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A Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2011
Seamus Heaney’s new collection elicits continuities and solidarities, between husband and wife, child and parent, then and now, inside an intently remembered present—the stepping stones of the day, the weight and heft of what is passed from hand to hand, lifted and lowered. Human Chain also broaches larger questions of transmission, of lifelines to the inherited past. There are newly minted versions of anonymous early Irish lyrics, ...
A Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2011
Seamus Heaney’s new collection elicits continuities and solidarities, between husband and wife, child and parent, then and now, inside an intently remembered present—the stepping stones of the day, the weight and heft of what is passed from hand to hand, lifted and lowered. Human Chain also broaches larger questions of transmission, of lifelines to the inherited past. There are newly minted versions of anonymous early Irish lyrics, poems that stand at the crossroads of oral and written, and other “hermit songs” that weigh equally in their balance the craft of scribe and the poet’s early calling as scholar. A remarkable sequence entitled “Route 101” plots the descent into the underworld in the Aeneid against single moments in the arc of a life, from a 1950s childhood to the birth of a first grandchild. Other poems display a Virgilian pietas for the dead—friends, neighbors, family—that is yet wholly and movingly vernacular.
Human Chain also includes a poetic “herbal” adapted from the Breton poet Guillevic—lyrics as delicate as ferns, which puzzle briefly over the world of things and landscapes that exclude human speech, while affirming the interconnectedness of phenomena, as of a self-sufficiency in which we too are included
Posted December 22, 2010
I'm not even going to think about calling this a review of Seamus Heaney's latest collection of poems, Human Chain.. It would be incredibly presumptuous on my part to even suggest that I'm going to "evaluate" his work (of course, normally I'm always presumptuous in terms of reviewing!). Instead, I'm going to just relay a few points that I love about this amazing poet, and why you should read him if you haven't already.
For one thing, his writing style is so straightforward and concise. It's not fluffy or ostentatious or full of bizarre allusions that make you feel ignorant for not understanding. Instead, he writes like a reader, with spare words that draw crisp pictures. Yet his poetry does have layers...you can find multiple meanings if you ponder what he says, so they still have depth and are certainly not simplistic at all. In fact, in many ways his simplicity is deceiving.
For example, I recently re-read "Digging", a poem he wrote in 1968 about a man admiring his father's and grandfather's strength as they turned over turf and worked the land in Ireland. He concludes the poem with something along the lines (I'm paraphrasing) that 'I'll have to do the work with my pen'. What initially is a pleasant enough little story (hard work, family, nature) suddenly had a deeper meaning and then, "digging" into it, one could see he was commenting on the struggles of Northern Ireland and showing the violence that was sometimes used to create change in the Republic. He never got pushy or overtly political but you could clearly see that he was sending another message.
So, in reading Human Chain, I was again dazzled by his subtlety. In one poem, "Miracle", he leads the reader into another direction of thought as he reconsiders the Biblical event of Christ healing a lame man:
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in-
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up
Until he's strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.
Here, he's stepped back from a significant event to expand on its effects to those out of the spotlight, observers on the periphery who are also altered, although less obviously. In "Slack", he writes about the repetitive and mundane nature of storing coal for the fire, and shows what the symbolic heat means for the home:
A sullen pile
But soft to the shovel, accommodating
As the clattering coal was not.
In days when life prepared for rainy days
It lay there, slumped and waiting,
To dampen down and lengthen out...
And those words-
"Bank the fire"-
Every bit as solid as
The cindery skull
Formed when its tarry
Here he illustrates the fragile balance of life and death as dependent on the existence of the humble coal; and foreshadows what happens when the coal runs out. In that case, the cold shells of the fire appear as "skulls". So is he talking about just a home fire or the flame of one's heart?
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