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Alive and ticking

25 November 2010

Martyn Halsall on an aerial if not religious turn in a poet’s work

Human Chain
Seamus Heaney

Faber & Faber £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

POEMS about wind encase this 12th collection by the Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. From their contrasting geographies, inside and outdoors, they frame work of reflection and reverence.

Human Chain opens with the poet awake and therefore attentive to “a courier blast” that first “pattered” his roof with sycamore leaves, then “got me up, the whole of me a-patter”.

This blast invades and transforms, “alive and ticking like an electric fence”. It arrives and swiftly departs “almost . . . dangerously”, arguably like Heaney’s past, marinated in Ireland’s “Troubles”, where all too often bombs were equally “alive and ticking”.

Thirty-five poems on, Heaney is outdoors, flying “A Kite for Aibhin”, at the far end of considered plough­ing of familiar philosophical land­scapes: his relationships with nature and place, the Classics, family, and his responsibilities as a writer to represent and analyse.

For a poet self-sufficient in his own humanity, “A Kite . . .” offers a theological reading. The flier is ab­sorbed in “Air from another life and time and place”. This is “heaven­ly” air that initially sup­ports, then wrenches away the kite as “string breaks”. Then “The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall”, as arguably a soul might fly to “an­other life”.

Much that is aerial and outdoors envelops the later poems as Heaney mines mortality earlier threatened by a stroke and subsequently (“Miracle” and “The Baler”) made marvellous through love’s heartache and healing. In an elegy for David Hammond, Heaney is again outside, and the final image is luxuriant with potential elevation: “an overgrown airfield in late summer”.

“In the Attic” compares Heaney’s study to young Jim Hawkins’s lookout post “in the cross-trees” in Treasure Island. His own “age and blank on names” are increasingly similar to the “light-headedness” of a cabin boy’s “first time in the rigging”; also reflecting a sense of “that slight untoward rupture and world-tilt” as a voyage might be resumed, or death approached.

These are poems of innumerable links and twists, drawn from the well of memory to clean and shine, and reflecting the full weight of analytical responsibility that Heaney has generously assumed for his place and time, and for ours.

Dr Halsall is communications adviser to the Blackburn diocese and poetry editor of Third Way magazine.

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