Seamus Heaney's book of resurrections

Sat, Aug 28, 2010, 01:00

POETRY: EAMON GRENNANreviews Human ChainBy Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, 85pp, £12.99

Human Chainis Seamus Heaney’s 12th collection of new poems. From line to line, poem to poem, book to book since his 1966 debut collection, Death of a Naturalist,he has scrupulously measured a life that’s unfolded over these 44 years (years packed, too, with the riches of his translations, his indispensable volumes of criticism, his inimitable, generous presence in the public world while exploring the intersections between it and the labyrinths of his private life).

What has emerged from this steady procession of individual volumes is an unforced pattern of continuous significance, leading here to a collection that, in its depth charges of emotional memory, in its habitual amplifications along cultural lines, as well as in its revisitings and revisionings of sites mapped in earlier collections, may be regarded as marking a new departure. In this assembling of poems mostly written since District and Circlethe poet touches strings on which he’s played before, finding in them fresh melodies, renewed insights, refreshed understanding.

Call the beautifully titled Human ChainHeaney’s first book of old age (though the words “Heaney” and “old age” don’t sit easy in the one sentence). For in these poems the poet who has always been an incomparable observer and investigator of the material world embarks on a deeper, more demanding voyage through the physical into zones of metaphysical ache and observation. In these poems he confronts and begins to anatomise the body as the limit of mortality, stressing the borders of body-life itself. Confronted by the immediate shocks that flesh is heir to, he reads his way into the book of the body and, with a nod to John Donne, finds love there (see Chanson d’Aventure).

The first words in this collection (serving both as title and first line) are “Had I not been awake”. As a poet Heaney has never been less than fully awake to the self and its various surroundings. To be fully awakened is the aim of many spiritual exercises. In these latest poems we have a palpable, invigorating sense of just such wakefulness, as the poet opens door after door into the dark of memory, a memory alive and bristling with particulars (hay baler, fountain pen, coal slack, a certain field, a bus route, a “musty satchel”), each object, place or happening brought to life in all its ordinary mortal brilliance, “the full of a white / enamel bucket / of little pears” taking its place beside William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow on which so much depends. By such means, then, a collection of poems over which mortality seems to reign (in lyrics recalling with an extraordinary mixture of tenderness and regret his parents, in poems in memory of dead friends, in the often elegiac tone) is in fact a book of resurrections, as the poet, like a master potter, slowly shapes on his word wheel the given clay into a vase, an urn, a bowl and (effortlessly mixing dulce with utile) glazes it with living colour. What such poems awaken the rest of us to is the way in which the glimmering afterlife of people and of things abides in the here and now of memory.

What I find once again in Heaney’s work, too, is a powerful demonstration of how poetry can keep pace with the examined life – with a life informed by deep and firmly held beliefs, and by a kind of tendering skepticism when belief of a traditional kind fails, leaving its residue of presences that must be acknowledged, in a landscape (both imagined and actual) that “can’t not conjure thoughts / Of passing spirit troops”, a mental and physical landscape inhabited by presences taken now as literary forces, but still to be incorporated and relied on. Little surprise, then, that, standing with friends in a small anonymous brick chapel, the poet is “the one there most at home”. The poems in Human Chain, that is, teach me again how Heaney, in his dealing with the material world, is always conscious of its incarnational possibilities.

While the book contains many poems that speak in tones of Heaney’s most achieved craft (in a lovely set of Hermit Songs, for example, or A Herbaldrawn from the French poet Guillevic), its tour de force for me is Route 110,a wonder-filled revisiting of his home places, their personally and historically charged spots of time seen not through a glass darkly but plain and unquestionable as day. This procession of vignettes reads like a collage drawn from Heaney’s life-long understanding of Wordsworth’s Prelude, each element (in 12 separate 12-line segments) a brief, packed epiphany illuminating another corner of private/public life faithfully re-examined, all in an idiom that can only be called visionary. So there is “no doubting”, he says,

the solid ground

Of the riverbank field, twilit and ahover

With midge-drifts, as if we had commingled

Among shades and shadows stirring on the brink

And stood there waiting, watching,

Needy and ever needier for translation.

As always, of course, it’s his language, as it translates the world into a world of words, that is a continuous instruction and delight, its colloquial ease given heft by its unabashed rootedness in the eloquence of literature – which is here, as it has always been, a field he paces with the same alert poise with which he might scan the intimate acres of Bellaghy or Glanmore. His is a Dionysian relishing of all the musical mouthwork of words, while his cooler Apollonian gaze sums things up (taking them in, never being taken in by them), always able (through a meticulous sensitivity to the glimmer of possibility any word gives off) to test the solid fact and savour its metaphorical meanings.

He galvanises the language, so old phrases (“it dawns on me”) are freshly polished. His renewing way with language leads his readers to a refreshed sense of the world, letting us see it more feelingly. For him the common tongue is endlessly fertile, storing in itself the riches of a world freshly realised. It’s his ability to look at once into language and out at the world – not forgetting to probe and question the self that’s doing all this looking – that gives his work the perpetually kinetic energy informing it. This is for me one of its most admirable traits: through it he achieves a specific density of texture that never seems heavy-handed or ponderously earnest but always has the spring of a light step: poised, directed and heading in the right, revealing direction.

Another thing I’ve always admired about Heaney’s work is how his book titles so often exert a refined pressure on the language, prompt us to a fresh awareness of what his subjects are, in title phrases that hover between literal and metaphorical meanings: Door into the Dark, Field Work, Seeing Things, The Sprit Level, Electric Light, District and Circle. In Human ChainI like how the two words temper each other, turning an instrument of bondage into one of liberation, a sign of individual restriction into an image of mutual aid, dependency, community. It’s the way a poet who has wanted “hope” and “history” to rhyme handles his complicated world, a world in which the public and the personal, the political and the private fashion a braid of necessary interconnections.

Forged perhaps in the “smithy of his soul”, certainly with all his customary strength and subtlety, this Human Chainestablishes not only a series of powerful links with the rest of Heaney’s work to date but marks a setting-out point for further voyages of discovery. Reading these poems, I was reminded of a line from David Malouf’s new novel, Ransom, describing a character’s being filled by “a lightness that is both new and a return”: there’s just such a lightness in how Heaney binds here the new with the return. In the final poem of Human Chain(a version of a lyric by Italy’s most sensitive poet of childhood, Giovanni Pascoli) he describes a kite breaking free of its tether. “The kite takes off,” he says in conclusion, “itself alone, a windfall.” So much in a single line. And on he goes.

Eamon Grennan’s most recent volume of poems is Out of Breath.A New & Selected Poemshas also just been published in the United States