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The Vital Link – A Review of “Human Chain: Poems” by Seamus Heaney

 

Words being given new airs…
-“Canopy,” Seamus Heaney

An ancient saying first attributed to Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and made popular by Roman writers Seneca and Horace, “Ars longa, vita brevis” taps into a universal frustration among artists. In translations, it is perhaps put most succinctly by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer – “The life so short, the craft so long to learn…”

In this day and age, Horace, Seneca, Chaucer and the rest would be twice frustrated, and no doubt might have emended this tagline to read, “Vita facilis, ars dificilis” (Life is easy, art is difficult). Not only is the poetical art a difficult one to master for both writer and reader – but in an age which values the “soft” meaning of art little or less, at least, than it values the “hard” facts of science, poetry with all that tricky metaphoric baggage to lug around has especially received a drubbing from today’s no-nonsense culture.

A thought experiment will suffice to prove the truth of this assertion. When is the last time you read a poem? A book of poems? All the books of a single poet? All the poets of an era?

It’s a safe assumption that the answer to many if not all these questions is “not any time recently.” Despite the lack of interest in poetry, though, the poets continue to fling out beautiful lines to any and all who care to read.

Among them is perhaps the foremost master of the craft writing in English today, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born and raised a Catholic in mostly Protestant Northern Ireland, Heaney has found in the various tensions which his homeland has bred a rich and fertile bed from which more than a dozen original works have sprung, a raft of translations – including his version of the Old English poem “Beowulf” (reviewed in these pages when it first came out in 1999) – and several books of critical prose.

Because of the tight and eliptical narrative structure which Heaney usually locks into his poems, the summary blurbs on the back side of the book are always as welcomed as any hinting gloss to a manuscript obscure but rewarding in its study. According to the blurb backending “Human Chain,” this new collection elicits “continuities and solidarities,” that is, the common and consequential links of dignity and aspirations which all humans share.

The Nobel laureate’s thirteenth collection of verse since his debut with “Death of a Naturalist” in 1967, “Human Chain” continues to show the link between words and emotions, faith and doubt, the certainty of death and the hope of life. The title poem of the collection, “Human Chain,” sets out to define the terms under which, at least for Heaney, many of these tensions have declared a momentary truce.

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I’d worked to lugs
To give me purchase, 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, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

Although the circumstances and exact details of the human crisis in the poem are unidentified, the clarity of emotion with which Heaney invests the poem indicates both for the moment – “once” – and for eternity – “for all” – the importance of restoring and reaffirming our faith in the “human chain” supplied by links of continuity tempered by solidarity.

Part and parcel of this solidarity for Heaney is the Catholicism which is every bit a part of his constitution as a poet as the peat bogs and political violence which haunt his poems. The Catholic elements in his work are never pushed – but seem to emerge all of their own, usally on the back of a reminscience as a detail from his personal past, or sneaking into one of his typically enthralling thumbnail observations. In “A Mitre Box,” a good example of the latter, he contemplates the small mercies found in a child’s alms-collecting.

But still in your cupped palm to feel
The chunk and clink of an alms-giving mitre-box
Full to its slotted lid with copper coins,

Pennies and halfpennies donated for
“The foreign missions” … Made from a cardboard kit,
Wedge-roofed like a little oratory

And yours to tote as you made the rounds,
Indulged on every doorstep, each donation
Accounted for by a pinprick in a card –

A way for all to see a way to heaven,
The same as when a poinholed camera
Obscura unblinds the sun eclipsed. 

While the Catholic faith is more a cultural than spiritual identifier for Heaney – growing up in 1940s-1950s Northern Ireland, Heaney indicates, one was either Ulster Catholic or Orangeman (Northern Irish Protestant), with little room for much else – his relationship to the Catholic Church is not a cut-and-dried case of faith lost (or refound for that matter). In the 2006 book-length interview “Stepping Stones,” Heaney explains to Dennis O’Driscoll how it is between the Church and himself.

“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic?” asks Driscoll, to which Heaney replies: “I suppose so, because Catholicism provided a totally structured reading of the mortal condition which I’ve never quite deconstructed. I might have talked differently, certainly more diffidently, if you’d asked me about these matters thirty years ago, since I eventually did my best to change from catechized youth into secular adult….[I]n maturity, the myths of the classical world and Dante’s Commedia (where my Irish Catholic subculture received high cultural ratification) and the myths of other cultures matched and mixed and provide a cosmology that corresponded well enough to the original…”

One look at his poetry is enough to confirm that while he may for all practical purposes be finished with Catholicism, it is far from being finished with him.

