Human Chain: Poems

Human Chain: Poems

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by Seamus Heaney

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A Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2011
Winner of the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2011 Poetry Now Award

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


A Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2011
Winner of the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2011 Poetry Now Award

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nostalgia and memory, numinous visions and the earthy music of compound adjectives together control the short poems and sequences of the Irish Nobel laureate’s 14th collection of verse, a work of familiar strengths and unparalleled charm. Old teachers, schoolmates, farmhands, and even the employees of an “Eelworks” arrive transfigured through Heaney’s command of sound: a schoolmate whose family worked in the eel trade “would ease his lapped wrist// From the flap-mouthed cuff/ Of a jerkin rank with eel oil,// The abounding reek of it/ Among our summer desks.” The title poem applies Heaney’s gift for physical mimesis to an image from the day’s news: “bags of meal passed hand to hand... by the aid workers” remind the poet of the grain-sacks he swung and dragged in his own youth. Other pages remember, and praise, libraries and classrooms--from grade school, from Harvard, and from medieval Irish monasteries, with their “riddle-solving anchorites.” For all the variety of Heaney’s framed glimpses, though, the standout poems grow from occasions neither trivial nor topical: Heaney in 2006 had a minor stroke, and the discreet analogies and glimpsed moments in poems such as “Chanson d’Aventure” (about a ride in an ambulance) and “In the Attic” (“As I age and blank on names”) bring his characteristic warmth and subtlety to mortality, rehabilitation, recent trauma, and old age. (Sept.)
Library Journal
While retaining the linguistic brawn and bristle one expects of Nobelist Heaney, his latest collection (after 2006's District and Circle) strikes a deeply elegiac note, commemorating both the personal and the historical past with urgent poignancy. From the vantage point of 70 years, the poet is all too aware of how easily "the memorable bottoms out/ Into the irretrievable," and so images preserved from youth—of eels, gooseberries, coal fires, Irish militiamen guarding a rural road—achieve three-dimensional, iconic status, still lives affirming the fact of lived experience, whether joyous or tragic ("I had my existence. I was there./ Me in place and the place in me"). As always, he thrives on robust descriptions of physical labor. In the title poem, relief workers pass bags of grain, "ready for the heave—/ The eye-to-eye, one-two one-two upswing/ On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain/ Of the next lift." VERDICT Reading Heaney's poems, like viewing Breughel's and Courbet's depictions of worldly life, can leave readers feeling palm-roughened and muscle-sore, but as contemporary poetry grows ever more conceptual and theory-based, Heaney continues to remind us of William Carlos Williams's famous line, "No ideas but in things." Recommended.—Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY

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Read an Excerpt

Human Chain

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5567-0



    Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
    A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
    Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

    And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
    Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
    Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

    It came and went so unexpectedly
    And almost it seemed dangerously,
    Returning like an animal to the house,

    A courier blast that there and then
    Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
    After. And not now.



    Now the oil-fired heating boiler comes to life
    Abruptly, drowsily, like the timed collapse
    Of a sawn-down tree, I imagine them

    In summer season, as it must have been,
    And the place, it dawns on me,
    Could have been Grove Hill before the oaks were cut,

    Where I'd often stand with them on airy Sundays
    Shin-deep in hilltop bluebells, looking out
    At Magherafelt's four spires in the distance.

    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.


    Quercus, the oak. And Quaerite, Seek ye.
    Among green leaves and acorns in mosaic
    (Our college arms surmounted by columba,

    Dove of the church, of Derry's sainted grove)
    The footworn motto stayed indelible:
    Seek ye first the Kingdom ... Fair and square

    I stood on in the Junior House hallway
    A grey eye will look back
    Seeing them as a couple, I now see,

    For the first time, all the more together
    For having had to turn and walk away, as close
    In the leaving (or closer) as in the getting.


    It's winter at the seaside where they've gone
    For the wedding meal. And I am at the table,
    Uninvited, ineluctable.

    A skirl of gulls. A smell of cooking fish.
    Plump dormant silver. Stranded silence. Tears.
    Their bibbed waitress unlids a clinking dish

    And leaves them to it, under chandeliers.
    And to all the anniversaries of this
    They are not ever going to observe

    Or mention even in the years to come.
    And now the man who drove them here will drive
    Them back, and by evening we'll be home.


    Were I to have embraced him anywhere
    It would have been on the riverbank
    That summer before college, him in his prime,

    Me at the time not thinking how he must
    Keep coming with me because I'd soon be leaving.
    That should have been the first, but it didn't happen.

