by Seamus Heaney
Faber and Faber; Hardback, 85 pages, ISBN 978 0 571 26922 8
Speaking of the period between suffering a stroke and turning seventy, Seamus Heaney remarked to Robert McCrum that he felt he had ‘boxed myself into a kind of closing cadence’. The poems of Human Chain are written as a response to this undesired sense of winding down in the rhythms of his life and of his verse.
The collection’s opening poem ‘
‘Had I not been awake’ ’ sees the narrator lying in bed as the wind whirls sycamore leaves onto the roof. On hearing their unexpected, animalistic noise, the poet is filled with a new energy; ‘the whole of me a-patter, / Alive and ticking like an electric fence’. This rediscovered vitality defies Heaney’s own recent history of illness and incapacity, and rejects the assumption that one’s alertness to the movements of the world around decreases with the onset of age. However, it is indicative of the tone of Human Chain that the moment of electric liveliness is overshadowed by a feeling that our mortality weighs over us.
The collection contains many recollections of life as lived, but also several moving elegies for those Heaney has lost. ‘
‘Had I not been awake ’’ embraces the magic of unexpected moments of beauty, but is haunted by a sense of loss in their brevity and rarity. The poem implies that it is only by mere chance that we are alive, rendering life as fragile and inspiring a fragment as this moment of listening in the dark.
While Heaney’s poetry remains vivid and rejects a sense of closure, the difference age makes to the poet’s creative mind is not ignored in Human Chain. ‘The Baler’ writes with familiarity of an older friend’s visit to the household. ‘In the Attic’ sees the poet first as a youth playing vivid imaginative games. Scenes are enacted, names are recalled and dialogue is recited straight from the film of Treasure Island, reflecting the clarity with which the much anticipated adaption has left its mark on the child’s mind. This is contrasted with the mistaken recollection of his grandfather. The old man’s faulty naming of Israel Hand as ‘Isaac Hands’ is a ‘mistake perpetual, once and for all, / Like the single splash when Israel’s body fell.’ The blurry-minded splash of his mistake impacts noisily into the still, calm sea of the child’s mind. The mistake lives perpetually in Heaney’s memory as the moment in which the facts of age and human frailty first intrude on the child’s consciousness; a shocking discovery of his own future state.
However, now writing from this future state, the continuities between the child’s mind and that of the elderly poet’s are realised. Despite Heaney’s own blurry difficulties in recollecting names and his newfound ‘uncertainty on stairs’, he states that:
It’s not that I can’t imagine still
That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.
The imagination behind the poems of Human Chain is a composite of the child and the older man. Like the child, he can vividly recollect a moment’s feeling, recreating it in words. However, unlike the child the adult poet draws on an enriched variety of emotions.
Heaney’s interest in the moments collected throughout the course of a life, the spots of time which form our present selves and shape the poetic imagination, has influenced his poetry since Death of a Naturalist first captured his childhood surroundings and experiences. The complexity, beauty and fleetingness of these moments continue to occupy the poet in his current collection.
Poems such as the elegy ‘Wraiths’, the beautiful longer sequence ‘Route 110’ and the shorter ‘Album’ are divided into equal four stanza sections, in each of which Heaney recreates a remembered or imagined moment in the poet’s or subjects’ lives. ‘Album’, for instance, charts his parents’ relationships both with him and with each other. He remembers standing with his mother and father on Grove Hill among oaks and bluebells, and imagines forgotten details while reflecting on their steady love.
Elsewhere, Heaney is an undiscovered foetus ‘at the table, / Uninvited, ineluctable’ as they dine together on honeymoon, or a young man unable to embrace his father as he leaves for college. The final section sees Heaney’s own son rushing to embrace the old man as Heaney himself once failed to do.
Poems such as these trace the development of emotional relationships as the individuals involved change and age, imbuing each moment with a significance which resonates throughout the collection. Fascination with the captured moment may be a theme continued into Human Chain from earlier work, but Heaney’s current perspective as a septuagenarian allows his poems to dip in and out of a lifetime, from his boyhood through his adulthood until, in the final section of ‘Route 110’, it is the turn of Heaney’s own grandchild to be embraced.
It is the connections Heaney has made over his lifetime between the people who have mattered most to him, creatively and emotionally, which form the ‘human chain’ of the title. The poet’s father in particular has a central role in the collection. Overshadowing Heaney’s mother and all other presences in the poems, the father in all stages of life is explored. Among the most touching elements of Human Chain is discovering the deep link between Heaney’s father and the poet’s own creative force. This connection is made through a series of resonances and hints which resurface through the collection. In ‘The Butts’, Heaney’s father is associated with the abandoned cigarette butts Heaney finds secreted in suit and trouser pockets. These butts reappear in ‘Lick the Pencil’, as the father is seen carefully licking a pencil and testing it on his arm. The marks left on his arm in turn ‘Moisten and magnify to resemble marks / On Colmcille’s monk’s habit’. Saint Colmcille is imagined as a scribe in the ‘Colum Cille Cecinit’ sequence, and is cited again in the astounding poem ‘Hermit Songs’. ‘Hermit Songs’ explores the meaning of writing and writing paraphernalia, and follows the poet learning to read and preserve books by covering them with calico sheaths. This respect for the potential of the item resembles the steady craft of the ancient scribes of Ireland working on illuminated manuscripts. The blended father/Colmcille figure brings the paternal presence deep into the heart of Heaney’s creative life, as an inspiration, a teacher and a craftsman in his own right. Just as Heaney’s famous poem ‘Digging’ sees the young poet emulating the craft of his ancestors with his own spade-headed pen, the poems connecting his father to writing weave together craftsmanship of father and son. Part of the joy of Human Chain is tracing these subtly submerged connecting chains between the people who inhabit Heaney’s poetic world, both in this collection and in his past writings.
Robert McCrum, ‘A Life of Rhyme’, in The Observer, Sunday 19th July 2009.