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Seamus Heaney’s new collection elicits continuities and solidarities, between husband and wife, child and parent, then and now, inside an intently remembered present – the stepping stones of the day, the weight and heft of what is passed from hand to hand, lifted and lowered. Human Chain also broaches larger questions of transmission, as lifelines to the inherited past. There are newly minted versions of anonymous early Irish lyrics, poems which stand at the crossroads of oral and written, and other ‘hermit songs’ which weigh equally in their balance the craft of scribe and the poet’s early calling as scholar. A remarkable sequence entitled ‘Route 110’ plots the descent into the underworld in the Aeneid against single moments in the arc of a life, from a 1950s adolescence to the birth of the poet’s first grandchild. Other poems display a Virgilian pietas for the dead – friends, neighbours and family – which is yet wholly and movingly vernacular.
Human Chain also adapts a poetic ‘herbal’ by the Breton poet Guillevic – lyrics as delicate as ferns, which puzzle briefly over the world of things which excludes human speech, while affirming the interconnectedness of phenomena, as of a self-sufficiency in which we too are included.
Human Chain is Seamus Heaney’s twelfth collection of poems.
In Human Chain, his best single volume for many years, and one that contains some of the best poems he has written, Heaney allows this struggle between the lacrimae rerum and the consolations of poetry to have a force which is satisfying because its result is so tentative and uncertain. Memory here can be filled with tones of regret and even undertones of anguish, but it also can appear with a sense of hard-won wonder. There is an active urge to capture the living breath of things, but he also allows sorrow into his poems. He uses a poetic line which sometimes seems complete and whole in its rhythm, and at others is stopped short, held, left hanging. It is as though to allow the rhythm its full completion would be untrue to the shape of the experience that gave rise to the poem, untrue to the terms of the struggle between the pure possibility that language itself can offer and a knowledge of the sad fixtures which the grim business of loss can provide ... Human Chain is a book of shades and memories, of things whispered, of journeys into the underworld, of elegies and translations, of echoes and silences ... Throughout his career there have been poems of simple evocation and description. His refusal to sum up or offer meaning is part of his tact, but his skill at playing with rhythm, pushing phrases and images as hard as they will go, offers the poems an undertone, a gravity, a space between the words that allows them to soar or shiver.
Human Chain is about inheritance - in the fullest sense of the word ... what makes Seamus Heaney's writing so fortifying is, partly, his temperament: his human chain is tolerant, durable, compassionate and every link is reinforced by literature ... This beautiful and affecting collection includes Heaney's own not-so-distant brush with death ... The prevailing tone is retrospective, clear and unflustered - as if written from the vantage point of a small hilltop ... Many poems are tender and welcoming but Heaney was never one for false consolation. There are bracing elegies here too. "The door was open and the house was dark", in memory of David Hammond, is especially arresting because it refuses the dead man even the briefest afterlife in poetry. Instead, Heaney explores the silence after a death. It is a wonderful idea that silence should develop a life of its own, journeying through the second stanza and retiring into the street. The strangeness rings emotionally true, a reaction to a new relationship with silence ... Heaney is conversational and welcoming, often present in his writing as a relaxed host. He never overdresses his poems ... [a] masterly collection.
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