    The second did, at New Ferry one night
    When he was very drunk and needed help
    To do up trouser buttons. And the third

    Was on the landing during his last week,
    Helping him to the bathroom, my right arm
    Taking the webby weight of his underarm.


    It took a grandson to do it properly,
    To rush him in the armchair
    With a snatch raid on his neck,

    Proving him thus vulnerable to delight,
    Coming as great proofs often come
    Of a sudden, one-off, then the steady dawning

    Of whatever erat demonstrandum.
    Just as a moment back a son's three tries
    At an embrace in Elysium

    Swam up into my very arms, and in and out
    Of the Latin stem itself, the phantom
    Verus that has slipped from "very."


    "Medium," 14-carat nib,
    Three gold bands in the clip-on screw-top,
    In the mottled barrel a spatulate, thin

    Pump-action lever
    The shopkeeper

    The nib uncapped,
    Treating it to its first deep snorkel
    In a newly opened ink-bottle,

    Guttery, snottery,
    Letting it rest then at an angle
    To ingest,

    Giving us time
    To look together and away
    From our parting, due that evening,

    To my longhand
    To them, next day.



    Who is this coming to the ash-pit
    Walking tall, as if in a procession,
    Bearing in front of her a slender pan

    Withdrawn just now from underneath
    The firebox, weighty, full to the brim
    With whitish dust and flakes still sparking hot

    That the wind is blowing into her apron bib,
    Into her mouth and eyes while she proceeds
    Unwavering, keeping her burden horizontal still,

    Hands in a tight, sore grip round the metal knob,
    Proceeds until we have lost sight of her
    Where the worn path turns behind the henhouse.


    Who is this, not much higher than the cattle,
    Working his way towards me through the pen,
    His ashplant in one hand

    Lifted and pointing, a stick of keel
    In the other, calling to where I'm perched
    On top of a shaky gate,

    Waving and calling something I cannot hear
    With all the lowing and roaring, lorries revving
    At the far end of the yard, the dealers

    Shouting among themselves, and now to him
    So that his eyes leave mine and I know
    The pain of loss before I know the term.


    His suits hung in the wardrobe, broad
    And short
    And slightly bandy-sleeved,

    Flattened back
    Against themselves,
    A bit stand-offish.

    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. I sniffed

    Tonic unfreshness,
    Then delved past flap and lining
    For the forbidden handfuls.

    But a kind of empty-handedness
    Transpired ... Out of suit-cloth
    Pressed against my face,

    Out of those layered stuffs
    That surged and gave,
    Out of the cold smooth pocket-lining

    Nothing but chaff cocoons,
    A paperiness not known again
    Until the last days came

    And we must learn to reach well in beneath
    Each meagre armpit
    To lift and sponge him,

    One on either side,
    Feeling his lightness,
    Having to dab and work

    Closer than anybody liked
    But having, for all that,
    To keep working.


    Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
        But yet the body is his book


    Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked
    In position for the drive,
    Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

    The nurse a passenger in front, you ensonced
    In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back —
    Our postures all the journey still the same,

    Everything and nothing spoken,
    Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport
    Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold

    Of a Sunday morning ambulance
    When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne
    On love on hold, body and soul apart.


    Apart: the very word is like a bell
    That the sexton Malachy Boyle outrolled
    In illo tempore in Bellaghy

    Or the one I tolled in Derry in my turn
    As college bellman, the haul of it there still
    In the heel of my once capable

    Warm hand, hand that I could not feel you lift
    And lag in yours throughout that journey
    When it lay flop-heavy as a bellpull

    And we careered at speed through Dungloe,
    Glendoan, our gaze ecstatic and bisected
    By a hooked-up drip-feed to the cannula.


    The charioteer at Delphi holds his own,
    His six horses and chariot gone,
    His left hand lopped

    From a wrist protruding like an open spout,
    Bronze reins astream in his right, his gaze ahead
    Empty as the space where the team should be,

    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 hit
    Registered like a pulse in the timbered grips.


    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.



    Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
    In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
    Firing over the mob, I was braced again

    With a grip on two sack corners,
    Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugs
    To give me purchase, ready for the heave —

    The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
    On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
    Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed

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


    But still in your cupped palm to feel
    The chunk and clink of an alms-collecting mite-box,
    Full to its slotted lid with copper coins,

    Pennies and halfpennies donated for
    "The foreign missions" ... Made from a cardboard kit,
    Wedge-roofed like a little oratory

    And yours to tote as you made the rounds,
    Indulged on every doorstep, each donation
    Accounted for by a pinprick in a card —

    A way for all to see a way to heaven,
    The same as when a pinholed camera
unblinds the sun eclipsed.



