A review of Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010
First published in Salamander 16.2, Summer 2011
There exists a perennial need, it seems, for poetry to justify its existence. Those who question it come from various corners. Some feel obliged to banish it as harmful to the republic, while other citizens would say that poetry is not a matter a serious person worries about. And then, perhaps more a function of late capitalism and liberal democracy, there are those who would love it to death, trivializing or commodifying it in one way or another. And in all, even if muttered under the breath, there is the question: what good can poetry be, or do, for anyone?
One reason why Seamus Heaney’s poetry has had such world-wide recognition is that here is a poetry that unequivocally affirms the value of the art. Throughout the length and breadth of his work Heaney has presented an evolving, increasingly nuanced defense of poetry itself as a worthwhile and unique way of knowing, feeling, and being. One recalls any number of poems, from “Digging” onward through “North,” “Station Island,” “The Harvest Bow,” and “The Flight Path,” to name only a few of the many poems he has written that pro-actively or tacitly defend the art. Over the same decades he has also published a valuable set of prose essays to accompany the poems, probing not only the inherent worth of poetry, but also the varied responsibilities and freedoms of the poet. Taken together, there is no other body of work in our turn-of-the-century era that has so consistently and profoundly taken on the task of articulating the defense of poetry.
Heaney’s most important theoretical essay is “The Redress of Poetry,” the first of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry. Delivered in 1989, and published in the 1995 book by the same name, “The Redress of Poetry” contains within it not only his core aesthetic ideas, but Heaney’s best and most complex analysis of how poetry makes its unique contribution. Drawing on suggestions and ideas from Wallace Stevens and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, Heaney’s basic idea is that poetry (and perhaps all art) presents an imaginative rejoinder to the pressures of the real. If experience is a labyrinth, for instance, Heaney says “its impassiblity can be countered by the poet’s imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth,” allowing us to recognize our predicament in that invented image. It is, in effect, not merely a description or report, but a “comeback” to the insistent pressure of the real. He also says the poem is a “counter-reality” placed in the scales, and by this he means a perhaps an angle of vision from which one can see things anew and reconfigure their meanings. The poem offers us, he writes, “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstance.” The “comeback” and “counterweight” that imagination offers are thus useful, but the utilitarian should not obscure the fact that poetry “cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world.” Poetry “as poetry” is its own category, argues Heaney. It is its own way of knowing and experiencing the world, and what it gives us cannot be garnered or glimpsed otherwise.
This essay is a credo, a statement of Heaney’s faith in the art, and naturally such faith is tested time and again. In Human Chain the test comes in the form of the poet’s close brush with mortal illness. Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006, a medical crisis from which he has now fully recovered. But as one might expect, the poems in this new book are often meditations on our mortality. There are several explicit and dedicated elegies. There is also a visit to the underworld via Book VI of the Aeneid. There are several poems in which long-dead parents and grandparents appear, at least in memory or imagination. One would, however, be quite mistaken to think that Human Chain is solely elegy, self-elegy, or the like. It would also be a mistake to think the tone of the book is sorrow, worry, or worse. No, it is so much more a set of poetic “comebacks” and “counterweights” to mortal limits; it is more a matrix of imaginative responses to those limits. Death is present in Human Chain, but not everywhere, and its sheer factual presence is definitely not the whole story.
