Earlier this month, the former Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was awarded the Forward prize for best collection, in recognition of his twelfth volume of poetry, Human Chain. For over forty years Heaney has dug deep with his pen into the psyche of Ulster, exploring cultural identities and Ireland’s troubled past. But his newest collection has little to recount for the recent troubles in Ireland and instead focuses on the poet’s own mortality which is brought starkly to the fore in poems such as ‘The Baler’ and ‘Chanson d’Aventure’.
Confronting one’s own mortality has caused some of the poems in Human Chain to sound markedly less upbeat than those which appeared in its predecessor, District and Circle. However, as often is the case with Heaney, there is cause for joy and celebration to be found in the darkest of subject matters.
Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006 which left him temporarily paralysed down his left-hand side and the poem ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ details the terrifying incident, along with the horror of realising that he was also paralysed. In the poem, it is the warm touch of his wife’s hands, Marie, that he misses being able to feel the most, but consolingly the couple still have the, “Everything and nothing spoken, / Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast”.
Unseen forces such as love and memory shape Human Chain which opens with, ‘Had I Not Been Awake’, a lyric poem about a wind that rouses the poet from his sleep. The poem demonstrates how acutely sensitive Heaney has become to his surroundings following his stroke and throughout the collection, the reader becomes increasingly aware of their own mortality. This was a theme Heaney had touched upon previously in District and Circle’s eponymous poem when he saw in the window of an Underground Tube carriage his, “father’s glazed face in my own waning / And craning.”
The figure of Heaney’s father recurs throughout Human Chain acting as a poignant reminder of his own mortality. In ‘The Butts’ and part IV of ‘Album’ Heaney makes references to incidents from his past when he had to support his elderly father, “my right arm / Taking the webby weight of his underarm.” In the memory sequences of his father’s frail body, the poet depicts a stark image of washing him in close-up reality:
And we must learn to reach well in beneath
Each meagre armpit
To lift and sponge him,
One on either side,
Feeling his lightness,
Having to dab and work
Closer than anybody liked
But having, for all that,
To keep working.
Here, “To keep working” is insinuated as a way to cope with tragic circumstances, and this matter-of-fact approach to mortality and death emerges again in ‘The Door was Open and the House was Dark – In Memory of David Hammond’ which captures a precise moment in time of knowing when something is not quite right and changed forever, “I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger, / Intruder almost, wanting to take flight.”
Although Heaney often looks to events from his past for poetic inspiration, the poems in Human Chain do not impart any sense of the poet wanting to be elsewhere. In all the memory sequences that appear in this collection, there is always a return to the present, and in part V of ‘Album’ the sequence closes on that of his grandson whom he takes feverish delight in.
‘Miracle’ is another standout poem of this collection and again focuses on Heaney’s stroke but from the point of view of the stretcher bearers who attended him. At the recent Poetry Prom in Aldeburgh Heaney said of the incident: “When I was in hospital I got to thinking of that famous incident in the New Testament where the paralytic is brought in for the healing by Christ. In my new perspective of things, the guys who carry him in become more and more important in that story.”
Though ‘Miracle’ is about Heaney’s own personal struggle, the poem may be read in a wider context by substituting the figures of stretcher bearers for rescuers in disaster zones, “Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked / In their backs, the stretcher handles / Slippery with sweat.” (The figure of the stretcher bearer, has incidentally, already been alluded to in a previous Heaney poem in District and Circle, ‘To Mick Joyce in Heaven’).
When it comes to looking at the past, many critics accuse Heaney of being an evasive poet, over the years he has readdressed earlier work and revised his perspective on events. Human Chain is one of the few collections which follow on from the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 and in one of his poems, ‘The Conway Stewart’ the gun/pen motif long associated with one of his earliest poems, ‘Digging’ is momentarily recalled in some of the opening lines, “In the mottled barrel a spatulate, thin / Pump-action lever.” The gun imagery in ‘The Conway Stewart’ is not as developed as the metaphor once was in ‘Digging’ and with the decomissioning of arms in Northern Ireland, the brevity of Heaney’s gun/pen motif in ‘The Conway Stewart’ could be seen in a symbolic light.
Heaney’s poems in Human Chain offer a chronicle of events that are non-linear – they flit back and forth between times and in and out of reality – something which journalism and history cannot do. As one of the greatest living poets, Heaney holds this privileged position. He continues to respond to events which have shaped his country and presents an ever changing and revised reading of culture and history.
Ultimately, Human Chain is about the passing on and transmission of humanity, whether it be love, knowledge or compassion. These are all qualities Heaney demonstrates in this new collection and it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be putting his pen down anytime soon.