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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” ...
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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 110” 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 Eugène 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.
“Nobel laureate Heaney is an earthy and mythic poet who channels the music and suffering of Ireland and, beyond that, the spiral of cultivation and destruction that sustains and endangers humankind. These are loamy, time-saturated poems, at once humble and exalted, taproots reaching into the underworld, flowers opening to the sun … Heaney puts faith in the actual, be it the wind, a kite, or an extended hand.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist
“In these poems Mr. Heaney casts vigorously about through moments in his life, from childhood through restless middle age. The poems read less like nostalgia than the signs of a still-vital poet feeling along the walls of his own cranium, his own complicated history … [Heaney’s] authority, in Human Chain, is undiminished.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Heaney still writes with the passion, freshness and vigor of a young man … The book is a joy on every level.” —Troy Jollimore, The Washington Post
“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 . . . 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.” —Heather Clark, Harvard Review
“This newest collection of poems by Seamus Heaney contains multiple poems that will certainly be included in any final selected poems; that alone makes the book worth reading. Poems such as ‘The Baler’ exhibit all the essential voicing and lean nuanced diction we associate with Heaney’s middle period onward. Other poems continue the Heaney of palpable sonic texturing that we first experienced in poems like ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘Churning Day.’ One striking poem in this book is ‘Route 110,’ which moves like elegy through memory and grief, with Virgil’s Aeneid intermittently breaking in and hovering like a specter, a caution, a paradigm of the epic question of each human life. It is a remarkable poem that never feels didactic or ‘learned’ . . . This is a beautiful collection that demonstrates Heaney’s continued poetic vitality.” —Fred Dings, World Literature in Review
Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon surely didn't sit down together and decide to have their new books published simultaneously. But the decision of their common publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to bring out Heaney's Human Chain at the same time as Muldoon's Maggot only reinforces the sense that there is something fated about the pairing of these two poets. It's not simply that they are the leading Irish poets of their respective generations: Heaney, born in 1939, won the Nobel Prize in 1995, while Muldoon, born in 1951, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. It's not even that both are from Northern Ireland or that Muldoon was once Heaney's student, so that it's possible to imagine a kind of apostolic succession. What makes it so valuable to read them together is that they could not be more unalike as writers. By offering the sharpest possible contrast to one another, each accentuates the other's uniqueness: Heaney never seems more Heaneyish, or Muldoon more Muldoonish, than when they appear side by side.
A maggot is a maggot, of course, but as Muldoon recently told an interviewer, it can also mean "a couple of other things: a capricious, whimsical thought, a piece of music -- a dance tune usually." Combine those last two senses, and you have a good description of a Muldoon poem: a capricious, or far-fetched, or at times frankly bizarre set of images and obsessions, worked out with the ingenious rhythmicality of a piece of music. Muldoon seems to want the reader to think of a "maggot" as similar to what, in German, is called an Ohrwurm, or "ear worm" -- an infectious tune that you can't get out of your head. To underscore the point, he uses the German word as the title for a short poem:
Just as I'm loading up on another low carb pork rind snack
I spot in my wing-fuselage connection a fatigue crack.
It bears out my suspicion that this low-level hum's a soundtrack
And everything I've seen so far I've seen in flashback.
Carrying a single rhyme across four lines is as easy as breathing for Muldoon, whose formal dexterity allows him to make double sestinas or sets of a hundred haiku sound airily dashed off. Equally characteristic is his ability to combine a hectic, comic tone with an underlying somberness: this poem, which begins with binging on pork rinds, ends, seemingly, with death in a plane crash.
But "Ohrwurm" is too short a poem to give the full flavor of Muldoon's style, which thrives on repetition and variation. Most of the poems in Maggot come in extended sequences, and are constructed according to the peculiar formula Muldoon has long since perfected. He starts with a fixed rhyme scheme and a handful of ideas or images, and proceeds to recombine these in ever more rococo variations. The result is rather like watching a juggler add more and more flaming torches and chainsaws, until it seems impossible for him to keep everything up in the air.
