Roaming the stations of the world

Patrick McGuinness

  • Electric Light by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 81 pp, £8.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 571 20762 6
  • Seamus Heaney in Conversation with Karl Miller by Karl Miller
    Between the Lines, 112 pp, £9.50, July 2001, ISBN 0 9532841 7 4

In a shrewd and sympathetic essay on Dylan Thomas published in The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney found a memorable set of metaphors for Thomas’s poetic procedures: he ‘plunged into the sump of his teenage self, filling his notebooks with druggy, bewildering lines that would be a kind of fossil fuel to him for years to come . . . Thomas had to be toiling in the element of language like a person in a mudbath.’ In a sense, Thomas’s was the wrong kind of stockpiling, since he hoarded ways of saying rather than anything particular to say and, to extend Heaney’s metaphor, several poems by Thomas could be said to resemble petrol-guzzling cars. Heaney, who returns time and again to familiar and invigorating territory, has never needed to stockpile, partly because he appears never to have felt that he would run out. In his own mudbath he doesn’t toil with language, which he seems to come by easily and carefully, but with the forms of revelation a poem might body forth. Electric Light finds him on his trusted terrain, and there is a return to the locations – Mossbawn, the Bann, Lough Neagh, Glanmore and Bellaghy – of his previous work. This collection, however, is dominated by images of air, light and water, and is full of liminal places – strands and beaches, frontiers and checkpoints – where different elements meet or mingle or come into conflict.

Thomas turns up again – this time as a voice on a record – in the poem ‘The Bookcase’, one of the best in Electric Light. Heaney figures his bookshelves as a ship – ‘Virtue went forth from its very shipshapeness’ – setting out to sea. Among its contents we hear

Voices too of Frost and Wallace Stevens
Off a Caedmon double album, off different shelves.
Dylan at full volume, the Bushmills killed.
‘Do Not Go Gentle’. ‘Don’t be going yet.’
Heavy as the gate I hung on once
As it swung its arc through air round to the hedge-back,
The bookcase turns on a druggy hinge, its load
Divulging into a future perfect tense
Where we hang loose

These lines echo a word Heaney uses of Thomas (‘druggy’), the poem he cites in his essay (‘Do not go gentle’), and faintly, ‘Fern Hill’ (‘Heavy as the gate I hung on once’). Though the bookcase – like Electric Light as a whole – is freighted with memory and allusion, Heaney never loses sight of the raw materials that have shaped this particular literary vessel:

Planed to a silkiness,
Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale
Board in the bookcase held and never sagged.

It is characteristic of Heaney that he makes touch such an intelligent process, and that touching things becomes, in his poems, another form of thinking. But by the end of the poem the bookcase is a raft, and the image of loss comes hard on a reference to Synge’s Riders to the Sea:

in Maurya’s speech
‘White boards’ are like storm-gleams on the flood
At the very end, or the salt salvaged markings
Of a raft for books, a bier to be borne.
I imagine us bracing ourselves for the first lift,
Then staggering for balance, it has grown so light.

This collection is full of (often literary) anecdote and reminiscence, and has a pervasively elegiac feel. The poems for or about recently dead friends and poets (Ted Hughes, Zbigniew Herbert, Joseph Brodsky, Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown) tend to be wide-ranging meditations on literature and language.

In his criticism as well as his poetry, Heaney has always excelled at finding metaphors of process for the act of writing: moulding, thatching, digging. It is what makes him such a convincing and enjoyable critic of poetry. Early on, of course, he equated the writing of his own poetry with digging; this is what ‘earthed’ him and shielded him from verbalism and spurious transcendence. In a 1966 poem, ‘Antaeus’ (not collected until North in 1975), he wrote about how contact with the earth was ‘operative as an elixir’. Atlas, Antaeus says,

. . . may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
My elevation, my fall.

Antaeus lost his strength in elevation and was weakened in ascent. In Electric Light there is a lot of air and flight and ‘lift’; in fact, it is as if the sense of return (geographically as well as historically) in this collection were vying with the evocation of verticality and upswing. In ‘The Loose Box’ Heaney writes:

On an old recording Patrick Kavanagh states
That there’s health and worth in any talk
about
The properties of land. Sandy, glarry,
Mossy, heavy, cold, the actual soil
Almost doesn’t matter; the main thing is
An inner restitution, a purchase come by
By pacing it in words that make you feel
You’ve found your feet in what ‘surefooted’
means
And in the ground of your own understanding –
Like Heracles stepping in and standing under
Atlas’s sky-lintel, as earthed and heady
As I am when I talk about the loose box.