    We called the vetch —
    A fading straggle

    Of Lincoln green
    English stitchwork

    With a hey-nonny-no
    Along the Wood Road.
    Sticky entangling

    Berry and thread
    Summering in
    On the tousled verge.


    In seggins
    Hear the wind
    Among the sedge,

    In boortree
    The elderberry's
    Dank indulgence,

    In benweed
    Singular unbending,

    In easing
    Drips of night rain
    From the eaves.


    Resurfaced, never widened,
    The verges grassy as when
    Bill Pickering lay with his gun
    Under the summer hedge
    Nightwatching, in uniform —

    Special militiaman.

    Moonlight on rifle barrels,
    On the windscreen of a van
    Roadblocking the road,
    The rest of his staunch patrol
    In profile, sentry-loyal,

    Harassing Mulhollandstown.

    Or me in broad daylight
    On top of a cartload
    Of turf built trig and tight,
    Looked up to, looking down,
    Allowed the reins like an adult

    As the old cart rocked and rollicked.

    Then that August day I walked it
    To the hunger striker's wake,
    Across a silent yard,
    In past a watching crowd
    To where the guarded corpse

    And a guard of honour stared.

    Or the stain at the end of the lane
    Where the child on her bike was hit
    By a speed-merchant from nowhere
    Hard-rounding the corner,
    A back wheel spinning in sunshine,

    A headlamp in smithereens.

    Film it in sepia,
    Drip-paint it in blood,
    The Wood Road as is and was,
    Resurfaced, never widened,
    The milk-churn deck and the sign

    For the bus-stop overgrown.


    All day the clunk of a baler
    Ongoing, cardiac-dull,
    So taken for granted

    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,
    Fork-lifted, sweated-through
    And nearly rewarded enough

    By the giddied-up race of a tractor
    At the end of the day
    Last-lapping a hayfield.

    But what I also remembered
    As woodpigeons sued at the edge
    Of thirty gleaned acres

    And I stood inhaling the cool
    In a dusk eldorado
    Of mighty cylindrical bales

    Was Derek Hill's saying,
    The last time he sat at our table,
    He could bear no longer to watch

    The sun going down
    And asking please to be put
    With his back to the window.



    The lush
    Sunset blush
    On a big ripe

    I scratched my hand
    Reaching in

    To gather it
    Off the bush,

    In Annie Devlin's
    Back garden.


    In the storybook
    Back kitchen
    Of The Lodge

    The full of a white
    Enamel bucket
    Of little pears:

    Still life
    On the red tiles
    Of that floor.

    Sleeping beauty
    I came on
    By the scullion's door.



    To win the hand of the princess
    What tasks the youngest son
    Had to perform!

    For me, the first to come a-courting
    In the fish factor's house,
    It was to eat with them

    An eel supper.


    Cut of diesel oil in evening air,
    Tractor engines in the clinker-built
    Deep-bellied boats,

    Landlubbers' craft,
    Heavy in water
    As a cow down in a drain,

    The men straight-backed,
    Standing firm
    At stern and bow —

    Horse-and-cart men, really,
    Glad when the adze-dressed keel
    Cleaved to the mud.

    Rum-and-peppermint men too
    At the counter later on
    In her father's pub.


    That skin Alfie Kirkwood wore
    At school, sweaty-lustrous, supple

    And bisected into tails
    For the tying of itself around itself —

    For strength, according to Alfie.
    Who would ease his lapped wrist

    From the flap-mouthed cuff
    Of a jerkin rank with eel oil,

    The abounding reek of it
    Among our summer desks

    My first encounter with the up close
    That had to be put up with.


    Sweaty-lustrous too
    The butt of the freckled
    Elderberry shoot

    I made a rod of,
    A-fluster when I felt
    Not tugging but a trailing

    On the line, not the utter
    Flip-stream frolic-fish
    But a foot-long

    Slither of a fellow,
    A young eel, greasy grey
    And rightly wriggle-spined,

    Not yet the blueblack
    Slick-backed waterwork
    I'd live to reckon with,

    My old familiar


    "That tree," said Walter de la Mare
    (Summer in his rare, recorded voice
    So I could imagine

    A lawn beyond French windows
    And downs in the middle distance)
    "That tree, saw it once

    Struck by lightning ... The bark —"
    In his accent the ba-aak —
    "The bark came off it

    Like a girl taking off her petticoat."
    White linen éblouissante
    In a breath of air,

    Sylph-flash made flesh,
    Eelwork, sea-salt and dish cloth
    Getting a first hold,

    Then purchase for the thumbnail
    And the thumb
    Under a v-nick in the neck,

    The skinpeel drawing down
    Like silk
    At a practised touch.


