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Human Chain: Poems Hardcover – September 14, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 œEelworks  arrive transfigured through Heaney's command of sound: a schoolmate whose family worked in the eel trade œwould 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: œbags 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 œriddle-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 œChanson d'Aventure  (about a ride in an ambulance) and œIn the Attic  ( œAs I age and blank on names ) bring his characteristic warmth and subtlety to mortality, rehabilitation, recent trauma, and old age.
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From Booklist

Nobel laureate Heaney is an earthy and mythic poet who channels the music and suffering of Ireland and, beyond that, the spiral of cultivation and destruction that sustains and endangers humankind. These are loamy, time-saturated poems, at once humble and exalted, taproots reaching into the underworld, flowers opening to the sun. Heaney writes of summer frolicking, hay baling, the death of a child, a hunger striker, berries, eels, and coal. Fluent in the classics, Heaney offers a redolent variation on the Aeneid titled “Route 110,” in which the world of paved roads and motor vehicles is revealed to be but a thin veneer. “Bread and pencils,” Heaney chants, holding fast to the nurturing, sensuous realm; to stones and plants and old books; to the way poems and stories link a boy to the “glittering reeling chain” that is human history. Just as heavy sacks of grain handed from aid worker to aid worker chart the ceaseless river of disasters and need, of succor and connection. Heaney puts faith in the actual, be it the wind, a kite, or an extended hand. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st US edition (September 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374173516
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374173517
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #947,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Meg Sumner TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I'm not even going to think about calling this a review of Seamus Heaney's latest collection of poems, Human Chain.. It would be incredibly presumptuous on my part to even suggest that I'm going to "evaluate" his work (of course, normally I'm always presumptuous in terms of reviewing!). Instead, I'm going to just relay a few points that I love about this amazing poet, and why you should read him if you haven't already.

For one thing, his writing style is so straightforward and concise. It's not fluffy or ostentatious or full of bizarre allusions that make you feel ignorant for not understanding. Instead, he writes like a reader, with spare words that draw crisp pictures. Yet his poetry does have can find multiple meanings if you ponder what he says, so they still have depth and are certainly not simplistic at all. In fact, in many ways his simplicity is deceiving.

For example, I recently re-read "Digging", a poem he wrote in 1968 about a man admiring his father's and grandfather's strength as they turned over turf and worked the land in Ireland. He concludes the poem with something along the lines (I'm paraphrasing) that 'I'll have to do the work with my pen'. What initially is a pleasant enough little story (hard work, family, nature) suddenly had a deeper meaning and then, "digging" into it, one could see he was commenting on the struggles of Northern Ireland and showing the violence that was sometimes used to create change in the Republic. He never got pushy or overtly political but you could clearly see that he was sending another message.

So, in reading Human Chain, I was again dazzled by his subtlety.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Owl on May 29, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The title poem, "The Human Chain," begins with .."bags of meal passed hand to hand in close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers firing over the mob." It concludes, catching our heart-strings with gratitude and sorrow,

"That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all."

These 25 poems, mostly lyrics, draw on incidents in the long arc of Seamus Heaney's life and the trajectory of his reading: Norse, Greek, Irish. Like much of the poetry that has made Heaney, scholar, bard, and senachie, the power comes not from the incidents observed (although Eelworks leaps off the page), but the meanings embedded in them, water diamonds across the wide bay.


"As I age and blank on names
As my uncertainty on stairs
Is more and more the lightheadedness

Of a cabin boy's first time on the rigging,
As the memorable bottoms out
Into the irretrievable

It's not that I can't imagine still
That still untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighted."

Outward bound, Heaney's word-hoard is brighter and greater than ever Beowulf won, and his humanity a part of the human chain, l'dor v'dor. An enormous value at the Amazon price, this is a book to buy if one can at all, for oneself: to read aloud, to catch the changing colours, to cherish. And to give to those at dawn, nooning, and twilight.

I found nothing to critize: a beautifully designed book, such as Columcille might hold with pleasure, and place in the book bags on his shelf.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Kevin L. Nenstiel TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 16, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you know Seamus Heaney, this collection, with its gentle surface concealing tense depths, will probably not surprise you. I mean that in the best possible way. Heaney's approach to observation, noting ekphrastic detail that reveals a core of loss and grief, serves him so well because it tells his story while touching our spirits. We treasure existence, as Heaney, because it ends. Consider these lines from "A Herbal":

Between heather and marigold,
Between sphagnum and buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

This is a man coming to terms. Notice the past tense. Throughout the book, there's a sense of wistfulness, of realization that what now exists cannot be forever, and that all life's good gifts must end. Poems like "Uncoupled," "Canopy," and "Route 110" bespeak a man looking backward across the span of years.

But he's not merely melancholy. There's also an innate maturity. "The Conway Stewart," about a fountain pen, feels like a deliberate reference to "Digging," the first poem in his first collection (and now the first poem in Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996). That one had the false bravado of Heaney holding a pen "snug as a gun." This new poem feels like recognition that such swaggering machismo doesn't date well; now a pen is a pen, and a poet's connection to the world.

And we even get a sense of Heaney looking forward.
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