the human chain


Human Chain is a book that is serious about its own visionary burden. Like Caolite inside his fairy hill, the poet remembers being in a dugout “under the hill, out of the day / But faced towards the daylight, holding hands” where an imagined camera angle will “Discover us against weird brightness”. The light here, and in other poems, is that of “the dome of the sky” over Virgil’s Lethe, and some of the finest achievements in the volume look straight into that efflorescence, not least the central sequence, “Route 110”, in which the Aeneid ghosts memories of Heaney’s home and youth, ending with “the age of births”, where a grandchild is “one / Whose long wait on the shaded bank is ended”. Family, and the love in a family, provide Heaney with his own governing pietas. The human chain of the title is partly that formed by the generations, and if this gives a poignancy to the poet’s vivid evocations of memory – the kinds of long look at the past which he knows can feel like a last look – it also makes triumphant sense of the centrality of the Virgilian father to Heaney’s imaginative scheme. Heaney knows that if memory is a way of meeting the paternal shade again, it is at the same time the confirmation of ultimate parting – that the riverbank field may offer a glimpse of the future, in the generations to come, but must also confirm the finality of oblivion in the waters of Lethe.

more from Peter McDonald at the TLS here.