Human Chain: Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
96 pp., $24.00
Seamus Heaney could always do lyrical verse, and his ability is on display in Human Chain with such poems as "Hermit Songs" and "Colum Cille Cecinit." He could always do elegy, and his new descriptions of the loss of the painters Derek Hill, Nancy Wynne Jones, and Colin Middleton belong in the company of his older work. His indulgence of long sentences and fascination with particularity show up in the new volume with such poems as the account of the cheap "slack coal" his family would buy when he was young:
Not coal dust, more the weighty grounds of coal
The lorryman would lug in open bags
And vent into a corner,
A sullen pile
But soft to the shovel, accommodating
As the clattering coal was not.
In days when life prepared for rainy days
It lay there, slumped and waiting
To dampen down and lengthen out
The fire, a check on mammon
And in its own way
Keeper of the flame.
So, too, Human Chain contains what is never absent from Seamus Heaney's verse—the revisting of the places of his youth and the appreciation of men who work with their hands in the open air:
All day the clunk of a baler
So taken for granted
It was evening before I came to
To what I was hearing
And missing: summer's richest hours
As they had been to begin with,
And nearly rewarded enough
By the giddied-up race of a tractor
At the end of the day
Last-lapping a hayfield.
The awareness of death in Human Chain, however, is new—or, at least, particularized in a new and personal way. Perhaps the book's most memorable poem is "Route 110," which opens with Heaney's entering a store that reeks of "dry rot and disinfectant" and buying a "used copy of Aeneid VI." Could there ever be, for a poet, a better image of something passed down the human chain, from hand to hand, than an old book? His journey home becomes a revisiting of Virgil's Aeneid, as the bus, traveling the route to "Cookstown via Toome and Magherafelt," passes simultaneously through the land of the living and dead. Unworn clothing appears again and again through the Human Chain, and in "Route 110" it shows in the racks of coats in a marketplace, swaying like "their owners' shades close-packed on Charon's barge."
Poem by poem, Human Chain is a fine collection, but it's such repetition of themes and images—the echoing and reechoing as the book goes on—that lifts the whole collection, as a book, above the individual poems. And yet, in the end, there's a feeling of incompletion that accompanies the poetry. The repetitions never quite strike sparks off one another; the tropes never quite burn hot enough. Human Chain will not damage Seamus Heaney's reputation. But it seems, at last, a nursing of the flame, rather than a feeding of the fire.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard.
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