'A gorgeously understated' new collection from Seamus Heaney, writes Ross Moore
Human Chain is Seamus Heaney’s 12th collection of poetry and his latest since District and Circle (2006). The latter collection was notable for the manner in which Heaney anchored the poetry in the specific local environment of the rural County Derry of his childhood, while allowing the poetry’s concerns to ripple outwards from this district to circle and touch on the contemporary global situation.
In many poems recalled physical objects were frequently menacing, giving a sense of threat and uncertainty appropriate in a collection which dwelt on the global unease in the wake of September 11 and the American-led onslaught on Iraq.
The title poem of the present collection similarly views the global through a remembered, familiar locale. The narrator watches a humanitarian crisis unfold on television, images of the aid workers passing food supplies from hand to hand remind the poet of farm work and lugging sacks of grain onto a trailer. The throw involved 'A letting go which will not come again. / Or it will, once. And for all.'
The televised image of an unspecified crisis sparks a personal memory; this is relayed in language which precisely imitates the physical movements described and which then opens out into a metaphor of mortality. Heaney can make this process appear as effortless as the unburdening of the sack of grain. Indeed, there are a number of poems in this collection which feel deceptively light on first reading, but they sink in and lodge – like immaculate haiku.
Human Chain emphasises continuities rather than fractures. As the aid workers use a literal human chain to pass along sustenance, so is the Heaney of this collection sustained by the continuities in the ‘human chain’ of family and friendship. Poems such as ‘Album’ or ‘The Butts’ trace familial relations over the course of a lifetime. The latter is particularly effective as Heaney’s description of suits hung in a wardrobe uses physical sensation to conjure up the essence of a person through life.
There is an underplayed sense of coherence and completion that runs through this collection, whether we take individual poems, sequences or the collection itself. ‘Route 110’ opens with the student Heaney purchasing a copy of the Aeneid VI, which he takes onto the bus to Cookstown, route 110, a journey that moves into an underworld of memories from the poet’s life, grounding itself in parallels with the Aeneid, before resurfacing on the birth of a grandchild.
Along the journey are some marvellous images. A stall in Smithfield market has: 'racks of suits and overcoats that swayed / When one was tugged from its overcrowded frame / Like their owners’ shades close-packed on Charon’s barge.' In the tenth part of the sequence Virgil’s 'happy shades … Contend on their green meadows', a scene which, as Heaney good-humouredly has it, seems 'Not unlike a sports day in Bellaghy', which he then goes on to describe, not missing a beat.
What the parallel with the Aeneid makes clear is that
another element in the human chain are the linkages provided by culture and literature. This is true both generally and more specifically – Heaney has drawn on book six of Virgil’s Aeneid previously, notably in his 1991 volume Seeing Things.
Heaney’s predominately three-lined stanzas form a visual chain throughout the collection. Frequently a poem comprises four of these three lined stanzas, a form Heaney often inclines towards, and which was the predominate form of the poems in Seeing Things.
In Human Chain, the chosen form allows a neat solidity to each poem or section without isolating one from the next – in the way that the addition of the extra two lines of a sonnet may have. The terza rima-like form provides a continuity throughout the volume, while the symmetry of the four by three-lined stanzas ensure that each poem maintains a solid visual individuality within the collection.
A focus on human continuities also implies an awareness of time passing and issues of mortality loom large in this collection. ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ describes an ambulance journey in the immediate aftermath of a stroke, while the next poem ‘Miracle’ praises the carers in the human chain, 'Not the one who takes up his bed and walks / But the ones who have known him all along / And carry him in …'.
The collection contains a number of elegies, some of these being among the most accomplished poems in an accomplished volume. Heaney eulogises or recalls the painters Nancy Wynne Jones, Colin Middleton and, in lines which already have the feel of being widely quoted, Derek Hill, by writing:
'The last time he sat at our table,
He could bear no longer to watch
The sun going down
And asking please to be put
With his back to the window.'
‘The door was open and the house was dark’, perhaps the finest poem in the collection, is in memory of the Belfast broadcaster and singer David Hammond. This elegy makes no direct mention of its subject or the memory of him. Instead, the poem focuses entirely on the silence left behind after his death.
Calling to the house, the poet calls his friend’s name while realising there will be no answer. The silence becomes almost substantial: '… while it grew / Backwards and down and out into the street' and the poem resolves on the image of:
'… a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar
On an overgrown airfield in late summer.'
Human Chain is a collection with a gorgeously understated, and tentative, sense of comprehension.
Human Chain by Seamus Heaney is published by Faber and Faber and can be purchased in the CultureNorthernIreland shop.