Earthbound, but Looking Up

Human Chain, Seamus Heaney (85pp, 12.99, hbk, Faber)

Heaney's last full-length collection, District and Circle, published in 2006, seemed to me rather disappointing and inconsistent. There was a sense of well-tilled, familiar ground being worked over again, and only a few poems seemed new-minted and inspired. Human Chain is not like that: it shows Heaney back at the height of his powers and should restore him to the annual literary prize lists.

In terms of subject-matter, it must be admitted there are no surprises here: the rural Irish background evident in collections such as
Death of a Naturalist and North reappears, as do the figures of Heaney's father, those engaged in agricultural labour, harvesters, fishers and other ghosts from the poet's childhood. 'The Butts', for instance, pictures Heaney rifling through the ghostly suits in his father's wardrobes, finding they 'swung heavily / like waterweed disturbed,' reminders of his aged father's working days. Yet when he comes to lift his father, it is 'to lift and sponge him': he is no longer the straining figure digging manfully for potatoes.

A number of the new poems here also revisit previous pieces: 'The Conway Stewart', for instance, a boy's scholarship pen, is very much a bookend to the famous 'Digging'. Both poems carry subtexts of distance and education as a job of work, and the process of writing is described lovingly with Heaney's trademark particularity and visual precision: 'The nib uncapped, / treating it to its first deep snorkel / in a newly opened inkbottle, // guttery, snottery'. The image of a writer, or scribe as a hermetic, mythical figure reappears in the sequence 'Hermit Songs' In this sequence, it expands to accommodate book covering, penshafts, school chalk, copperplate handwriting, 'a vision of the school / the school won't understand', as poem VII, a beautiful snapshot, declares.

Throughout the volume, Heaney is much preoccupied with childhood and adolescent landscapes. The delivery of coal in 'Slack', a poem featuring virtuosos onomatopoeic effects, brings forth another portrait of honest manual labour to put alongside the blacksmiths and labourers of the earlier books:

     Tipped and slushed
     from the bag.

Another longer sequence, 'Eelworks', mythologises the adolescent ache of love, encompassing an archive recording of Walter de la Mare and the sensuality of undressing, 'sylph-flash made flesh'. 'Route 110', a 12-poem sequence, reaches for epic comparisons with the Aenid, ranging across similar memories of markets, wakes and teenage dances. The shadow of 'the Troubles' falls across some of the poems here, and there are glimpses of RUC patrols, roadblocks and innocent victims blown up, but there is nothing as brutal and startling as some of Heaney's earlier treatments of it in
North.  Worryingly, however, the eye of Heaney notes that the graves are 'fired over on anniversaries / by units drilled and spruce and unreconciled.'

Heaney is now in his seventies, a senior figure in English and Irish poetry, garlanded with honours, but also struck by the health issues of old age. A recent stroke, from which he thankfully recovered, provides the initial situation for 'Chanson d'Aventure': travelling in the ambulance he thinks of Donne's eye-beams as he gazes at his wife. 'Apart / the very word is like a bell' he muses, reflecting on his 'once capable / warm hand, hand that I could not feel you lift' then, contrastingly, a fragmentary charioteer at Delphi recalls the postures of physiotherapy. The classical image both illustrates and enervates Heaney's physical plight, an unusually personal reversal. On this evidence, it could be that a productive old age, following the examples of Yeats and Hardy, will bring forth more great poetry from Heaney.

Bearing this in mind, it should not be a surprise that there is an elegiac mood to the dedications of several poems here: the painter Nancy Wynne Jones, for instance, is commemorated in one of Heaney's most touching pictures. She is glimpsed 'working to the end', like Hardy, and finally transcends 'as the Old English says, / like a mote through a minster door', the beautiful final simile lifting the poem off the ground.

The collection closes with another image of flight and freedom, a kite which breaks free in a recognisably Irish landscape. Initially prompted by a painting, this is yet another childhood memory, recalled 'opposite / Anahorish hill', a significant name in Heaney landscapes. It provides a useful epigram to this powerful, generous collection: the poet is planted, earthbound, but the poetry takes off, 'separate, elate...a windfall'.

       M.C. Caseley 2010