Admittedly, I’ve not read all the poetry books released this year. So I will not claim to be adequately informed to choose a so-called “best”. But I’d wager a tidy sum that none surpasses Seamus Heaney’s latest. Human Chain, which came out in paperback this August is yet another leaf in the laurel of this truly great living poet.
And a Grendel-sized laurel it is. From the opening poem of his first collection, Digging, when the speaker –clearly the poet himself — declares his calling, staking his claim in “the good turf”, to the most recent translation of Beowulf (which will undoubtedly become the definitive edition), Heaney has repeatedly struck black gold in the peat bog of his imagination, with its deep well and rich deposits.
Human Chain is, as the title suggests, a link. A link between friends and a link to the past, where, alas, so many of the friends (having passed) now dwell. The “opened ground” of an earlier selection of his poems that once symbolized rebirth in freshly turned earth now assumes the image of a plot of ground opened for interment. But of course this dual wordplay was not inadvertent. This is the proverbial stuff of greatness, the fruit of that good turf in the right hands. En masse Human Chain is a kind of requiem. “When the funeral bell tolls/the grass is all a-tremble.”
It was with a heightened poignancy that I reread this collection in the wake of recent deaths in the world’s literary community (Hitchens, Havel). And while the last poem in this latest book reads like a self elegy, a lament for his own great music (to adapt Hugh MacDiarmid’s words), I certainly hope we’ve not heard the last from this towering “H” man of letters. There is still so much good turf to dig. And who has the pen to follow a man like him?
Certainly not me. Though that is precisely what I intend to do. For it seems the perfect time to do so.
While focusing on one of his seminal early works, North, the following poem of mine pays homage to the man Clive James first dubbed Famous Seamus.
Letter to Seamus Heaney
I remember when I first found out
about you in the bookstore of the old depot
in Springfield. Years later I would
rediscover you in Yorkshire
stopping in at a Waterstone
before getting back on my northbound train.
At the first locale called The Paper Chase
(if memory serves) — which (alas) has
been procured by the Lincoln Museum —
what initially caught my eye was the cover of your book
with its sea-blue initials arm-in-arm —
the classic paperback Faber & Faber case.
Those twin letters flowed outward from
the Nordic oarsmen plowing their frame
across the front, while further out to sea
on the back, an island of praise
marooned me in the poetry aisle
where Milton found his form again
(at least for me).
When your peat-kept muse dragged
you through her hoard you were ripe
to lie down in her centuries, as was I (ripe to lie
down) in your pen-dug earth whose folds opened
up to the stronghold of your spirit-scape.
Just as my ol’ pal Henry gave light
to your “majestic Shade”, I had my
moment in your ever-present sun
there in slim volume row.
Somewhere along the way I lost that original
copy. The edition I carry with me today, the one
acquired at the station in the moors,
is in perfect condition, though it lacks
the salt of that first purchase
with its folded ears dogging
the truffle of your “good turf”
for the rung knell on the track
of knowing your trouble’s worth.