Human Chain

by Seamus Heaney
reviewed by Heather Clark
April 18, 2011

In “Exposure,” the last poem of Seamus Heaney’s pivotal collection North, the poet positions himself as an Ovidian exile, “weighing and weighing / My responsible tristia” while he ruminates on his decision to leave Belfast for the Republic of Ireland. Safely ensconced in Wicklow—“Escaped from the massacre”—the dejected poet concedes that his own hesitant involvement with the fractious politics of Northern Ireland has thrown him off course and caused him to miss, in the poem’s famous last image, “The comet’s pulsing rose.”

That spectral comet reappears in the last poem of Human Chain, “A Kite for Aibhín.” Now, however, the poet is in full possession of its elusive, enabling energy:

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.
. . . and my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher
The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and—separate, elate—
The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

 “A Kite for Aibhín” repositions the poet as “elate” rather than exile. He who in “Exposure” sat “blowing up these sparks / For their meagre heat” now feels the full force of the windfall in Human Chain: a more peaceful Northern Ireland, a second grandchild, and a renewed sense of his creative power. A similar windfall occurs in the collection’s first poem, “Had I not been awake” (an homage to Ted Hughes’s “Wind”), as the poet listens, “alive and ticking,” to storm winds tearing across his roof. The winds seem to drive away the debris in the poet’s mind and clear a space for the meditative encounters with the past that form the core of Human Chain.

It is no accident Seamus Heaney chooses to begin and end Human Chain with images of wind. In a book that dwells heavily upon mourning and mortality, “Had I not been awake” and “A Kite for Aibhín” stand apart as Yeatsian declarations of vitality. They are the buttresses that hold the book’s retrospective structure aloft: wind as spirit, inspiration, and breath of life (from the Latin inspirare) provides the urgent force at the poet’s back as he descends into a Virgilian underworld, just as it provides the equally urgent uplift and release at the journey’s end. No longer plagued by the anger, guilt, and self-doubt that marked some of his earlier collections, Heaney has achieved a hard-won clarity of vision. Here, he renders memories with crystalline precision as he distills and contemplates the accumulations of a life. The poems’ luminous clarity, so free of excess and easy emotion, ought to prove once and for all that Heaney is no sentimentalist (Susan Sontag once said that he was “living in his own theme park”). These poems refuse outright consolation and offer, instead, a fleeting sense of connection between living and dead—the human chain of the book’s title.

Heaney makes his underworld journey explicit in “The Riverbank Field,” after Book VI of the Aeneid, and “Route 110,” a remarkable sequence of twelve poems in four three-lined stanzas that recall revelatory moments in the poet’s life. The sequence begins as a young Heaney buys his first copy of the Aeneid—now a talismanic text for him. Shortly thereafter, in one of the strongest sections, he remembers his first wake:

Apt pupil in their night school, I walked home
On the last morning, my clothes as smoke-imbued
As if I’d fed a pyre, accompanied to the gable
By the mother, to point out a right or way
Across their fields, into our own back lane,
And absolve me thus formally of trespass.

Indeed, absolution and mourning often dwell together in these poems. While Electric Light (2001) contained more elegies, Human Chain is more intimate in its grief. Heaney’s poems about his parents are among the most moving and accessible in the collection. Tender and vulnerable, fraught with regret, these spare, resonant offerings strike the same note that made Heaney a critical and popular success so many years ago; his ability to sanctify ordinary moments with grace is still unrivaled among his contemporaries. In the “Album” sequence, for example, he mourns his parents as he leafs through old photographs: “Too late, alas, now for the apt quotation / About a love that’s proved by steady gazing / Not at each other but in the same direction.” Of course, it is not too late: the poet in fact gives us the “apt quotation” through a sly sleight of hand. In the next poem, “The Conway Stewart,” Heaney refers back to the first poem in his oeuvre, “Digging,” in which he famously vowed to “dig” with the pen instead of his father’s spade. Now the expensive fountain pen, a gift from his parents before his departure for boarding school, connects rather than separates. Admiring it gives the family

             time
To look together and away
From our parting, due that evening,
To my longhand
“Dear”
To them, next day.

The two poems that follow and complete this loose series, “Uncoupled” and “The Butts,” are among Heaney’s finest work about his parents. In “Uncoupled,” Heaney captures his mother and father in medias res as they go about their work on the farm. Both poems begin “Who is this . . .” as if the prism of memory has made the figures strange and unknowable. His mother stoically carries ashes from the fire to the ash pit, “Walking tall, as if in a procession” even as the wind blows ashes into her eyes and mouth. Likewise, the poet remembers his father “Waving and calling something I cannot hear” as he drives his cattle. Suddenly distracted, “his eyes leave mine and I know / The pain of loss before I know the term.” Patrick Heaney reappears in “The Butts,” in which the son again recalls the pain of loss. Fishing for cigarettes in his father’s suit pockets, he remembers how

Stale smoke and oxter-sweat
Came at you in a stirred-up brew
When you reached in,
A whole rake of thornproof and blue serge
Swung heavily
Like waterweed disturbed.

This memory returns later in life when he bathes his now frail father, whose “lightness” stands in marked contrast to the heavy textures and smells that greeted the teenager at the closet door. Likewise, in “The door was opened and the house was dark,” his elegy for David Hammond, Heaney again stands at a metaphorical threshold between life and death. His description of the uncanny encounter is original and arresting; pausing in the doorway of his dead friend’s home,

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 hanger
Or an overgrown airfield in late summer.

For all the references to Virgil in Human Chain, the shade of Yeats, too, haunts the collection. Heaney is without question the most famous Irish poet since Yeats, and has often spoken in interviews of Yeats’s remarkable last phase. Heaney’s attic study in the penultimate poem, “In the Attic,” becomes, like Yeats’s Tower, both a place of respite and emblem of fortitude. The sailing metaphor—he is a “man marooned / In his own loft”—brings to mind “Sailing to Byzantium,” as does the final section where Heaney again returns to the image of wind. Like Yeats, he will not be cowed by the decay of the body:

As I age and blank on names,
As my uncertainty on stairs
Is more and more lightheadedness
Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging,
As the memorable bottoms out
Into the irretrievable,
It’s not that I can’t imagine still
That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.

This desire for renewal and absolution still compels Heaney’s poetry as much as it always has, but in Human Chain we come closer to the fulfillment of that desire, the completion of the pilgrimage. It’s not that we can’t imagine still another windfall from the poet whose rhymes have, for nearly half a century, “set the darkness echoing.”