    On the hoarding and the signposts
    "Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-operative,"

    But ever on our lips and at the weir
    "The eelworks."



    Not coal dust, more the weighty grounds of coal
    The lorryman would lug in open bags
    And vent into a corner,

    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

    The fire, a check on mammon
    And in its own way
    Keeper of the flame.


    The sound it made
    More to me
    Than any allegory.

    Slack schlock.
    Scuttle scuffle.

    And those words —
    "Bank the fire" —
    Every bit as solid as

    The cindery skull
    Formed when its tarry
    Coral cooled.


    Out in the rain,
    Sent out for it

    Stand in the unlit
    Coalhouse door
    And take in

    Its violet blet,
    Its wet sand weight,
    Remembering it

    Tipped and slushed
    From the bag.



    Everywhere plants
    Flourish among graves,

    Sinking their roots
    In all the dynasties
    Of the dead.


    Was graveyard grass
    In our place
    Any different?

    Different from ordinary
    Field grass?

    Remember how you wanted
    The sound recordist
    To make a loop,

    Wildtrack of your feet
    Through the wet
    At the foot of a field?


    Yet for all their lush
    Compliant dialect
    No way have plants here
    Arrived at a settlement.

    Not the mare's tail,
    Not the broom or whins.

    It must have to do
    With the wind.


    Not that the grass itself
    Ever rests in peace.

    It too takes issue,
    Now sets its face

    To the wind,
    Now turns its back.


    "See me?" it says.
    "The wind

    Has me well rehearsed
    In the ways of the world.

    Unstable is good.
    Permission granted!

    Go, then, citizen
    Of the wind.
    Go with the flow."


    The bracken
    Is less boastful.

    It closes and curls back
    On its secrets,

    The best kept
    Upon earth.


    And, to be fair,
    There is sun as well.

    Nowhere else
    Is there sun like here,

    Morning sunshine
    All day long.

    Which is why the plants,
    Even the bracken,

    Are sometimes tempted
    Into trust.


    On sunlit tarmac,
    On memories of the hearse

    At walking pace
    Between overgrown verges,

    The dead here are borne
    Towards the future.


    When the funeral bell tolls
    The grass is all a-tremble.

    But only then.
    Not every time any old bell



    Is like the disregarded
    And company for them,

    Shows them
    They have to keep going,

    That the whole thing's worth
    The effort.

    And sometimes
    Like those same characters
    When the weather's very good

    Broom sings.


    Never, in later days,
    Would fruit

    So taste of earth.
    There was slate

    In the blackberries,
    A slatey sap.


    Run your hand into
    The ditchback growth

    And you'd grope roots,
    Thick and thin.
    But roots of what?

    Once, one that we saw
    Gave itself away,

    The tail of a rat
    We killed.


    We had enemies,
    Though why we never knew.

    Among them,

    Malignant things, letting on
    To be asleep.


    Enemies —
    Part of a world

    Nobody seemed able to explain
    But that had to be
    Put up with.

    There would always be dock leaves
    To cure the vicious stings.


    There were leaves on the trees
    And growth on the headrigs

    You could confess
    Everything to.

    Even your fears
    Of the night,

    Of people


    What was better then

    Than to crush a leaf or a herb
    Between your palms,

    Then wave it slowly, soothingly
    Past your mouth and nose

    And breathe?


    If you know a bit
    About the universe

    It's because you've taken it in
    Like that,

    Looked as hard
    As you look into yourself,

    Into the rat hole,
    Through the vetch and dock
    That mantled it.

    Because you've laid your cheek
    Against the rush clump

    And known soft stone to break
    On the quarry floor.


    Between heather and marigold,
    Between sphagnum and buttercup,
    Between dandelion and broom,
    Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

    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?


Excerpted from Human Chain by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 2010 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His poems, plays, translations, and essays include Opened Ground, Electric Light, Beowulf, The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Finders Keepers. Robert Lowell praised Heaney as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats."

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His poems, plays, translations, and essays include Opened Ground, Electric Light, Beowulf, The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Finders Keepers. Robert Lowell praised Heaney as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats."

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Human Chain 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SAHARATEA More than 1 year ago
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 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 Coral cooled. 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?