Poetry has always been half in love with easeful death. There must have been a time, as Thomas Hardy in his great poem “Before Life and After” assures us there was, when death constituted nothing more than the end of life, a time when “if something ceased, no tongue bewailed”; a far-off time, that is, before the poets discovered their calling as elegists. It was a discovery they made early on. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest surviving works of literature, is obsessed with the mystery of mortality, Homer too lingers often among the shades, and Shakespeare and Milton are ever mindful that the very notion of cadence implies a lapsing, a falling away. Death, Wittgenstein assures us, is not an experience in life, but the poet knows otherwise, and seeks to catch us in the web of words as we fall.
The mourning bell tolls throughout Human Chain, Seamus Heaney’s new collection of poems, his twelfth, but the sound it makes is a sonorous call to life and continuity: “The dead here are borne/Towards the future.” In these marvelous poems Heaney displays all that sweetness and ease of gesture, that colloquial accommodation, that are the unmissable traits of his art; but the thinking in these lines evinces new “torsions”—a word Heaney used tellingly in his Nobel acceptance speech—that Donne and Dowland would have recognized and approved:
Too late, alas, now for the apt quotation
About a love that’s proved by steady gazing
Not at each other but in the same direction.
Yet if this is metaphysical poetry, it is without the yawning tomb, the death’s-head rictus, the bracelet of bright hair about the bone. Heaney’s dead are vibrantly alive, fleshed out by the force of memory and through the power of poetry, even if the flesh here often has the “webby weight” of his dying father’s underarm in the poem “Album.” Human Chain marks many deaths but all the markings are a celebration of what was lived:
As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
Baudelaire somewhere remarks that literary genius—the word “genius” used here in the Latin sense of begetting or making—consists in an ability to summon up childhood at will. Seamus Heaney’s power of recall, especially of his earliest years, is a phenomenon that has awed critics from the time of his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966—the title poem of which remembers in exact and gloriously turbid detail the flax-dam near his childhood home where “bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles/Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell,” and frogspawn “grew like clotted water.” One of this…
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