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Seemly, humane, rational, revelatory, steady, traditional, sane, grounded

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney.  (Faber ISBN 978-0-571-26922-8, published 2010)

Early in this book Seamus Heaney describes ‘The Conway Stewart’, a newly purchased fountain pen, “The nib uncapped, / treating it to its first deep snorkel / In a newly opened ink-bottle.” Heaney may live in the age of the email and the text message, but his interest in writing implements goes back to the start, when he compared his pen to a spade that digs deep. He is avid for pencils, paper, the traditional means of getting a poem on the record. Importantly, this poem is reprised later in the collection when he uses the voice of Colum Cille, the great saint of Iona:

My hand is cramped from penwork.
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-sparkle of ink.

Wisdom keeps welling in streams
From my fine-drawn sallow hand:
Riverrun on the vellum
Of ink from green-skinned holly.

My small runny pen keeps going
Through books, through thick and thin,
To enrich the scholars’ holdings –
Penwork that cramps my hand.

The first verse evokes the illuminated world of medieval Ireland, the second signs in on the Joycean project of continuity in Irish writing (riverrun is the giveaway opening word of Finnegans Wake), while the third verse finds the poet already toying with the prospect of his future readership. Has Heaney put enough conundrums in his work to have the scholars working for centuries?

Placed together, these two smaller poems in the book remind us of one of Heaney’s favourite interests, which is also one of his favourite techniques, joining together the new world with the old world. The learning of ancient Ireland and the classical world is used to explain and dramatise the learning experience of Heaney himself in his own short time on Earth. Undoubtedly the standout example in this accomplished metier here is a poem called ‘Route 110’, where a trip on the bus from Smithfield Market, second-hand copy of Virgil in hand, parallels or re-enacts Aeneid IV itself, a trip into the Underworld.

In finding words to describe Seamus Heaney’s poetry I come up with seemly, humane, rational, revelatory, steady, traditional, sane, grounded. Somewhere in his voluminous interview book ‘Stepping Stones’ (2008) Heaney early “wanted pressure and density, wasn’t susceptible to freewheeling rhythm and full-frontal statement,” and it is his dedication to “pressure and density” in poetry that marks all of his work. Compression is at work in the title poem, four short verses to describe lifting the load:

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I’d worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave

This serves both to identify with others he has seen doing the same and to remind himself of his, and our, mortality:

That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

The human chain is not only the line of people moving the sacks, it is any line of people moving the essentials for living. The human chain is the process of doing things together, often without a word (or poem) spoken. But as the last verse just testified, the human chain is also the backbone, the links of the spinal column that make possible all of this work, the straightened chain that makes us all human.

The quality of Heaney’s success is measured in how he can say all of these things without aphorism or footnote, in the matter-of-fact relay of a simple observation, the diction seemingly inevitable, the words plain as day. John Banville remarks that “in these marvellous poems Heaney displays all that sweetness and ease of gesture, that colloquial accommodation, that are the unmissable traits of his art.”

Another standard towards which Heaney strives is forcibleness, “what sets the seal of inevitability on much of the best writing.” It is “the attitude that makes you feel the lines have been decreed, that there has been no fussy picking and choosing of words but instead a surge of utterance.” His ordered cadences and pedalling of tones come at us familiarly in this latest collection. Mortality is the drive behind a pair of riddles titled ‘Uncoupled’. The poet asks:

Who is this coming to the ash-pit
Walking tall, as if in a procession,
Bearing in front of her a slender pan

No question-make is attached to this question, as if the actual answer is not nearly as important as the wonder of wondering who this person is, in and of herself. Likewise in Part II:

Who is this, not much higher than the cattle,
Working his way towards me through the pen,
His ashplant in one hand.

The book puts in a new perspective his large corpus of personal memory poetry, the staking out of a value system learnt in childhood and put to the test by extreme circumstance. Memory poems fill Heaney’s space, have done from the start, normally less autobiographical excursions than attempts at moments of presence, of meaning drawn back from chaos through the existence of others, family, friends, even strangers and as in this case, his parents. At the end of the poem his father is called away by voices
So that his eyes leave mine and I know
The pain of loss before I know the term.

Even the use of the little word ‘term’ discloses Heaney’s mastery. ‘Term’ in the sense of the “the meaning of the word”, but also the term of his father’s life, and his own life. At times, the brilliant and meticulous measure of his lines sound like the last word in Johnsonian impeccability.

Like Les Murray, the most well-known living poet in Australia, Heaney writes a largely rural poetry that is bought by a largely city readership. Both employ versions of pastoral as the basic lay of the land for exploring other ideas and emotions. Heaney is not antipathetic to the urban, unlike Murray who makes a show of his antagonism toward city life and city dwellers, but at times I wonder if part of the attraction of these poets is how they satisfy the romantic desire for a nostalgia world they rarely experienced, or don’t know at all. Heaney’s poetry often depicts a safer Ireland of childhood and youth, pre-bookish, pre-academic, and significantly, pre-Troubles. In an interview in The Irish Times Heaney even points to a state of being that brought this poetry about. “I think that post-1994, post the cessation of violence, the cessations, something changed in me, something changed in everybody. Things were restored to a more equable condition. Actually, I realised how deprived we had been really for 25 years,” and later he continues, “... in the 1970s and 1980s, the inner being of anybody conscious and answerable on the island was cornered in a different way than now. The spirit is in a different posture, and now it’s opener, it’s less battened down, less huddled.”

One other theme that Heaney readers are more conscious of with each passing year is summarised in the words of Colum Cille:

Derry I cherish ever.
It is calm, it is clear.
Crowds of white angels on their rounds
At every corner.

These are the words of self-imposed exile, of someone looking back at a world that is all his, but cannot be anymore. Heaney’s residence in the Republic now takes up a fair proportion of his life and with it a body of work seeking meaning in a place, the North, upon which he may meditate at length. Whether in the icon of his childhood or the still unresolved later traumas of the conflicts in that place, Seamus Heaney produces a poetry prepared to enable catharsis.

-- Tin Tean, 2011.


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