28 February, 2011Issue 15.4LiteraturePoetry

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A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Luke Smith

foerSeamus Heaney
Human Chain
Faber and Faber, 2010
96 Pages
ISBN 978-0571269228

Seamus Heaney has described how, after his stroke in 2006, a group of friends carried him from the bedroom in which he was staying, down the stairs and out to the waiting ambulance. This experience, commemorated in the poem “Miracle”, forms one of the many human chains that inhabit his 12th collection. We are shown chains of workers, chains of medical care and support, and through re-imagining and allusion, the literary chains that link a poet to the future and the past. But chief among these is the chain of human relationships—of descent and family, of love and marriage—and the difficult knowledge that its links are as transient as we are, bound only for the breaking.

Heaney is now 71, and Human Chain is his first book since the stroke. It should not surprise us, then, that the poems here concern themselves with mortality, itself so finely expressed in the title poem, where the comparison is drawn to the moment of release in slinging sacks of grain onto a trailer:

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

Although death and loss are not new topics for Heaney, what does feel fresh is the extra distance claimed between speaker and subject, as if the poet’s encounter with his own mortality has afforded him a wider outlook. This distance allows the book to remain buoyant despite its preoccupations and the genuine sorrow it recognises within them, such as in this moment from “The Baler”:

But what I also remembered
As woodpigeons sued at the edge
Of thirty gleaned acres

And I stood inhaling the cool
In a dusk eldorado
Of mighty cylindrical bales

Was Derek Hill’s saying,
The last time he sat at our table,
He could bear no longer to watch

The sun going down
And asking please to be put
With his back to the window.

We recognise, of course, the terrible finality of the definite article— “The last time”—but the poem’s true sadness is that of a man turning his back on the world. And even worse, Derek Hill was a painter, someone defined by his perspectives, so in refusing the sunset and its symbolism, he is also abandoning a vital part of himself. Here we are shown an artist defeated by his own weaponry—subdued, at last, by the weight of metaphor. Yet, through its grief, this poem finally affirms art’s power to look at death unblinkingly—to keep a chair facing the window. This point is re-asserted in “The Butts”, when Heaney writes of having to bathe his aged and ailing father when “the last days came”, to “dab and work”:

Closer than anybody liked
But having, for all that

To keep working.

So the death of a father becomes a synecdoche for all of human mortality, the discomforting intimacy speaking both to what was lacking in the particular relationship and to the wider sense of an encounter with death; in both cases, Heaney says, the only thing to do is “to keep working.”

This confidence in the artistic endeavour is thematic. The book opens with “Had I not been awake”, a celebration of renewed life which appears to honour the moment of its own beginning: an artistic birth that brings the poet out of bed “alive and ticking like an electric fence”, and which gives life also to his surroundings:

A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

The “quick leaves” are a fine example of a poet at play: they are quickly falling, but in having fallen they are no longer quick, but dead. So the common phrase is hinted at, and the quick and the dead inhabit the poem side by side, calling to mind the very thing that keeps them distinct. To see all of this in a poem that literally commemorates itself, one would be excused in charging Heaney with hubris, particularly once we discover that the wind:

…….…….…then and there
lapsed ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

This seems to imply that the wind has been rescued from ordinariness by its inclusion in the poem. But even taking such a reading into account, the belief displayed throughout Human Chain feels authentic enough that the charge of poetic egotism would almost certainly be unfair. Rather, the claim for extraordinariness, for a unique, almost life-giving power in the face of death, seems one made on the behalf of all art. Instead of hubris, call it faith.

Or perhaps, given that the poet is no longer a young man, we might also call it hope: Heaney spoke during the book’s composition of how writing Human Chain was an attempt to escape the “closing cadence” that he felt boxed into by the combination of his 70th birthday and the stroke. This positive note is sounded in “Chanson d’Aventure”, in which the poet’s post-stroke ambulance ride to the hospital is characterised not by fear or self-pity, but by a renewal of love:

Everything and nothing spoken,
Our eyebeams threaded laser fast, no transport
Ever like it until then…

The allusion is surely to Donne’s “The Ecstasy”, where a pair of lovers’ “eye-beams twisted, and did thread / [their] eyes upon one double string”, showing us that, for Heaney, even the “ecstasy” of revitalised love is apt to be improved by art.

But there is only one way to bring a “closing cadence” to its end, and as a result, much of the effort of optimism is centred on creating a hopeful vision of death. “A Herbal” begins by telling us that “Everywhere plants / Flourish among graves”. “Route 110”, a re-imagining of Virgil’s descent into the underworld as a journey from youth to old age, ends on the image of a birth, where the poet arrives clutching flowers “like tapers that won’t dim” and the adults gather round “talking baby talk”. “A Mite Box” speaks of an alms collector going door-to-door, the pinpricks made in a card to account for individual donations becoming “A way for all to see a way to heaven”. In each of these examples, a different kind of life springs from death. And in the collection’s final lines, “A Kite for Aibhín” brings us back once more to “that quick unburdening” mentioned in the title poem, reinforcing the hopeful idea of death as a moment of release, an upward movement:

Until string breaks and – separate, elate –

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

Yet death is not the only form of loss addressed. Alongside the memorials for lost friends (there are three beautiful ones in this collection) a more general tone of elegy animates the poems—a commemoration of memory itself, of how, with age, “the memorable bottoms out / into the irretrievable” (“In the Attic”). Informing this tone is a simplicity of language that, if not entirely new, (Heaney has been edging toward it for some time) seems more assured and balanced than it has before:

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

This is clearly unlike the Heaney of Death of a Naturalist (1966), the younger man’s mouthfuls of detail (the “warm thick slobber of frogspawn”, the “gross-bellied frogs” and “their loose necks [which] pulsed like sails”) replaced by a simplified voice that creates the sense of looking over things from afar. Removed from the “slap and pop” of the immediate, the verse takes on a tone of memory or memorial, as if the details and all their untidiness no longer matter.

Not every poem here makes use of this tone—Heaney is still capable of delighting with his sound, such as in the description of a young eel as “greasy grey / and rightly wriggle-spined” (“Eelworks”)—but the poems that do are those most concerned with what is lost, and in their superbly weighted marriage of subject to voice, they stand among his very best.

When a writer develops a style that can accommodate death—when their sentences and structures begin to shape themselves around it—we like to say that they have entered their late period. But the pun is cruel, being altogether too accurate, and one hesitates to apply it to a collection of such hard-earned human feeling. However, this is a collection of endings and last things: it returns to them over and again. It is as if, rather than escaping the “closing cadence”, Heaney, or at least his poetry, has embraced it, discovering its voice: fine and translucent, fit for winter:

from “Album”


It’s winter at the seaside where they’ve gone
For the wedding meal. And I am at the table,
Uninvited, ineluctable.

A skirl of gulls, a smell of cooking fish.
Plump dormant silver. Stranded silence. Tears.
Their bibbed waitress unlids a clinking dish

And leaves them to it, under chandeliers.
And to all the anniversaries of this
They are not ever going to observe

Or mention even in the years to come.
And now the man who drove them here will drive
Them back, and by evening we’ll be home.

Luke Smith graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford.