Everyday luminescence

Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney looks back

In his 11th collection, "Electric Lights," Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney rouses the places and people of his past, taking a few imaginative detours into the classical world by way of Virgilian eclogues.

Through his wanderings, Heaney takes stock of everything, including great losses, that furthered his education. He offers encomiums to pleasurable and painful experiences alike; both are recalled with humble appreciation. The Toomebridge of his Irish boyhood, where even "negative ions in the open air/ Are poetry to me," is the same place "[w]here the checkpoint used to be./ Where the rebel boy was hanged in '98."

Heaney approaches his subject matter with a determined readiness to search, to dig until a portrait of the past is fully revealed to him. His intensity is reflected in the muscular language throughout. Even the most ordinary memories are richly described: "Perch we called 'grunts,' little flood-slubs, runty and ready,/ I saw and see in the river's glorified body.../ In the everything flows and steady go of the world." The flypaper that hung from the kitchen ceiling of his childhood home is "honey-strip and death-trap, a barley-sugar twist/ of glut and loathing."

In another poem, "The Bookcase," Heaney recalls a piece of furniture that towers sacred in his memory: "Ashwood or oakwood? Planed to silkiness,/ Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale/ Board in the bookcase held and never sagged." He goes on to describe the colors and textures of his favorite volumes on the shelves - Hugh MacDiarmid, Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens - and mentally retraces each part of the bookcase. "Chiefly I liked the lines and weight of it," he writes. "A measuredness. Its long back to the wall/ And carpentered right angles I could feel/ In my neck and shoulder. And books from everywhere."

Sights and scents of nature are made glorious here, too: Lupins in a field "stood for something. Just by standing." The resilience of these plants that "stood their ground for all our summer wending" is awe-inspiring. "Seed packets to begin with, pink and azure," he writes, become "lupin spires, erotics of the future,/ Lip-brush of the blue and earth's deep purchase."

In the book's first half, even the minor characters of Heaney's rural 1950s childhood are remembered fondly, and with stunning clarity: John Dologhan, "the best milker ever/ To come about the place. He sang 'The Rose of Mooncoin' with his head to the cow's side"; Doctor Kerlin, who would come by the household to deliver the family's babies, his hands "nosy, rosy, big, soft," and his eyes "hyperborean, beyond-the-north-wind blue"; and young Owen Kelly, playing Caliban in a school production of "The Tempest," "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 book's second section consists mostly of elegies - to beloved fellow poets now gone (Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert) and to departed friends and relatives.

The most moving poem of this section is "Seeing the Sick," an ode to the poet's dying father, who becomes in his final days "spectral, a relict," his mind fading, and "his smile a summer half-door opening out/ And opening in. A reprieving light. For which the tendered morphine had our thanks."

Heaney has always made luminescent the events and objects of everyday life, a feat he accomplishes again in "Electric Light." His superb attention to the minute and mundane has not diminished with time. In the title poem, he describes his boyish, wondrous delight at standing on a chair, as his parents watch, to reach a light switch for the first time. The scene, like so many in this book, is a powerful reminder that moments like these, when preserved in memory, provide small but sweet comfort against the grievous losses we endure in life.

Carmela Ciuraru is editor of the anthology 'First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them' (Scribner).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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