by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2010
Reviewed by Erin Lynn
“So this is what an afterlife can come to?”
In Human Chain, Seamus Heaney explores the innumerable ways in which human experience is more shared than not. Heritage and familial lineage, long motifs in Heaney’s work, are here concerned with aging and generational cycles. In “Album,” the poet evokes memories — “Now the oil-fired heating boiler comes to life” — that recall his youth and relationship with his father. He details his father’s confused and helpless last days during which the roles were reversed and son had to support father. He calls this physical contact “an embrace in Elysium.”
Heaney also sees human inheritance through a broader lens. He often alludes to classical mythology. This is perhaps to infuse the everyday with the epic, but also to show how human daily life is and always has been sacred and largely universal. Mostly, Heaney focuses on the human experience of work, with particular attention to scholarly labours. “Colum Cille Cecinit” is a translation of an 11th/12th-century poem about the 6th-century scholar/saint Colmcille and demonstrates the eternal sameness of scholarly work: writing utensil ever in hand, “hand cramped from penwork.”
A similar attitude appears in “Hermit Songs,” where Heaney evokes the sensual experience of book-work, remembering with amusement his schoolboy days and the pride and reverence he took in study. Colmcille, or Columba, is a recurring character in this collection. Perhaps Heaney is in some way paying homage to the work this man began some 1,500 years ago near Heaney’s birthplace of County Derry, Northern Ireland.
In Human Chain, Heaney writes mainly in free verse, often in tercets, in poems number-divided by parts. Aurally, it is a masterpiece. Internal rhyme is interspersed. Ever the linguist, Heaney plays, using words like “skire” and “snottery” and others that even the OED can’t account for. While there are often multilingual allusions at play, Heaney never leaves them indecipherable, and the reader often benefits from an enhanced vocabulary. His love affair with language indelibly affords his writing with an almost endless variety, even as he comes back to beloved and heavy words like “lug,” “purchase” and “nib” repeatedly.
Humans are essentially a part of the natural world. Nature is central in many of these poems, often with a mind of its own. Heaney begins the collection with “Had I Not Been Awake,” a poem about a wind that rises over the roof of his house, setting him all “a-patter.” The wind, it seems, is a reminder to be mindful of nature. Nature headlines again in “An Old Refrain,” a nursery rhyme that delights in lush, hungry vegetation and the words that describe it. In “Derry Derry Down,” Heaney uses the sensual experience of picking berries to represent early sexual encounters. In “A Herbal,” which is an adaptation of Guillevic’s “Herbier de Bretagne,” Heaney hears and gives voice to grass and bracken. He presents nature as thriving, irrespective and unconcerned with human existence. Saint Columba saw oak trees and elderberry bushes just as we do today. Heaney reveres nature, presenting it as almost enchanted and certainly with its own agency. Nature’s constant presence and changingness teaches us that our own worries are often ephemeral and trivial.
It is not only the natural world that Heaney views as enchanted. Man’s quotidian experience is magical and important. He evokes this idea in several ways. Through his allusions to the classics, a bus ride becomes a voyage in the river Styx, with the driver playing Charon in “Route 110.,” while a near-death trip in an ambulance becomes a ride with the Charioteer of Delphi in “Chanson d’Aventure.”
Paradoxically, Heaney manages to portray life in its most unflinchingly human terms. By unapologetically engaging the reader’s senses, Heaney takes us into some of his most “up close” memories. In “Eeelworks,” the speaker remembers sitting next to a classmate in summer who reeked of eel oil, as well as his own first experience of skinning an eel, which was “like a silk stocking at a practiced touch.”
Heaney is also concerned with location, particularly Northern Ireland, where he lived until he was a young man. Here it is portrayed as largely bucolic and wild, infused with childhood memories. There is plenty of mention of the troubles that were so destructive to that land. Lorries rev in the distance in “Uncoupled,” which contains allusions to Caithleen ni Houlihan, a figure of Irish folklore. “Wood Road” deals specifically with a road plagued with “militiamen… harassing Mulhollandstown” that the speaker walks down to “the hunger striker’s wake.” The same road for him is forever painted in blood; a young girl is killed after being hit by a “speed-merchant,” or a lorry.
The speaker in “The Baler” pauses to revel in the glory of a dusk “eldorado” only to simultaneously recall a man named Derek Hill saying “he could no longer bear to watch the sun going down.”
The title poem “Human Chain” reveals Heaney’s agenda of “unburdening,” releasing the loads that weigh us down. But the overarching message coming from Heaney’s homeland — a bloody and fractured place — is that we are all more linked than not. And in spite of this heaviness, there is a distinct sentiment of joie de vivre that pervades nearly every poem. Heaney rejoices in the sensory experience of being alive.
Appropriately, aging and death are common themes in this work; Heaney views both as new adventures as in “Chanson d’Aventure” and “In the Attic” in which he likens aging to Jim Hawkins’s adventures in Treasure Island:
A cabin boy’s first time on the rigging,
As the memorable bottoms out
Into the irretrievable
This voracious fascination with the seemingly mundane is quite typical of the rest of the collection. In what may be my favorite poem of the book, “Wraiths,” Heaney finds himself taken in by Sidhe, or fairy people:
We stood under the hill, out of the day
But faced towards the daylight, holding hands,
Inhaling the excavated bank.
He finds magic at a parking lot bus stop, on his way to the Gaeltacht “between languages” and is reincarnated on the bus. And finally, in the last part, the speaker waits to hear the “learner” of a band:
Making an injured music for us alone,
Early-to-beds, white-night absentees
Open-eared to this day.
Heaney unfailingly leaves his reader open-eared.