Must age diminish a great poet’s strengths? If I grant that age has such power, I’m left to ponder the truly strange fact that death does not.
Human Chain by Seamus Heaney. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, first paperback edition, $13.
By Daniel Bosch
Human Chain is made of 29 poems, more than 23 of which are composed in tercets, the links out of which the chain of the book is forged. Here the stanza is Heaney’s principal means of measuring time; each stanza posits a human’s momentary point of view, but Heaney, and his poems, keeps moving. Some lines, of course, are gorgeous—a Heaney line can awe us, even threaten to halt a poem, for a moment halt the progress of time. And the variability of Heaney’s use of pentameter, trimeter, dimeter, and phrasal “free” verse measures shows forth his flexibility and his respect for differences. Yet his reliance on the tercet shape underscores a remarkable consistency in Heaney’s poetic enterprise.
Readers familiar with Heaney’s work will find in Human Chain the extraordinary attention to sound and image that has characterized his work from the very beginning, and they will recognize, happily, that Heaney persists in his focus on certain themes, such as the difficulty of choosing between pen and sword. “The Conway Stewart,” for example—the title is the brand name of a luxury pen manufacturer—begins:
“Medium,” 14-carat nib,
Three gold bands in the clip-on screw-top,
In the mottled barrel a spatulate, thin
With its evocations of the pen as weapon (“the mottled barrel,” “pump-action lever,” and “’Medium,’ 14-carat”—a phrase that conjures the M-14 carbine) the poem recalls those oft-quoted and supposedly quintessential early Heaney lines from “Digging,”
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests, snug as a gun.
And indeed poems in Human Chain reestablish our bonds with some of Heaney’s favorite subjects: friendship, the mythical bird-king Sweeney, the Irish tongue and Irish history, the sometimes frightening lushness of nature. So the proposition that there is a chain of association between humans, or chain that girds humanity as a whole, finds its echo in the tight fit between the poems of this book and the poems that make up the rest of Heaney’s oeuvre.
The cover of the paperback Human Chain is tattooed front and back with praise for the hardback edition published last year by Farrar Straus Giroux, praise that emphasizes the news that Heaney is “still-vital,” that he “still writes with passion.” But what were we to expect? That the verses of a septuagenarian should be distorted by the low hiss of intranasal oxygen? That the old man’s measures should be haltingly sustained by a tennis-ball-footed walker?
The use of such bites to promote Human Chain indicates, against 10,000 counter-examples, the silly prejudice that artistic power is somehow the purview of the young. Yet the miracle of record is that Heaney in his mid-20s was already a strong verse writer. Heaney’s “still at it”? He’s “still got it”? He’s “still the one”? What would really be astonishing would be to find him, after 50 years of practice, suddenly unable to make good on the promise that has fueled his writing since the late 50s.
These expressions of surprise that Heaney’s poetic powers remain, in The New York Time‘s Dwight Garner’s word, “undiminished,” have driven me, as I’ve read and re-read Human Chain, toward Heaney’s uses of that multi-talented word “still” and to consider whether they indicate Heaney’s position with regard to an expectation that age must diminish poetic strength. Its first occurrence is as an adverb in line 6 of the poem “Uncoupled,” where it modifies a compound adjective that describes how heat can persist and make the carrying of a vessel, in this case by an anonymous, uncoupled “her,” more difficult due to “. . . flakes still sparking hot.”
It’s a stretch to consider Heaney a like vessel, long ago heated by poetic flame, but this image nonetheless indicates his delight in the persistence of intense, visible heat—it’s the “sparking” that is initially remarkable, and this delight couples with the very next use of “still” in the same sentence, just three lines down, “Unwavering, keeping her burden horizontal still,” (line 9) that conveys Heaney’s admiration for those who manage to keep steady hold of hot material and to move gracefully with it, such that even if it is a “burden,” it does not seem so burdensome. Heaney neatly couples the adverb “still” and the adjective “still,” keeping them in tension; for the trick of the poem’s single sentence is precisely the same as the transit that (she) makes, never allowing herself, in spite of the difficulty of bearing some part of the fire that has burned for us all, to become “still.”
This magic word appears for a third and a fourth time in “Chanson D’Aventure.” The adventure sung about in the opening section is a ride taken by the speaker “flat on my back” in an ambulance (part i, l. 6). In the context of this love poem, when the speaker says that he and his love keep still during this unanticipated trip (“Our postures all the journey still the same.” part i., l. 6), there is the satisfaction of imagining a young Heaney knocked metaphorically flat by a first glimpse of his wife-to-be, a vision that transforms Heaney into Dante and his spouse into Beatrice and offers the difference in their postures during this ambulance ride as the rule rather than the exception. Plus ça change.
When “still” recurs in “Chanson D’Aventure”—each time it does so it reminds us how it cannot be exhausted—it follows the word “apart,” which has stung the speaker into a memory of bells that sound hours, or emergencies, or losses. Retelling the story of the ambulance ride, Heaney’s speaker feels, though his body has gone “lag” (l. eight) and “flop-heavy” (l. 9), the weight of a bell he pulled at school in Derry during
“. . . my turn
As College bellman, the haul of it still
In the heel of my once capable
Warm hand . . .”
