I first met Seamus Heaney in the pages of Beowulf, his 2001 translation that was both bestselling and award-winning. (Who would have thought that Beowulf – Beowulf! – could be a bestseller? I’m still waiting for the YouTube version of The Epic of Gilgamesh to go viral.) I hadn’t read Beowulf since college, and Heaney’s translations rightfully deserved all the awards and recognitions it received.
Last year, I bought his Selected Poems 1966-1996, but confess I haven’t read it yet. I also have Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, but I haven’t read it yet, either. I think I’m waiting for the right moment to read both of them together.
What I did tackle was Heaney’s most recent volume of poems, Human Chain. It’s skinnier, for one thing. And I suspect that while the title of Selected Poems suggests that it is only representative of his body of work, in fact he might have come close to selecting everything.
Human Chain refutes the notion that poetry is the province of the young. It’s a collection of poems that demonstrates Heaney’s love of words and language, carefully chiseled and strung together like brilliant diamonds. The poems have to be read carefully and slowly, to truly see what a master of words can do.
Here is Heaney’s take on a familiar Gospel story, entitled “Miracle:”
Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in—
Their shoulders number, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up
Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.
What Heaney is suggesting here is that the “miracle” – the healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends – is as much about the friends as it is the healing.
This sense of alternative view, or unexpected view, permeates the poems of the volume. The poems range in topic from geography (Ireland) to eulogies for friends who have died, and poems dedicated to friends still living. In that sense, Human Chain represents a kind of summing up of a poet’s life.
And he does it in beautiful ways, shaping and polishing to a keen glow and sparkle. From “Hermit’s Songs:”
With cut-offs of black calico,
Remnants of old blackout blinds
Ironed, tacked with criss-cross threads,
We jacketed the issued books.
Less durable if more desired,
The mealy textured wallpaper:
Its brede of bosomed roses pressed
And flattened under smoothing irons.
Brown parcel paper, if need be.
Newsprint, even. Anything
To make a convert for the newness,
Learn you were a keeper only.
“Its brede of bosomed roses pressed” – what a wonderful four-beat line. It’s part of what Heaney calls “hermit songs, ” and it has the flow and rhythm of a song.
The master gem-cutter continues to work his wonder.
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