By Thomas, Louisa
Newsweek , Vol. 156, No. 15
Byline: Louisa Thomas
Death has long been fodder for Seamus Heaney's poems. This time, it's personal.
As a famous poet, Seamus Heaney is often considered in isolation, but Heaney himself has always focused on what links people, generations, and cultures--questions of inheritance and trans-mission. In the title poem of his new collection, Human Chain, Heaney describes aid workers as they pass bags of meal from one to another: "Nothing surpassed/That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,/A letting go which will not come again./Or it will, once. And for all." That "for all," of course, is death. The lightness of hands accustomed to bearing weight is an arresting and satisfying image, a kind of catch-and-release typical of Heaney's poetry. Read in sequence with the two poems that precede it, however, what is evocative becomes more unsettling. On the facing page is a poem called "Miracle," which describes emergency medical responders unburdening themselves of a heavy stretcher. In the poem before that, "Chanson d'Aventure," it's the narrator himself who is laid out on the stretcher.
An awareness of the "bright no-where" of death, as Heaney called it in an elegy to his mother, has been one of his subjects for more than 20 years, and with increasing frequency he has taken to dedicating his poems to those who have died. What sets Human Chain apart is Heaney's new orientation. It is Heaney's first book since he had a stroke, in 2006. This is poetry written from within that bright nowhere, as it were--death isn't only an inevitability on the horizon; it surrounds him. The line has been crossed; this is poetry from the other side. "I had my existence. I was there./Me in place and the place in me," Heaney writes in the strange and enchanting "A Herbal," a poem that begins by describing the plants that grow from graves. …