Electric Light: Poems

Electric Light: Poems

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by Seamus Heaney

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A powerful new collection by the bestselling translator of Beowulf.

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.
--from "Perch"

Seamus Heaney's new collection travels widely in time and space,

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A powerful new collection by the bestselling translator of Beowulf.

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.
--from "Perch"

Seamus Heaney's new collection travels widely in time and space, visiting the sites of the classical world and 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 to conversation poems. The pre-Socratic wisdom that everything flows is held in tension with the elegizing of friends and fellow poets. These gifts of recollection renew the poet's calling to assign things their proper names; once again Heaney can be heard extending his word hoard and roll call in this, his eleventh collection.

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Editorial Reviews

bn.com Review
The Barnes & Noble Review
Seamus Heaney is one of our foremost poets of place; though he knows art's power to liberate and unbind, his verse always roots itself in a concrete realm of the senses. Heaney's latest collection, Electric Light, moves between two homelands -- the Arcadian landscape of classical antiquity, from which so many poets draw sustenance, and the fields, bogs, and rivers of Ireland. One dimension slides into the other; poetry tracks a "Single line to sing along the lifeline," creating and sustaining an account of the life-journey through the physical world.

Several of the poems are eclogues, a classical form derived from Virgil that mourns an expulsion from one's land. Others speak of aging, another sort of exile, but one that supplies the poet with a rich hoard of memories to be spun into song. So many of these involve fellow travelers, and Electric Light includes touching odes to departed friends like Joseph Brodsky and Ted Hughes. But it is also a book of beginnings, looking ahead to "the child that's due. Maybe, heavens, sing/Better times for her and her generation."

As events from rural childhood and heady schooldays juxtapose with imaginary flashes of the future, origins and destinations blur. "Since when," the poet asks, "Are the first line and last line of any poem/Where the poem begins and ends?" On the page, as well as in the world, time's progress is dynamic, multidimensional. Beginning "Where the flat water/Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh," Heaney's collection ranges far and near, but comes back to rest, fittingly, on "ground": the final word in Electric Light. (Jonathan Cook)

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Electric Light

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2001 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5552-6


    At Toomebridge

    Where the flat water
    Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh
    As if it had reached an edge of the flat earth
    And fallen shining to the continuous
    Present of the Bann.

    Where the checkpoint used to be.
    Where the rebel boy was hanged in '98.
    Where negative ions in the open air
    Are poetry to me. As once before
    The slime and silver of the fattened eel.


    Perch on their water-perch hung in the clear Bann River
    Near the clay bank in alder-dapple and waver,

    Perch we called "grunts," little flood-slubs, runty and ready,
    I saw and I see in the river's glorified body

    That is passable through, but they're bluntly holding the pass,
    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.


    They stood. And stood for something. Just by standing.
    In waiting. Unavailable. But there
    For sure. Sure and unbending.
    Rose-fingered dawn's and navy midnight's flower.

    Seed packets to begin with, pink and azure,
    Sifting lightness and small jittery promise:
    Lupin spires, erotics of the future,
    Lip-brush of the blue and earth's deep purchase.

    O pastel turrets, pods and tapering stalks
    That stood their ground for all our summer wending
    And even when they blanched would never balk.
    And none of this surpassed our understanding.

    Out of the Bag


    All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag.
    He'd arrive with it, disappear to the room
    And by the time he'd reappear to wash

    Those nosy, rosy, big, soft hands of his
    In the scullery basin, its lined insides
    (The colour of a spaniel's inside lug)

    Were empty for all to see, the trap-sprung mouth
    Unsnibbed and gaping wide. Then like a hypnotist
    Unwinding us, he'd wind the instruments

    Back into their lining, tie the cloth
    Like an apron round itself,
    Darken the door and leave

    With the bag in his hand, a plump ark by the keel ...
    Until the next time came and in he'd come
    In his fur-lined collar that was also spaniel-coloured

    And go stooping up to the room again, a whiff
    Of disinfectant, a Dutch interior gleam
    Of waistcoat satin and highlights on the forceps.

    Getting the water ready, that was next —
    Not plumping hot, and not lukewarm, but soft,
    Sud-luscious, saved for him from the rain-butt

    And savoured by him afterwards, all thanks
    Denied as he towelled hard and fast,
    Then held his arms out suddenly behind him

    To be squired and silk-lined into the camel coat.
    At which point he once turned his eyes upon me,
    Hyperborean, beyond-the-north-wind blue,

    Two peepholes to the locked room I saw into
    Every time his name was mentioned, skimmed
    Milk and ice, swabbed porcelain, the white

    And chill of tiles, steel hooks, chrome surgery tools
    And blood dreeps in the sawdust where it thickened
    At the foot of each cold wall. And overhead

    The 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 buttonhole.


    Poeta doctus Peter Levi says
    Sanctuaries of Asclepius (called asclepions)
    Were the equivalent of hospitals

    In ancient Greece. Or of shrines like Lourdes,
    Says poeta doctus Graves. Or of the cure
    By poetry that cannot be coerced,

    Say I, who realized at Epidaurus
    That the whole place was a sanatorium
    With theatre and gymnasium and baths,

    A site of incubation, where "incubation"
    Was technical and ritual, meaning sleep
    When epiphany occurred and you met the god ...

    Hatless, groggy, shadowing myself
    As the thurifer I was in an open air procession
    In Lourdes in '56

    When I nearly fainted from the heat and fumes,
    Again I nearly fainted as I bent
    To pull a bunch of grass and hallucinated

    Doctor Kerlin at the steamed-up glass
    Of our scullery window, starting in to draw
    With his large pink index finger dot-faced men

    With button-spots in a straight line down their fronts
    And women with dot breasts, giving them all
    A set of droopy sausage-arms and legs

    That soon began to run. And then as he dipped and laved
    In the generous suds again, miraculum:
    The baby bits all came together swimming

    Into his soapy big hygienic hands
    And I myself came to, blinded with sweat,
    Blinking and shaky in the windless light.


    Bits of the grass I pulled I posted off
    To one going into chemotherapy
    And one who had come through. I didn't want

    To leave the place or link up with the others.
    It was mid-day, mid-May, pre-tourist sunlight
    In the precincts of the god,

    The very site of the temple of Asclepius.
    I wanted nothing more than to lie down
    Under hogweed, under seeded grass

    And to be visited in the very eye of the day
    By Hygeia, his daughter, her name still clarifying
    The haven of light she was, the undarkening door.


    The room I came from and the rest of us all came from
    Stays pure reality where I stand alone,
    Standing the passage of time, and she's asleep

    In sheets put on for the doctor, wedding presents
    That showed up again and again, bridal
    And usual and useful at births and deaths.

    Me at the bedside, incubating for real,
    Peering, appearing to her as she closes
    And opens her eyes, then lapses back

    Into a faraway smile whose precinct of vision
    I would enter every time, to assist and be asked
    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?"

    Bann Valley Eclogue

    Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus
    — VIRGIL, Eclogue IV

    Bann Valley Muses, give us a song worth singing,
    Something that rises like the curtain in
    Those words And it came to pass or In the beginning.
    Help me to please my hedge-schoolmaster Virgil
    And the child that's due. Maybe, heavens, sing
    Better times for her and her generation.

    Here are my words you'll have to find a place for:
    Carmen, ordo, nascitur, saeculum, gens.
    Their gist in your tongue and province should be clear
    Even at this stage. Poetry, order, the times,
    The nation, wrong and renewal, then an infant birth
    And a flooding away of all the old miasma.

    Whatever stains you, you rubbed it into yourselves:
    Earth mark, birth mark, mould like the bloodied mould
    On Romulus's ditch-back. But when the waters break
    Bann's stream will overflow, the old markings
    Will avail no more to keep east bank from west.
    The valley will be washed like the new baby.

    Pacatum orbem: your words are too much nearly.
    Even "orb" by itself. What on earth could match it?
    And then, last month, at noon-eclipse, wind dropped.
    A millennial chill, birdless and dark, prepared.
    A firstness steadied, a lastness, a born awareness
    As name dawned into knowledge: I saw the orb.

    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.
    She'll lie on summer evenings listening to
    A chug and slug going on in the milking parlour.
    Let her never hear close gunfire or explosions.

    Why do I remember St. Patrick's mornings,
    Being sent by my mother to the railway line
    For the little trefoil, untouchable almost, the shamrock
    With its twining, binding, creepery, tough, thin roots
    All over the place, in the stones between the sleepers.
    Dew-scales shook off the leaves. Tear-ducts asperging.

