Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney

I was saddened to learn of Heaney's death this week at what seems to me now the young age of 74. In his honor I salvaged this 2010 collection of his poetry from the depths of my to-be-read pile.

What a treat it is! First the cover, a detail from an illuminated manuscript of The Divine Comedy, a row of sages in red and yellow robes, hands linked, against a deep indigo sky. The lower part, where the men stand, is somewhat damaged, the paint cracked. Their expressions vary from sad to stern to pleased.

Then there is the title, a marvel of compression, but one that seemingly holds no mystery. I thought first of the obvious: passing fire buckets and parent to child and our strands of DNA. Read on, though, as these poems draw us close and even closer to mysteries such as “a wood that talked in its sleep” or “a wrist protruding like an open spout”.

Turning to the first poem, I was beguiled. Describing one brief moment, Heaney almost casually opens it out to encompass a world of meaning. Every poem left me dreaming and thinking and rereading. His use of language, seemingly simple phrases, is extraordinary, each word, each phrase packed with meaning.

Heaney's intense focus on the smallest of details gives these brief poems resonance. This poem, where he describes three occasions when he might have embraced his father, made me feel again the last weeks of my own father's life.

And the third

Was on the landing during his last week,
Helping him to the bathroom, my right arm
Taking the webby weight of his underarm.

His poems though brief seem the result of thought and long deliberation. He takes commonplace happenings and comes at them slantwise to see them afresh. Even the small moment of being left at school by his parents yields a powerful emotion:

Seeing them as a couple, I now see,

For the first time, all the more together
For having had to turn and walk away, as close
In the leaving (or closer) as in the getting.

In these poems he brings together and shares tesserae from all of his ages—climbing with Jim Hawkins into the ship's rigging, buying a used copy of the Aeneid, being carried on a stretcher, hearing funeral bells toll. Heaney fashions the final mosaics, examining the questions that absorb us at the end: what is the use of a life, my father's life, my own?

Celebrate the man. Read his work.

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