In Maggot, the sequence "The Humors of Hakone" is probably the best of these performances. Its nine poems are each made up of five quatrains, rhymed ABAB. But because the line lengths are not fixed, and the rhymes are loose sometimes to the point of being imperceptible ("dry/mortuary" and "open/Cuban" are among the more audible pairs), the poem does not sound like it has any form at all. This combination of seeming randomness with strict rule-following is a Muldoon trademark. So, too, is the grab bag assortment of premises: in "The Humors of Hakone," we are seemingly being addressed by a forensic pathologist who is investigating the death of a woman in Japan, which somehow involves a "corduroy road," a high-speed train, and a photo booth. Add it all together and stir, and you get passages like this:
Too late to determine if a salivary gland
might have secreted its critical enzyme
or, as her belly resumed its verdure,
implored an eye to give up its vitreous potassium
as a nun from a mendicant order
might unthinkingly draw in her voluminous
yellow robe to implore one for a little buckwheat.
Reading the whole sequence does not make the individual parts make more sense, but it does give the impression that Muldoon is in control of the chaos. He is an inscrutable comedian-wizard, mixing poems like potions that usually leave you fizzy-headed, if seldom actually transformed.
Heaney is only a dozen years older than Muldoon, but to turn from Maggot to Human Chain is to leave a fractured, buzzing, intercontinental present for a rural, meditative, almost Wordsworthian past. Heaney has always been the archaeologist and ethnologist of his own childhood, recognizing that the dialect and implements he grew up with, the old way of life led by Irish farmers, were all disappearing in his lifetime. Now seventy years old, and writing in the gathering shadow of mortality -- not long ago Heaney suffered a stroke, an event that appears in several poems -- his recollections of things past have become even more movingly elegiac.
The poem "Slack" gracefully combines all these themes. Slack, we learn, is the Northern Irish word for coal residue, and in Heaney's hands it becomes a metaphor for old age: "In days when life prepared for rainy days/It lay there, slumped and waiting/To dampen down and lengthen out/The fire…" This low-quality fuel, good for extending life but hardly for living it, also makes us think of the slack muscles of the stroke patient, especially since Heaney writes in Human Chain about undergoing physical therapy:
His eyes-front, straight-backed posture like my own
Doing physio in the corridor, holding up
As if once more I'd found myself in step
Between two shafts, another's hand on mine,
Each slither of the share, each stone it hits
Registered like a pulse in the timbered grips.
Using a walker, in these lines, becomes a muscle memory of pulling a plowshare -- suffering converted into labor, and labor into art. The title of this poem is "Chanson d'Aventure," which may seem like taking valiancy a little too far: is a trip to the emergency room ("Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked/In position for the drive") really the beginning of an adventure? But Heaney has always been a poet of affirmation, one who offers strength rather than exploring fear; and this moral firmness has never been more appealing than it is in these late poems. Remarkably, Human Chain is Heaney's best book since 1996's The Spirit Level, above all for the way it records the poet's undisturbed faith in his art:
A great one has put faith in "meaning"
That runs through space like a word
Screaming and protesting, another in
And memories of live":
Mine for now I put
In steady-handedness maintained
In books against its vanishing.
"Had I not been awake" 3
The Conway Stewart 8
The Butts 11
Chanson d'Aventure 13
Human Chain 17
A Mite-Box 18
An Old Refrain 19
The Wood Road 21
The Baler 23
Derry Derry Down 25
A Herbal 35
The Riverbank Field 47
Route 110 49
Death of a Painter 58
Sweeney Out-takes 66
Colum Cille Cecinit 69
Hermit Songs 71
"Lick the pencil" 78
"The door was open and the house was dark" 81
In the Attic 82
A Kite for Aibhin 85
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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