    Child on the way, it won't be long until
    You land among us. Your mother's showing signs,
    Out for her sunset walk among big round bales.
    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.


    The stable door was open, the upper half,
    When I looked back. I was five years old
    And Dologhan stood watching me go off,
    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.
    He would spin his table knife and when the blade
    Stopped with its point towards me, a bright path

    Opened between us like a recognition
    That made no sense, like my memory of him standing
    Behind the half door, holding up the winkers.
    Even then he was like an apparition,

    A rambler from the Free State and a gambler,
    All eyes as the pennies rose and slowed
    On Sunday mornings under Butler's Bridge
    And downed themselves into that tight-bunched crowd

    Of the pitch-and-toss school. Sunlight on far lines,
    On the creosoted sleepers and hot stones.
    And Dologhan, who'd worked in Montana once,
    With the whole day off, in the cool shade of the arch.

    The Loose Box

    Back at the dark end, slats angled tautly down
    From a breast-high beam to the foot of the stable wall —
    Silked and seasoned timber of the hayrack.

    Marsupial brackets ... And a deep-littered silence
    Off odourless, untainting, fibrous horsedung.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    And they found the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
    And laid in a manger.

      But the plaster child in nappies,
    Bare baby-breasted little rigor vitae,
    Crook-armed, seed-nailed, nothing but gloss and chill —
    He wasn't right at all.
        And no hayrack
    To be seen.
      The solid stooping shepherds,
    The stiff-lugged donkey, Joseph, Mary, each
    Figure in the winter crib was well
    And truly placed. There was even real straw
    On the side-altar. And an out-of-scale,
    Too crockery, kneeling cow. And fairy lights.
    But no, no fodder-billowed armfuls spilling over ...

    At the altar rail I knelt and learnt almost
    Not to admit the let-down to myself.

    * * *

    Stable child, grown stabler when I read
    In adolescence Thomas dolens Hardy —
    Not, oddly enough, his Christmas Eve night-piece
    About the oxen in their bedded stall,
    But the threshing scene in Tess of the D'Urbervilles
    That magnified my soul. Raving machinery,
    The thresher bucking sky, rut-shuddery,
    A headless Trojan horse expelling straw
    From where the head should be, the underjaws
    Like staircases set champing — it hummed and slugged
    While the big sag and slew of the canvas belt
    That would cut your head off if you didn't watch
    Flowed from the flywheel. And comes flowing back,
    The whole mote-sweaty havoc and mania
    Of threshing day, the feeders up on top
    Like pyre-high Aztec priests gutting forked sheaves
    And paying them ungirded to the drum.

    Slack of gulped straw, the belly-taut of seedbags.
    And in the stilly night, chaff piled in ridges,
    Earth raw where the four wheels rocked and battled.

    * * *

    Michael Collins, ambushed at Beal na Blath,
    At the Pass of Flowers, the Blossom Gap, his own
    Bloom-drifted, soft Avernus-mouth,
    Has nothing to hold on to and falls again
    Willingly, lastly, foreknowledgeably deep
    Into the hay-floor that gave once in his childhood
    Down through the bedded mouth of the loft trapdoor,
    The loosening fodder-chute, the aftermath ...

    This has been told of Collins and retold
    By his biographer:
      One of his boy-deeds
    Was to enter the hidden jaws of that hay crevasse
    And get to his feet again and come unscathed
    Through a dazzle of pollen scarves to breathe the air.
    True or not true, the fall within his fall,
    That drop through the flower-floor lets him find his feet
    In an underworld of understanding
    Better than any newsreel lying-in-state
    Or footage of the laden gun-carriage
    And grim cortege could ever manage to.
      Or so it can be stated
    In the must and drift of talk about the loose box.


Excerpted from Electric Light by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 2001 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His poems, plays, translations, and essays include Opened Ground, Electric Light, Beowulf, The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Finders Keepers. Robert Lowell praised Heaney as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats."

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Electric Light 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
the latest collection of poetry from seamus heaney isn't his best work. in fact, if you aren't familiar with his work you'd do better starting with opened ground. there is a pensive tone throughout the collection, and the entire second half is written for recently dead poets. when you read this you can see why he won the nobel, but i'd wait to read this after you've gone through his selected poems.