But the point of reading Heaney’s poems – and especially those in “Human Chain,” are not to witness the exhibitions of a fallen-away Catholic poet thrashing out his personal salvation through a well-wrought line. Rather, it is to see that the faith of his fathers, which opposed and eventually in his later years perhaps helped to overcome, as he tells O’Driscoll. “a general, generational assent to the proposition that God is dead” experienced it in his youth,

The linkage in “Human Chain” is exactly composed of the bonds necessary to carry poet and reader through the darkness – a darkness Heaney styles in many of this volume’s poems as a sort of underworld, much like that found in Virgil’s “Aeneid” which his hero Aeneas would visit before founding Rome. Sometimes these bonds area physical – as in “Album” where he recounts his connection to his father “Were I to have embraced him anywhere/ It would have been on the riverbank/That summer before college…” and learning that proper affection comes with the bright abandon of youth. “It took a grandson to do it properly,/ To rush him in the armchair/ With a snatch raid on his neck,// Proving him thus vulnerable to delight…” The poet finds the proper words to show the connections in “Album” (which itself means “white”) and “delight” rings truest of all, scattering darkness and absorbing the elegaic passages earlier in the poem.  

In his attempt to shed light on the poetic landscape in “Human Chain,” Heaney revisits the roads and rides of his past down which he roams and roves, searching for more of those same “continuities and solidarities.”

In “The Wood Road,” a poetic reminiscence of the road outside his childhood home, Heaney recalls it as the junction of various public and private histories – Northern Ireland’s “troubles,” the farm work that brought the poet into adulthood, and the death of a young neighbor seen in “the stain at the end of the lane/Where the child on her bike was hit/By a speed-merchant from nowhere/…A back wheel spinning in sunshine// A headlamp in smithereens.”

 

Film it in sepia,
Drip-paint it in blood,
The Wood Road as is and was,
Resurfaced, never widened,
The milk-churn deck and the sign

For the bus-stop overgrown.

As in memory, so in life, the growth of the road is organic, “overgrown,” not artificially enlarged upon, “resurfaced, never widened.” This description of “The Wood Road,” arising from the organic depths of cultural, religious, political and personal memory, is in many ways the defining aspect of Heaney’s style.

Another road in the book, “Route 101,” brings the reader even deeper into these depths of memory, as Heaney recounts a bus ride in his youth into a Virgilian underworld – the juncture and platform for the significant yokes and links in his own life. After buying a copy of Virgil’s “Aeneid” at a bookstore, the poem’s speaker relates how, upon boarding, he watched as the busman Charon-like “ ruled the roost in bus station and bus/Separated and directed everybody// By calling not the names but the route numbers/And so we scattered as instructed…” The route takes him to weddings, funerals, harvests, love lost and love found – a whole roadmap of emotions and experiences inextricably linked one to another.

In the “Aeneid,” Aeneas presents a golden bough to the underworld’s gatekeeper to gain entrance to Hell, where he discovers his destiny as founder of the “Eternal City,” Rome (as much as Dante would find that his destiny lies in the truly eternal city of God in heaven through a tour of hell guided by Virgil). This image of the golden bough becomes in Heaney’s hands a sheaf of oat stalks, presumably recalled from his youth, adorning a neighbor’s home altar. “Each head of oats,” he writes,

A silvered smattering, each individual grain
Wrapped in a second husk of glittering foil
They’d saved from chocolate bars, then pinched and cinched

“To give the wee altar a bit of shine.”
The night old Mrs. Nick, as she was to us,
Handed me one it as good as lit me home.

The deeper the reader goes into “Human Chain,” the more “Route 101” becomes a polyglot of the book’s many “continuities and solidarities.” In the poem, Heaney is linking himself to his personal past and his nation’s history, his culture, the faith of his youth, and even the greater literary tradition of Virgil and Dante of which he is unquestionably a part. For the importance of community at all these levels – family, friends, fellow Catholics (and even the antagonistic Irish Protestants), his countrymen, his literary forebears, all exist as points along the way, the various gifts of time and place which, like the oat stalk in the poem, as good as light both Heaney and his readers to as many interpretations of “home” as the “Human Chain” can bear.

Even as he reaches home, or at least the home of friend and musician the late David Hammond, the darkness and silence of a house divested of its owner proffers the mystery of a real presence (not necessarily the Catholic version of this mystery, but perhaps one fostered by the shadow-liturgy of poetry).

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

That kept me standing listening while it grew
Backwards and down and out into the street
Where as I’d entered (I remember now)

The streetlamps too were out.
I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here there was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

On an overgrown airfield in late summer.

This presence/absence which Heaney discovers in “The door was open and the house was dark,”  is that most vital link – the essential bond reinforced by gossamer and adamantine alike. The absence/presence is the invisible reality of words, which in “Human Chain,” Heaney handily shows, possesses a power to forge each link of humanity’s chain.

Editor’s note: An abridged version of this article will appear in The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse, on Oct. 20.