This is what the collection wants to be: ‘earthed and heady’, rooted and ‘dug in’, yet also charged and full of skyscraping, freewheeling energy. Often, however, it seems to hover unsatisfactorily in between, and ‘Known World’, a poem about a convention of poets in Macedonia in 1978, terminates with a different kind of élan:

As the Boeing’s innards trembled and we climbed
Into the pure serene and protocols
Of Air Traffic Control, courtesy of Lufthansa,
I kept my seat-belt fastened as instructed,
Smoked the minute the No Smoking went off
And took it as my due when wine was poured
By a slight de haut en bas of my headphoned head.
Nema problema. Ja. All systems go.

It is an intentionally prosaic lift-off, but other poems in this collection have neither irony nor self-belief. This is a collection full of other poets – Milosz, Hopkins, Kavanagh, Auden are quoted, instanced or glancingly glossed – and some of the poems are burdened by literary self-consciousness and a kind of ruminative fireside recollection that is neither electric nor electrifying. Electric Light often hesitates between the view of the poet as Heracles (though with the flow and churn of water that dominates this book, Heraclitus also comes to mind), and as a frequent-flyer literary diplomat in some republic of letters. There is a filling out and slackening off, and for all the light of Hellas or the Virgilian vistas of these poems, we begin to sense an uneasy and slightly rueful need not to be comfortable with the comfort, not to be too sure of the ‘surefootedness’.

‘Known World’ is dated May 1998, but draws on a notebook Heaney kept during a 1978 reading tour in Macedonia. The poem finely catches the fretful calm of the Balkan war, the slightly surreal normality of conflict, but it is Northern Ireland’s political tragedy that comes forcefully to mind as Heaney describes the refugee hordes, who could be of any time and place:

Then, the notebook says,
‘People on the move, field full of folk,
Packhorses with panniers, uphill push
Of families, unending pilgrim stream . . .’

In the book’s opening poem, ‘At Toomebridge’, Heaney writes of the ‘continuous present’ of the Bann; here the ‘unending pilgrim stream’ of refugees is also part of a continuous present, a recurring tragedy of migration. Parts of ‘Known World’, too, are thick with darkness and menace:

At the still centre of the cardinal points
The flypaper hung from our kitchen ceiling,
Honey-strip and death-trap, a barley-sugar twist
Of glut and loathing . . .

This superb run of images and sounds is memorably offset by a tiredness of tone and bearing soon after:

That old sense of a tragedy going on
Uncomprehended, at the very edge
Of the usual, it never left me once . . .

The title poem, ‘Electric Light’, the last in the book, is among the best. It tells of a first visit to a grandmother in London and begins by describing the old woman’s hands: the

smashed thumbnail
Of that ancient mangled thumb was puckered pearl,
Rucked quartz

He remembers the ‘Lisp and relapse. Eddy of sybilline English./Splashes between a ship and dock.’ There is a fine evocation of the child’s unease in the flickering light of the electric world, the unearthly illumination of electricity (‘unearthly’, too, because he must stand on a chair and reach up to the switch), the disembodied voice of the radio, as the child ‘roams the stations of the world’:

To Southwark too I came,
From tube-mouth into sunlight,
Moyolo-breath by Thames’s ‘straunge stronde’

That hieratic stanza, heavy with ceremony, evokes a Poundian or Eliot-tinted vision of the metropolis – archaic, grimy and oddly heroic. The pull between a high literary and allusive art, one at home with a paper-trail of references, and an earthy naivety is often apparent. The poem ends with the lines:

Electric light shone over us, I feared
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.

The poem has come full circle, steered back to the old terrain, back to the peaty archaeology of Heaney’s best-known poems. From the light and water, the poem returns to the mouldable mulch of the Derry ground. Poems like ‘Perch’, a small masterpiece of sensuous apprehension, are as fine as anything Heaney has written:

Under the water-roof, over the bottom, adoze,
Guzzling the current, against it, all muscle
and slur
In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder,
on air
That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on
hold
In the everything flows and steady go of the world.

Responding to Karl Miller’s probing and skilful questions in a series of conversations between the two men, Heaney says at one point that ‘retrospect does not mean relapse,’ and Electric Light can be seen as testing this claim. In ‘Dylan the Durable’ he said something similar, arguing that ‘Do not go gentle’ endures because it ‘keeps its gaze firmly on the upward path, and works against the gradient of relapse’. In Electric Light it isn’t always clear whether Heaney is standing or moving, flowing or on hold, looking back or falling behind. Maybe it doesn’t matter: this is not his best book, but some of the poems it contains are among the best he has written.