that presence is there especially in the poem about the death of Heaney’s father, Seeing the Sick, where the title itself and the language play off Felix Randal: Anointed and all, None of your fettled and bright battering sandal, the tendered morphine. That language played against the hard realities of death come to a man he remembers dressed in Cowdung coloured tweed and ox-blood leather, a Moorland man,

Who had walked the streets of Hexham
at eighteen
With his stick and task of bringing home
the dead
Body of his uncle by cattle-ferry.

It’s that which Heaney does so consummately well, this man of the people, who has never forgotten his roots (bless him), a man who has had to negotiate the paths of the King’s own English, the Siren call of the dominant American idiom and all that that idiom steamrolls under with it, as well as his allegiance to his own Irish language and customs, even as he has become a citizen of the wide world beyond Derry.

But there’s something more he’s done here that I want to point to at least. It’s something I think Heaney has been after since his early poem Digging, which identified his own preoccupation with language with his father’s digging for potatoes. I’m talking about the place from which language originates, a place that shapes us from the beginning and that stays with us, no matter how far we advance on the world’s stage. I think it is this humility in Heaney that we find in his loving tribute to those Irish boys who acted in Shakespeare’s Tempest and Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice put on in Derry back in 1954. It’s the Irish kidsfarmer’s sons, mostlylearning their English, the humor and plangency of it all, and of the real names given in tribute behind the characters they played upon the raised boards at prep school:

Enter Owen Kelly, loping and growling,
His underlip and lower jaw ill-set,
A mad turn in his eye, his shot-putter’s
Neck and shoulders still a schoolboy’s.
The hard sticks
He dumped down at the opening of the
Raised a stour off the boards, his turnip
Swung low out of his tipped tarpaulin
I won’t forget his Sperrins Caliban,
His bag-aproned, potato-gatherer’s Shakespeare:

And I with my long nails will dig thee

Julia Kristeva speaks of the chora, a kind of pre-conscious linguistic world that we all as infants inhabited, that in time gives our language its particular cast, and in Heaney’s case gives it a kind of consonantal clustering, the heavy internal chiming that has long been Heaney’s signature. Behind it darts a silver-quick intelligence that is three steps ahead of the consonants as we taste them and speak them. For if his language has something of the Caliban about it, it is Ariel who directs from the wings. It’s an amazing combination, really, and it produces a music of immense pleasure, an erotics of place, one might almost say, language itselfas William Carlos Williams understood, speaking the language of New Jerseyphysical and final in its own right, gravid, earthbound, as fresh as the soil that gave rise to it. It is the world Heaney navigates in the title poem of the book, Electric Light, a poem that recalls the first electric light Heaney remembers seeing, in London, during the war and the blackouts. The mystery of flipping a light switch on and off and the light obeying his hand. That world, pointing to the uncertain future, and that other world, the world of the old crone sitting him in his parents’ absence (his Muse?), knitting, his four-year-old eye on

The dirt-tracked flint and fissure of
her nail,
So plectrum-hard, glit-glittery, it
must still keep
Among beads and vertebrae in the
Derry ground.

How brilliant of Heaney to have come back at the very end to his beginnings once more, to new life, a new generation, but also to reflect on his parents gone, so many of his classmates gone, his poet-friends gone. At 60 the elegiac befits us, and befriends us too. He is one of the handful writing today who has mastered that form as well.

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