"Human Chain," a new collection of poetry by Seamus Heaney

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By Troy Jollimore
Tuesday, September 21, 2010


By Seamus Heaney

Farrar Straus Giroux. 85 pp. $24

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

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