Let us begin with the only poem in the book that directly addresses Heaney’s stroke, “Chanson D’Aventure.” A three-part, elliptical narrative, it recounts the poet’s being carried to an ambulance, the ride to the hospital with his wife beside him, and then a later glimpse of him negotiating a corridor using a walker. It is an illness narrative, but the illness is not quite the main subject matter. The real subject of the poem is the way in which the poet was not alone, was helped and supported throughout. Let the stroke, in other words, be the given of the poem. What we see thereafter is the poet “forklifted” into an ambulance, and as it races to the hospital we see how the now mute poet has his “eyebeams threaded laser-fast” with those of his wife. When she lifts his now insensate hand and holds it, the poet says their gaze is “ecstatic” even if “bisected” by an IV drip-line. Later, during recovery, while a nurse steadies his hand on a walker, another kind of support and companionship enters in the form of a memory of the charioteer statue at Delphi. The image is quite literally another support as the poet re-learns how to walk. Such threads of connection and filaments of support, be they familial or cultural, weave in and out of all the poems in Human Chain. Though the title of the book seems at first ominously heavy, the poems are not. As much as they are shaped by a response to death, they are primarily concerned with what helps us continue to live. The title poem in the book offers a good example. It begins with television news, the speaker watching a brigade of aid workers heaving burlap bags of grain, some soldiers firing shots over the heads of a hungry crowd. There is the “human chain” of aid workers, and their labor links them to the speaker, prompting him to recall his own experience of lifting burlap sacks. He remembers the “eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing” of a labor that is instruction in the body’s own memory. He remembers how good it felt to hand the weight off,
naming that as “backbreak’s truest payback.” The words in effect recount a moment of empathic identification, and the associational links do not stop there. Heaney says at first this is a “letting go which will not come again,” but then he changes his mind in the last line: “Or it will, once. And for all.” The monosyllables here make us shiver as we recognize the letting go the speaker is actually talking about, and yet the context of these words is the physical and maybe metaphysical joy to be found in letting one’s burden go. This joy, in other words, is a glimpsed alternative to sorrow, fear, or self-pity. And it is just as significant to note how the poet arrived at this thought via a sequence of imaginative association, linkages that present in effect a layered, complex image of human interdependence.
Throughout the book we find the poet in the act of discovery and re-discovery of those filaments of connection: forebears, descendants, partners, helpers, comrades, all those who help him do the heavy lifting. It is significant too that Heaney includes in this his literary friends and family. The title poem, for instance, is dedicated to the critic and scholar Terence Brown, while “Hermit Songs” is dedicated to Harvard colleague Helen Vendler. It is similar with the various literary allusions and debts acknowledged in this book. There are three poems, for example, that are said to be “after” the mode of a poem by another poet. What the word “after” means in these poems is that another’s lines has inspired the poem at hand. In the domain of allusion, it worth noting that “Miracle” is based on the New Testament story where a sick man is lifted and lowered by his friends through the roof of his house to be healed. “In the Attic” is in the same spirit, and is prompted by Heaney’s recollection of his boyhood reading of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As the poet recalls his own grandfather mis-remembering the name of one of the novel’s characters, Heaney says that even as his own memory fails on this name or that, “It’s not I can’t imagine still / That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt / As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.”
Strong winds open and close this book of poems. In “Had I not been awake” we meet a “courier blast” of night wind, one that the poet says has never since lapsed back into the ordinary. In “A Kite for Abhin” the final poem, we meet an “air from another life and time and place,” as the poet with his grandchild watches their kite lift into the wind and take off so high that the string breaks and the kite sails away. One senses the symbolic elements here, especially as one is reminded of “A Kite for Michael and Christopher,” in Station Island. In the older poem the kite was an image of the soul, pulled to earth, grounded in mortality. Here the kite still suggests the soul, but that wind is now more ambiguous. “The kite takes off,” writes Heaney as the last line, “itself alone, a windfall.” In any windfall there is something inescapably positive, a gift, an abundance. The wind that opens and closes Human Chain suggests the breathing in and breathing out of the world, but it also suggests the way the world has been muse, has been the source of literal and figurative inspiration. And, this muse, even if it includes mortal facts, still presents itself as a current that connects this place and that, this soul with others. As the kite string breaks or the soul takes off, it is going somewhere, receiving or becoming itself a windfall.
When I finished this book I kept thinking of Whitman’s line that death might just be luckier than we had supposed. I also kept thinking of Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider, “ceaselessly musing,” sending out filament after filament, “‘till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my soul.” This is the work that forges the “human chain” as Heaney imagines it, and this, as with Whitman’s spider, is the truest, most abiding defense of poetry I know.