Saturday, August 20, 2011

Forklifted Into Light: The Heavy-duty Machinery of Poetry

Human Chain is Seamus Heaney's twelfth poetry book.
The volume was shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize and it includes  poems Seamus Heaney had previously published in literary magazines in 2009 and 2010.

I found helpful three online reviews of Human Chain: one by Nick Laird, one by Colm Tóibín (who was also a judge in the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize) and one by Kate Kellaway.
These articles provide context to the poetry volume, among which the fact that in some of the poems Seamus Heaney alludes to his experiencing a stroke.

 The opening of the poem Chanson d'Aventure talks of a ride in an ambulance:

"Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked
In position for the drive,
Bone-shaken, bumped at speed."

The first poem in the volume, "Had I not been awake" explores the boundaries of awareness in a roundabout of metaphors of wakefulness, dream, life, death, and the minute vibrations of nature:

"Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore."

Poetry being, however, the blissful no man's land it is, it allows each one of us his/her own reading of poetry beyond any helpful context; hence the notes below.

In Human Chain, a return to the twelve line poetry formula that yielded Seamus Heaney's masterpiece Squarings is apparent.
An argument that might be made is that the hyaline matter of poems crafted in this formula might be beholden to the twelve line structure itself, or to the three and four line stanza patterns that are at play in the book.

The poems in Human Chain bring forth the radiant light that is characteristic of Seamus Heaney's poetry - whose style is timeless balance and internalized emotion, in the purest of classical forms:

"It was the evening before I came to
To what I was hearing
And missing: summer's richest hours

As they had been to begin with,
Fork-lifted, sweated-through
And nearly rewarded enough

By the giddied-up race of a tractor"

(From The Baler)

Clearly, there is a heavy duty poetic machinery at work in Seamus Heaney's poems, one that (fork)lifts us into translucent spaces.

"Zoom in over our shoulders,
A tunneling shot that accelerates and flares.
Discover us against weird brightness. Cut."

(From Wraith
     for Ciaran Carson)

Part of the volume includes poems of short and glittering verses, among which Eelworks.

Classical innuendos can be retraced in Canopy, a poem that harkens back to Dante's Inferno:

"if a twig had been broken off there
It would have curled itself like a finger
Around the fingers that broke it
And then refused to let go".

and in the facilis descendus Averno overtones from Virgil's Aeneid in the poem Route 110:

"Smithfield Market Sundays. The pet shop
Fetid with droppings in the rabbit cages
melodious with canaries, green and gold

And silent now as birdless Lake Avernus."

The universe Seamus Heaney evokes is one of small towns, fields and woodlands, rendered through the eyes of an adolescent.

At the Griffin Poetry Reading in May 2011, Robin Robertson read, among others, one poem from Human Chain: A Kite for Aibhin.

Both the reading and the poem I thought memorable:

'Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and - separate, elate -

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall."

   Seamus Heaney -Photo credit: Jemimah Kuhfeld & The Griffin Poetry Prize website

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