Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

So here I am at the end of Seamus Heaney’s major collections. I came via the sideways path, the one that starts with his Nobel lecture, which is brilliant, and has repaid many re-readings. It took me through Finders Keepers a collection of his prose, and then through his Beowulf. I no longer remember just why I picked up Stepping Stones, a collection of interviews of Heaney conducted over several years by Dennis O’Driscoll, a fellow Irish poet. After reading that collection, listening to the two of them talk about life and poetry for several hundred pages, I decided it was time to go and find the poems. And so I have. Following the Frumious advice, I began at the beginning and now I have come, more or less, to the end. Human Chain is the last collection of poems published in his lifetime. I may go back and pick up some of his translations — Sweeney Astray piqued my interest, and somewhere I think I still have my copy of his translation of Jan Kochanowski’s Laments — or maybe the collections that he edited together with Ted Hughes. But for major collections, it’s re-reading from now on. The poems will have to come back to me as if new.

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Human Chain seems to me to have more longish poems, or at least longish for Heaney, than most of his other collections. “Eelworks” offers six sections, short though each might be, while two poems later “A Herbal” has fifteen unnumbered parts across nine pages. “Route 110” makes its journey across twelve twelve-line sections, and there are nine “Hermit Songs” dedicated to Helen Vendler, a colleague of Heaney’s during his Harvard years. He is giving himself room, loosening up the concision that marks so much of his other work. The poems in this collection also seemed to me to have more than Heaney’s usual amount of non-English words and phrases dropped into the ordinary run of the lines, as if, as he neared the line between life and death, the borders among this world’s languages became more porous, his thoughts ran as naturally through one as through another and he wanted his readers to experience this unity as he did.

His eye for longer views by no means keeps him from appreciating, and sharing, more fleeting moments as in the poem that opens the collection:

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and tickling like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

There might just be a whole life in those twelve lines. Be awake, says Heaney; don’t miss it. It will come and go so unexpectedly.

(Please excuse the dashes throughout this review, they are not there in the original but there does not seem to be another way to persuade WordPress to separate the stanzas.)

“Canopy” describes a work of site-based art from 1994 at Harvard, and the magic of peoples’ reactions. “David Ward had installed/Voice-boxes in the branches,/Speakers wrapped in sacking/Looking like old wasps’ nests.” The action made the familiar strange to the people passing through, bringing them out of themselves and back to themselves.

Hush and backwash and echo
It was like a recording
Of antiphonal responses
In the congregation of leaves

Or a wood that talked in its sleep.
Reeds on a riverbank
Going over and over their secret.
People were cocking their ears,

Gathering, quietening,
Stepping on to the grass,
Stopping and holding hands.
Earth was replaying its tapes,

Words being given new airs:
Dante’s whispering wood —
The wood of the suicides —
Had been magicked to lover’s lane.

Though Heaney admits it might just be his reaction and imagination: “Or so I thought as the fairy/lights in the boughs came on.”

The book’s title poem has him seeing a scene of disaster relief with “bags of meal passed hand to hand/in close-up by the aid workers.” Despite the image of people helping people, all is not well because the line continues with “soldiers/Firing over the mob.” People are forming a chain to help others, while the use of force implies a different kind of chain. It brings to Heaney’s memory his own agricultural labor,

Two packed wads of grain … ready for the heave —

The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed
That quick unburdening

It is a moment that is gone forever — “A letting go which will not come again.” — and yet recurs, in a human chain: “Or it will, once. And for all.”

Here is how the collection ends, the latter part of “A Kite for Aibhín,” which carries the note “after ‘L’Aquilone’ by Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912)”:

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,
Lifts itself, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and — separate, elate —

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

And so he is now, launched into eternity.

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