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Book Review

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

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Publisher: Faber & Faber

1 of 1 So much in the collection harks back to a vanished world, still there in large part when the poet's first book, Death of a Naturalist, first appeared in 1966
So much in the collection harks back to a vanished world, still there in large part when the poet's first book, Death of a Naturalist, first appeared in 1966

Had I not been awake is a particularly dramatic opening poem in Seamus Heaney's final collection, Human Chain (published in 2011) which through the powerful image of a storm recalls the stroke which the poet suffered in 2006.

But quickly he pulls away from that drama, to sidle more gently, if wistfully, back to the lives of his parents in the following sequence of poems, entitled Album. These poems remember his mother and father with striking affection and tenderness. In Album iii, he imagines himself as a guest at their wedding table. In the following poem in the sequence he recalls two occasions when he embraced his father, technically at least.

There are, in fact, three occasions recalled. The first was when he was about to go to boarding school - an embrace that didn't happen but should have had. Many of us males of a certain age, who are Irish, not Mediterranean can recognise that sudden clenching of emotion that did not permit such intimacies.

Anyone reading these poems in their fifties will feel they can just about share his references from a vanished school-room life. Images like the pencil that purpled and inked itself, or the bits of bread used to rub out writing.

So much in the collection harks back to a lost Irish rural scene, recalling mostly disused ways of doing things. These practices were extant in some cases, when Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney's first book, appeared in 1966.

He recalls the magic of so-called "transfers", those colourfully-vivid cartoons that magically shimmered into life when pressed with a hot iron.

Birds and butterflies in transfers
Like stamps from Eden on a flyleaf.
(Hermit Songs)

In this poem, he is going back in reverie to his 1940s schooling in South Derry. His desire to remember it accurately is urgent, pressing:

The master’s store an otherwhere:
Penshafts sheathed in black tin – was it? –

A present-day school pupil could not be expected to know from the off that 'master' refers to school-master or school-teacher. Nor could they possibly know what a mite box was. They might never have heard of a Conway Stewart fountain pen, not to mind a fountain pen itself, or even Clarnico-Murray's iced caramels. Jotters, nibs, copperplate no longer have currency. Yet the poet is studied and loved by many contemporary Irish school-children.

There is a vivid image of the young Heaney being sent out by the said master to fetch water from a stream, water which will be used to turn powder into ink, as was once the custom.

Out in the open, the land and sky
And playground silent, a singing class
I’ve been excused from going on,
Coming out through opened windows,
Yet still and all a world away.

Parking Lot is about going to the Gaeltacht, and summons the image of a bus which has stopped to break the journey, and the school-children boarding it again:

Between languages, half in thrall to desire / Half shy of it.

A Herbal is written 'after’ the late Breton poet Eugène Guillevic’s Herbier de Bretagne:

Broom
Is like the disregarded
And company for them,

Shows them
They have to keep going,

That the whole thing’s worth
The effort.

Guillevic’s poem is set in a graveyard, and this last collection is full of images and evocations of mortality:

It was the age of ghosts. Of hand-held flashlamps.
Lights moving at a distance scried for who
And why: whose wake, say, in which house on the road.

The poet has the careful air of a country wake absolutely spot on:

The antiphonal recital of known events / And others rare, clandestine, undertoned.

The Baler contains some of the most profoundly beautiful lines in the book:

It was evening before I came to
To what I was hearing
And missing: summer's richest hours

As they had been to begin with

The poet seems to prefigure his own death in the last three lines of the title poem, Human Chain. The poem describes the human chain that he remembers from the farm at home, as men passed sacks one to the other.

That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

Paddy Kehoe

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