Review: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
(Faber and Faber, £12.99)
Heaney's haunted by the ghosts of his past
John Boland on the Nobel laureate's first collection in four years
Seamus Heaney's new collection, his first since District and Circle in 2006, is notable for its preoccupation with the past and for its subdued elegiac tone, the poet summoning up family members and friends who, though now dead, still exert their unique influence.
And that, as the book's title suggests, is how it should be -- indeed, how it must be if those of us left on this earth after loved ones have gone are to remain fully and responsibly alive.
Beginning with his 1966 debut, Death of a Naturalist -- his father stumbling behind him and refusing to go away -- the backward look has always been crucial to Heaney but it's never been so strikingly prevalent as here. Age, of course, and the reckonings that advancing years bring with them have something to do with it, along with the poet's brush with mortality when he suffered a stroke some years ago -- an event recalled in the three-poem sequence, Chanson d'Aventure.
Yet such is his guarded poetic temperament that he regards the undoubted trauma of that experience at a slight remove, with John Donne and a Delphic charioteer as distancing references and the title itself alluding to medieval literature rather than to the rawness of felt experience.
This has always been Heaney's way, and throughout the new volume classical references abound, while his preferred technical mode is a formal, almost formulaic, three-line stanza that to the hopeful eye invites rhyming but seldom allows such consolations.
Perhaps that would have been the easy option (if difficult to do well), but Heaney has always so determinedly eschewed the facile, whether in technique or feeling, that the reader sometimes has to work hard to unearth the lyric pleasures lurking in his verses. There are many such pleasures here, though more often in individual lines or images than in complete poems.
There are no easy emotional resolutions or epiphanies, either. A poem about the poet's father recalls just two moments of physical intimacy with him -- one when he was drunk and "needed help/To do up trouser buttons"; the other "on the landing during his last week/Helping him to the bathroom, my right arm/Taking the webby weight of his underarm".
Elsewhere, he recalls the painter Derek Hill, at a last meal with the Heaneys, saying that: "He could bear no longer to watch/The sun going down/And asking please to be put/With his back to the window". And a starkly haunting poem in memory of singer and racounteur David Hammond finds in his friend's death "a not unwelcoming/ Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar/ On an overgrown airfield in late summer".
That's a lovely, if essentially desolating, image and there are others just as fine, though in general the lyrical wattage is lower here than in early Heaney or even than in such later volumes as Electric Light or The Spirit Level.
Perhaps the spirit is too level here -- certainly there are few poems that fly free of their forms and soar irresistibly into the stratosphere.
Instead, in a phrase he uses in two poems, Heaney finds much "that had to be put up with", not least the passing of parents, friends, trusted traditions and old observances, against which new births and lives may provide some solace and cause for optimism but can't compensate for a vanished time when his distracted father's eyes "leave mine and I know / The pain of loss before I know the term".