Book: Electric Light

Cover image

Electric Light

Author: Seamus Heaney
Publisher: Faber and Faber

Electric Light travels widely in time and space, visiting the sites of the classical world, revisiting the poet’s childhood: rural electrification and the light of ancient evenings are reconciled within the orbit of a single lifetime. This is a book about origins (not least the origins of words) and oracles: the places where things start from, the ground of understanding—whether in Arcadia or Anahorish, the sanctuary at Epidaurus or the Bann valley in County Derry.Electric Light ranges from short takes (‘glosses’) to conversation poems whose cunning passagework gives rein to ‘the must and drift of talk’; other poems are arranged in sections, their separate cargoes docked alongside each other to reveal a hidden and curative connection. The presocratic wisdom that everything flows is held in tension with the fixities of remembrance: elegising friends and fellow poets, naming ‘the real names’ of contemporaries behind the Shakespearean roles they played at school. These gifts of recollection renew the poet’s calling to assign to things their proper names. The resulting poems are full of delicately prescriptive tonalities, where Heaney can be heard extending his word-hoard and rollcall in this, his eleventh collection.


Seamus Heaney’s 11th collection of poems, Electric Light continues his excavation of childhood, his vivifying love of nature and his quest into the meaning of poetry itself in an utterly pleasurable and satisfying way. As the poet squares up to his own mortality, many of the poems are dedicated to the memory of lost friends and poets, such as Joseph Brodsky, and yet the urgency and optimism of new birth is a lively and forceful presence in the book. “Bann Valley Eclogue” prophesises a time when “old markings / Will avail no more to keep east bank from west. / The valley will be washed like the new baby”. In “Out of the Bag”, the child narrator believes that the doctor brings the newborn from his lined bag. The doctor, “like a hypnotist unwinding us” is cloaked in luxury in his camel coat with its spaniel-coloured, fur-lined collar and like a god, he makes baby’s bits appear “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 buttonhole”. Childhood is an unfading, unfailing source in Heaney’s work and is caught with a breathless vitality, that is both “earthed and heady”. “The Real Names” revisits the schoolboys who played Shakespeare: Owen Kelly as “Sperrins Caliban” with “turnip fists” and “some junior-final day-boy” as Miranda. “Catatonic Bobby X” plays Feste, “With his curled-in shoulders and cabbage-water eyes / speechlessly rocking…Me in attendance, watching sorrow’s elf / Bow his head and hunch and stay beyond us”. This poem has the humour, exactness, scope and tenderness of Heaney at his best. His language is as muscular and inventive as ever. He subverts the verb “waver” into a noun in “Perch” and idiom meets innovation in words such as “rut-shuddery”, “flood-slubs” and “adoze”. His address achieves great inclusiveness, extending the local to the universal, invoking the people who first named his world, and granting them meaning and place in the wider one. He seeks to be surefooted, to reach a clarity of understanding, asking in the wonderfully satiric “Known World”, “How does the real get into the made-up?” Once more, Heaney demonstrates with humility, grace and lightness how poetry can “hold / In the everything flows and steady go of the world”. —Cherry Smyth

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