(part ii, ll. 4-7)
Heaney’s use of “haul” as a noun emphasizes how the speaker cherishes the responsibility of the bellman. (Note how “haul” punningly resounds with “all.”) “Still,” bell-like, rings again and again in this part of the poem, as Heaney wrings slant rhymes from these lines in “bell” (l. 1), “heel” and “capable” (l. 6), “feel” (l. 7) and “bellpull” (l. 9). Contemporary philosophers may rightly question whether a self is a continuous entity over time, but in this poem, the hand that lies in the gurney is in no way disconnected from the hand that labored to make music so many years ago.
In “Dear Derry Down,” our “it” word takes a rare turn as an part of a compound noun, the name of genre of Western painting, as the speaker calls a “the full of a white// enamel bucket// of little pears” a
on the red tiles
of that floor.
(part ii, ll. 4-9)
And even here the five letters of “still” confer a complex aura upon the phenomena of the real world. This is not a red wheelbarrow—nothing much depends upon it; Heaney spends hyperbole on more fitting occasions. Yet the memory of these pears is prized because of its persistence; and conversely, the persistence of these pears embodies—almost—the delight Heaney takes in how memory, like poetry, makes experience available over time.
“Still” doesn’t appear again until “Route 110,” where it occurs three times. Named for a highway, the poem is the longest sequence in Human Chain,; “Still” is a road sign that keeps the speaker from getting lost. In part v, the word refers directly to navigation and the return to sources that “Route 110” enacts:
. . . why not McNichols’ pigeons
Out of their pigeon holes but homing still
In part vii, Heaney uses “still” in a slightly oxymoronic phrase that is one of the mysteries of common speech, a phrase the twist of which is invisible until it is called to our attention. At the sight of Michael Mulholland’s grieving mother’s face “At the dormer window,” Heaney’s speaker feels “her hurt still new” (l. 3). “Still new,” we say, pointing to the car we’ve driven for a year or lamenting the stain on a just-bought dress, but Heaney uses the phrase to evoke exquisite freshness of pain that is ancient, always already too long, each second of it unbearable, and at the same time not navigable because each second of it is without precedent.
Pain is always contemporary: the final use of “still” in “Route 110” draws a line between the Troubles in Ireland and the present-day terror instilled by suicide bombers. Some of the authority of Heaney’s poems about such terror stems from the fact that his experience of explosions has been actual and not merely televisual.
Another portion comes from his willingness to link terrorist and innocent bystander in the same prosodic web. In part ix, the speaker asks what might be done with the remains of Mr. Lavery, who was exploded “As he bore the primed device and bears it still” (l. 3). The last part of the line slant rhymes cleverly with “Louis O’Neill” (l. 5), who was not a bomber but a victim “in the wrong place” (l. 6). The remains of the fanatic and the remains of the collaterally damaged are equally difficult to deal with.
Yet another common phrase in which “still” appears is deployed in the sequence “Hermit Songs,” which is dedicated to the critic Helen Vendler, Heaney’s former colleague at Harvard. Part vii is a portrait of the artist as a young pupil, a vignette that gives an account of the poet’s experience of difference from his peers and the physical excitement and privilege that he associated with that difference. (The poem makes an excellent contrast with a poem on the same theme, “M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School—Detroit, 1942” by Phillip Levine.)
When the young Heaney is sent out of his classroom, now kept busy by “a singing class”—a phrase carefully concocted to echo but not to repeat Yeats’s “singing school” from “Sailing to Byzantium”—he realizes that his mission permanently divides him from the rest, whom he can still hear, “through opened windows// Yet still and all a world away.” (ll. 11-12) That “still and all” is the ink-stain of the completeness of his separation; his hand in the cool water will be privileged and protected. But unlike Achilles, whose immersion armors him nearly completely, Heaney’s baptism protects only his writing hand, the hand into which a pen fits “snug as a gun” and leaves the rest of his body vulnerable to diaspora. Here’s the text:
A vision of the school the school
Won’t understand, nor I, not quite:
My hand in the cold of a running stream
Suspended, a glass beaker dipped
And filling in the flow. I’m sent
The privileged one, for water
To turn the ink powder into ink—
Out in the open, the land and sky
And playground silent, a singing class
I’ve been excused from going on,
Coming out through opened windows,
Yet still and all a world away.
How good a poet will this privileged lad become? It’s evident in the exuberant first line of this section: “A vision of the school the school.” How hard poets work to contrive such emphatic repetitions, and how well their successes school the next generation.
The finale of “still” in Human Chain comes in the closing fourth section of the series “In the Attic.” If an attic is a space for storage of things no longer needed, things that nevertheless recall to the attic visitor pastimes and past times, this poem is a space in which time, so surely measured, is suddenly less sure about boundaries. “In the Attic” is of a piece with the ruminations that dominate the book. Its first line, “As I age and blank on names,” returns me to the expectations of critics who seem surprised that Heaney has, at his age, not yet lost his powers. When the speaker declares, “It’s not that I can’t imagine still” (l. 7), my touchstone, “still,” is all the more resonant because Heaney has slant rhymed it with “world-tilt” (l. eight).
Ought we to marvel at the persistence of gifts and talents into great age? Heaney’s use of the word “still” in Human Chain indicates deep resistances to such a presumption and a conviction that a crucial difference is made when one embraces a calling to poetry. His “still” clings to persistence, to continuity, to steadiness, to the shock of how some pain will not cease, and to the revivification of the past. In Human Chain, we find—unsurprisingly—that Himself is Himself. Must age diminish a great poet’s strengths? If I grant that age has such power, I’m left to ponder the truly strange fact that death does not.