Human Chain: Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
96 pp., 24.00
This is a book about work—about farmers and mechanics and ditch-diggers: the humanness of getting down to the business at hand—written by a poet, growing old, who feels his mortality crowding in. Human Chain is a book about men rolling up their shirt-sleeves, written by a man rolling up his trousers for one last walk along the beach.
And why not? If, in his first collection of poetry since his 2006 stroke, the 71-year-old Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is in a retrospective mood, well, he's earned it. Memory grows thick as hope grows thin; the past feels longer when the future feels brief. That doesn't always make for great poetry, however. Good poetry, yes. Competent poetry, certainly—the man is incapable of creating less than a successfully voiced, well-constructed stanza. But Human Chain isn't "The Circus Animals' Desertion"; it isn't proof that Heaney has found the kind of late burst of creativity that made William Butler Yeats' final poems so powerful. Poem by poem, Heaney's latest volume is more reminiscent of the final years of T.S. Eliot's work—the energy a little horded, the reputation a bit preserved, the tread a tad careful. The old man on the beach rolls his trousers in part to keep them from getting wet, but also in part because his frame has shrunk and he cannot stride as far as he used to.
Heaney has given us such volumes of criticism as his Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry, in 1995. He's published several successful translations from Polish, Irish, Russian, and, notably, Old English, with his bestselling version of Beowulf in 1999. If we are to remember him, however—if we are to place the Irishman among the standard figures of English literature—his reputation must stand on his own poetry, the twelve books of verse he's published over the last fifty years.
So what then shall we say of Human Chain? The book may be more important, as a book, than the individual poems initially make it seem. Many of the usual Heaneyesque tropes and tricks are present in the poetry. There's the echoing play with vocabulary: a blade of grass "a-tremble," a human voice "a-waver," a field "a-hover" with insects, a boy "a-fluster." There's the fascination with particularity: a piece of farm machinery, a list of herbs, the poor box in a church, a fountain pen. There's the constant insistence on the land, the farms he knew as a child and the land he returned to as an adult. There's the voice of homespun wisdom, drawn from the countryman's knowledge of nature, even while the poems never quite arrive at any moral conclusion much stronger than doubt and ambiguity.
And there is, as always in Heaney, the avoidance of politics. Even in tranquil recollection, the poet—born in Northern Ireland but living now in the southern Republic—generally ignores the Troubles, the guns and bombs and riots. His walk through his memory in Human Chain steps over nearly every public event between the calm of his childhood and the calm of his self-proclaimed old age.
So, for instance, the title poem describes a group of people loading relief supplies—bags of meal—by passing them from "hand to hand," down the human chain. And the poet is reminded of a similar chain, loading grain when he was young. He sees now, and remembers then, the "stoop and drag and drain" of the work. And, there, the goal of the human chain: "That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback, / A letting go which will not come again. / Or it will, once. And for all." Which is the completion of the work, the supplies stacked up, of course. But it's also death, realized as the end of work and the end of the chain.
This theme of being passed from hand to hand continues in "Chanson d'Aventure," but this time it's Heaney himself who is carried along the chain, the poem an account of his being loaded into the ambulance after his stroke, "ecstatic and bisected / By a hooked-up drip-feed"—only to be "Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked / In position." The theme reaches back into memory, in the poem "The Conway Stewart," to latch onto a gold-banded fountain pen he received from his parents' hands as he packed to leave for boarding school. And though it marks a remembered parting, the pen recalls as well the human chain, when Heaney remembers using it to write "longhand / 'Dear' / To them, next day."
In "Album," the theme of passing from hand to hand encompasses his father's final illness: "Helping him to the bathroom, my right arm / Taking the webby weight of his underarm." And it reaches its peak in "Miracle," a poem about the biblical story of Christ's healing. Except that Heaney's focus is not on "the one who takes up his bed and walks." It is, instead, on "the ones who have known him all along / And carry him in." The human chain consist of "those who had known him all along" and who must lift the man on the stretcher to the roof and then lower him down to be healed, "the ache and stoop deeplocked / In their backs."
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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