An older man watches the television news: Aid workers in some distressed spot are passing bags of relief supplies one to another. Suddenly he is back on the farm of his childhood, one of a line of men and boys tossing sacks of meal “eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two,” a human chain. As the title of this book suggests, continuity lies at the heart of Seamus Heaney’s latest volume of poems—or rather continuities: connections between parents and children (especially fathers and sons), between the writer and his poetic precursors, between places and the people formed by them, between the observer and the natural or man-made world, between things and the names we give them, between past and present. In many ways, connections like these have always marked Heaney’s verse, but here the insistence with which he makes them seems more intense, along with—perhaps because of—a heightened realization that the hard work of establishing such continuity does not get easier with age. Yet for all that, he demonstrates once again that “the whole thing’s worth the effort.”
The poet invites the reader to look with him at his home ground, the Ulster countryside:
As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond
Maps and atlases,
Where all is woven into
And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?
The “elsewhere world” of the poet’s imagination has its consolations, but Heaney resolutely forbids himself (and us) to take them on the cheap. In summoning up these landscapes he avoids a purely nostalgic kind of pastoral. “A Herbal,” modeled on a medieval Breton poem, celebrates the flowers and grasses while acknowledging the nettles: “Enemies—/ Part of a world/ Nobody seemed able to explain/ But that had to be put up with.” That world and its troubles (in Northern Ireland, “the Troubles” as well) are present to one degree or another, even in the seemingly benign:
Yet for all their lush
No way have plants here
Arrived at a settlement...
Nor does the grass itself
Ever rest in peace.
“Settlement” and “plants”/“plantation” have inescapable charges of colonialism in Ulster, but here Heaney does not engage the overtly political as he sometimes has in the past. He continues to assert that the poet’s job is to look steadily at the delight and horror of the world and to find ways to express both, what he has elsewhere called “that whole creative effort to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form.”
If you know a bit
About the universe
It’s because you’ve taken it in
Looked as hard
As you look into yourself....
His verse has always been personal; and, as his friend and colleague Helen Vendler has observed, each successive volume can in part be taken as another chapter of autobiography. Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006, from which he has recovered. In one poem he describes the high-speed ambulance ride (his “once capable/ Warm hand” now “flop-heavy”). Another retells the story of the healing of the paralytic in chapter two of Mark’s Gospel (though our attention is directed neither to Jesus nor to “the one who takes up his bed and walks” but to the sweating, straining men who bear him up to the roof and lower him down). The poet now employs a vocabulary of loss and diminishment:
As I age and blank on names,
As my uncertainty on stairs
Is more and more the lightheaded- ness
Of a cabin boy’s first time on the
As the memorable bottoms out
Into the irretrievable....
One of the poems is Heaney’s translation of an 11th- or 12th-century Irish verse, the song of an exile who “will look back but not see/ Ever again/ The men of Ireland or her women.” A line from this poem appears in another, in which he looks through an old family photo album, confirming that his theme is the country from which we are all exiles—not Ireland, but the past.
The snapshots of his parents remind him that over the years, like Aeneas in the underworld, he tried to embrace his father three times. It is only at the end of the old man’s life that he can “properly” be embraced, by a grandson rushing into his arms, “proving him thus vulnerable to delight.” Now a grandfather in his own turn, Heaney allows himself to be vulnerable to the delights of the senses, whether recalled in berries (“Never, in later days/ Would fruit/ So taste of earth./ There was slate/ In the blackberries,/ A slatey sap”) or in shoveled coal (“The sound it made/ More to me/ Than any allegory./ Slack schlock./ Scuttle scuffle./ Shak-shak”). As always, it is the felicitous words and their surprises that engage Heaney and his readers: how, for example, a “windfall” here is not an apple blown to the ground but a kite, string snapped, taking off into the sky. The pleasure he takes in words themselves is as fresh as ever, even when they mark the onset of age—for example, the “inkhorn” of the old Irish scribes and the “inkwell” used by young Seamus are now equally “robbed of sense.”
The first poem of Human Chain, “Had I Not Been Awake,” recalls a sudden violent storm many years ago; he tells how it
...got me up, the whole of me a-
Alive and ticking like an electric
Had I not been awake I would
have missed it,
It came and went so unexpected-
It is our good fortune that Seamus Heaney has been and continues to be awake and alive to the world, showing us in the ordinary “the marvelous as he had known it."