Seamus Heaney: An aged poet, addressing mortality with a sure and strong voice in ‘Human Chain’

September 21, 2010

Seamus Heaney is among the most famous and esteemed living poets. His 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature confirmed the image most already had of him, as a towering figure, a grandmaster, an eminence. And at the age of 71 he is, one has to admit, getting up there. Nor has he managed to avoid all the ill-effects of aging. A few years ago he suffered a stroke, which forced him to take nearly a year off from writing and other activities. Yet despite all this, Heaney still writes with the passion, freshness and vigor of a young man. "Human Chain," which sits comfortably alongside such accomplished earlier collections as "Field Work" and "Station Island," feels at times less like a late work than a first book by a remarkably gifted and promising young poet.

That said, "Human Chain" is also -- and I mean this in the best possible sense -- an old man's book. The poems are pervaded by an awareness of mortality, of encroaching darkness. At times this awareness proves nearly too sad to bear:

Derek Hill's saying,

The last time he sat at our table,

He could no longer bear to watch

The sun going down

And asking please to be put

With his back to the window.

Many of these poems feel like elegies, longing wistfully for a vanished world or expressing the desire that that world might somehow be restored. Other poems are resigned to loss. In "The Door Was Open and the House Was Dark," Heaney visits the house of his deceased friend David Hammond, to find that he feels

for the first time there and then, a stranger,

Intruder almost, wanting to take flight 

Yet well aware that here was no danger,

Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming

Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

 On an overgrown airfield in high summer.

Through much of the book, though, the pain of grief and anticipated grief is made bearable through various means: most important, perhaps, being the recognition that an individual life -- and thus an individual death -- is only one small element of a much larger world. This larger world is sometimes conceived as a kind of afterlife or heaven. "So this is what an afterlife can come to?" he asks in one poem. In another he imagines a bus ride as a journey to the underworld and describes how the passengers "reboarded / And were reincarnated seat by seat."

But the larger life need not be conceived in mythical terms: Family also provides a kind of continuity within which the particular life can find consoling meaning. "Route 110," which borrows imagery from Virgil's "Aeneid," ends with a moving birth scene:

So now, as a thank-offering for one

Whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended,

I arrive with my bunch of stalks and silvered heads

 Like tapers that won't dim

As her earthlight breaks and we gather round

Talking baby talk.

This tableau -- the aged spiritual voyager who will soon return to that "shaded bank" confronted with the radical newness of a soul that has just been brought from there -- suggests a kind of "human chain," the chain of genetic relations that unites us with our long-ago ancestors and our yet to be imagined successors.

The title poem, meanwhile -- which also ends with what might be an image of death -- turns out to describe a chain of people passing bags of meal from "hand to hand." Those bags of meal bear some resemblance to human bodies, and indeed throughout this collection it is often people who are being carried: "Helping him to the bathroom, my right arm / Taking the webby weight of his underarm" (from "Album"). "Not the one who takes up his bed and walks / But the ones who have known him all along / And carry him in -- " (from "Miracle"). In "Chanson d'Aventure," it is Heaney himself, post-stroke, who is carried and loaded into the waiting ambulance with his wife beside him, spending the ride to the hospital "ecstatic and bisected / By a hooked-up drip-feed to the cannula."

Heaney's brush with death might help explain not only why mortality is so much on his mind, but also why he seems insistent on viewing death, and other possible catastrophes, as opportunities for transformation. The opening poem, "Had I Not Been Awake," gives an account of a freak weather occurrence -- "A wind that rose and whirled" -- that ends up re-described as "A courier blast that there and then / Lapsed ordinary. But not ever / After. And not now." That transformative wind returns in the final poem, "A Kite for Aibhin," which concludes: "Until string breaks and -- separate, elate -- // The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall." That wish -- that death might represent a liberation, a passage to a higher state of being -- is ubiquitous in this collection, and it infuses these meditative poems with a spiritual buoyancy, a subtle and reassuring joy.

And indeed, the book is a joy on every level. The voice is strong and assured, the images are vivid and memorable. Most important, the music, as always with Heaney, is lovely. There is so much life in "Human Chain" that one wishes he were, in fact, just starting out. It is wonderful, and heartbreaking, to think of the books this promising poet might go on to write, given another 50 years or so.

Jollimore's new book of poems, "At Lake Scugog," will be published next year.

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