I HAVE TO do something to whittle down the stack of unread poetry volumes around here, so here is my resolution: to read one a day this week.
I'm not sure why it took me eighteen months (more?) to get to this one. Heaney was my Favorite Living Poet from 1980, when I first read him, up until early 1990s; something of the gleam faded for me with Seeing Things and The Spirit Level, but I've still read each new volume. And I liked District and Circle. So why the wait?
Heaney is still Heaney in Human Chain, affably serious and seriously affable, a dab hand at translation (Colmcille this time), a subtle master of form (quite a few short-line poems here, not much seen since North), a man awake to the natural world:
Never, in later days,
So taste of earth.
There was slate
In the blackberries,
A slatey sap.
Heaney revisits old themes, but with a difference. "The Conway Stewart" describes the pen that may have been the one that rested, "snug as a gun," in his hand in "Digging," and it is described as memorably as the the spade in that poem:
The nib uncapped,
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,
Letting it rest then at an angle
to ingest [...]
There is a visit to the underworld, á la Station Island, cast this time in the terms of Aeneas's visit to the underworld in Book Six of the Aeneid (but with terza rima recalling Dante), and, once again, tributes to his parents' taciturn love. Heaney can still conjure an uncanny image, as when describing the next-day shape of a banked fire: "The cindery skull / Formed when its tarry / Coral cooled."
New notes? A poem for a grandchild, and what seems to be a poem ("Chansons d'Aventure") about having a heart attack. Did Heaney have a heart attack? Mortality has never been far from the surface in Heaney's poetry, but frequently in Human Chain he seems particularly conscious of his own. The volume's title poem is about passing things along, as in a bucket brigade, or the heaving of bags of grain, as Heaney recalls, especially the blessed relief of letting go of the burden:
With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave--
The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed
That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.