Master of memory

Human Chain
Seamus Heaney
Faber; £12.99

PUBLICATION of a new collection of poems by Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney is always a momentous event in Irish cultural life.

After Electric Light and District and Circle, as well as the monumental book-length interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones, all published in recent years, one can only marvel that the poet still has urgent things to say.

Fifteen years after he won the Nobel Prize and a year after receiving the David Cohen Prize for Literature, Heaney presents us with another triumph from the Olympian privacy of his life.

Childhood still speaks through him, as trustfully and deftly as the shadows spoke through WB Yeats.

As a poet he is simply astonishing. His career has implications for all of us. He has made the world listen to Ireland. His work speaks for us to a much wider world in the same way that the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez speaks for Colombia.

In a way Heaney began as he went on: as a brilliant teacher. Gradually he was promoted. Ulster gave him posts of special responsibility until, finally, the whole nation appointed him as its dynamic young principal. He hasn’t disappointed.

How has he done it? Why has this happened to a Derry boy on a farm who wanted to be a poet? The answer is technical: it has everything to do with language. He began with an intense love of language and language has never ceased to amaze him. Here he is in The Baler:

All day the clunk of a baler

Ongoing, cardiac-dull,

So taken for granted

It was evening before I came

To what I was hearing

And missing: summer’s richest hours

As if they had been to begin with,

Fork-lifted, sweated-through

And nearly rewarded enough

By the giddied-up race of a tractor

At the end of the day

Last-lapping a hayfield

There it is: the fluidity of memory structured by a focused and appropriate language.

Anyone who has stood in a field with the baler working away will recognise the “cardiac-dull” rhythm, the “sweated-through” hours and the tractor “last-lapping” the field before the daylight fails.

So, it is language. But it is also a sure feeling, a steady, trustworthy witness of our common humanity.

Our best witnesses are nearly always those least damaged and Heaney has been honest about this. Poets in the post-Freudian era tend to monitor personal trauma rather than personal transitions. Perhaps it has some- thing to do with the practical necessities of farm life, but thereis an enduring integrity about personal things in all of Heaney’s witness statements about life.

As a poet he enjoyed being a son when being a son was important; then he seemed to enjoy the hunt for love and its conquest in young manhood. His later books, with their kites, trains, pools and travels, contain a maturing picture of capable fatherhood. In this latest book he has entered once more into the human transitions of grief.

In Album he speaks of his father with a son’s love

Were I to have embraced him anywhere

It would have been on the riverbank

That summer before college, him in his prime

It is a poem of regret and remembrance; a rueful memory of the Irishman’s reluctance to be too showy in affection, especially in the affections between men. But Heaney marks the appropriate transition.

In a later section he writes of the generational shift, and its liberating effect

It took a grandson to do it properly,

To rush him in the armchair

The image is perfectly chosen, yet again. Like the baler in a hayfield, love works on into the late hours in a healthy family. In The Wood Road he remembers

That August day I walked it To the hunger-striker’s wake, Across a silent yard, In past a watching crowd To where the guarded corpse And a guard of honour stared

He is remembering a familiar lane where B Specials were Harassing Mulhollandstown. In the title poem, dedicated to Terence Brown of TCD, Heaney works back from a televised image of an aid convoy to the work of the farm; this unpretentious, almost invisible, poem is a complex metaphor of solidarity offered and solidarity unburdened

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand

In close-up by the air workers, and soldiers

Firing over the mob, I was braced again

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’

There are constant, cinematic leaps in so many of the poems in this book; from Venus’ doves to McNicholls’ pigeons, from ‘the necking/And nay-saying age of impurity’ to ‘the single splash when Israel’s body fell’.

There is Guillevic’s translated herbal and versions of the penwork-cramped nature lyrics of Columcille’s vintage, not to mention a shock like this:

‘Slack schlock, Scuttle scuffle, Shak-shak’

This is from his poem Slack, a description of that sullen pile of wet coaldust banking a fire in the back-boiler wetness of the 1970s.

Who remembers being sent out to the shed in the rain, to ‘take in/ Its violet blet,/Its wet sand weight?’ Heaney’s strike on the anvil of memory is so true, so mediated by apt vocabulary, that the reading of his work is a sensuous joy.

In a longish sequence, Route 110, he descends into an Aeneid underworld, wandering, but stumbling upon the true shades of his own life from Smithfield Market Saturdays to adults gathered round ‘talking baby talk.’

Although he arose from Kavanagh rather than MacNeice, Heaney retains his first loyalty to the Ulster pastoral, to a northern catholicism that marks his verbal sensibility, like water falling on an indelible pencil. His approach is always educated, tempered by wide reading and a rumination over words,

... Approached head-on the full length of an aisle –Unready as I was if much rehearsed

In the art of first confession

That ‘first confession’ brings us back to Cork in the folk memory of reading, to Frank O’Connor’s trials. The poem Sweeney Out-Takes is dedicated to a Cork writer, the poet Gregory of Corkus, the indefatigable and brilliant Greg Delanty. Others are dedicated to Ciaran Carson and Helen Vendler and many are dedicated in memory. It is part of Heaney’s genius to celebrate friendship. People are drawn to him not because of fame but because of some other quality; some integrity of the heart. To read Heaney is to be a boy again, to know the flight of the Derry ball and the weight of the word.


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