cover image Human Chain

Human Chain

Seamus Heaney, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24 (96p) ISBN 978-0-374-17351-7

Nostalgia and memory, numinous visions and the earthy music of compound adjectives together control the short poems and sequences of the Irish Nobel laureate’s 14th collection of verse, a work of familiar strengths and unparalleled charm. Old teachers, schoolmates, farmhands, and even the employees of an “Eelworks” arrive transfigured through Heaney’s command of sound: a schoolmate whose family worked in the eel trade “would ease his lapped wrist// From the flap-mouthed cuff/ Of a jerkin rank with eel oil,// The abounding reek of it/ Among our summer desks.” The title poem applies Heaney’s gift for physical mimesis to an image from the day’s news: “bags of meal passed hand to hand... by the aid workers” remind the poet of the grain-sacks he swung and dragged in his own youth. Other pages remember, and praise, libraries and classrooms—from grade school, from Harvard, and from medieval Irish monasteries, with their “riddle-solving anchorites.” For all the variety of Heaney’s framed glimpses, though, the standout poems grow from occasions neither trivial nor topical: Heaney in 2006 had a minor stroke, and the discreet analogies and glimpsed moments in poems such as “Chanson d’Aventure” (about a ride in an ambulance) and “In the Attic” (“As I age and blank on names”) bring his characteristic warmth and subtlety to mortality, rehabilitation, recent trauma, and old age. (Sept.)