Human Chain

In this, the title poem of the collection, dedicated to Terence Brown, Heaney adapts the ‘shared burden’ theme of Miracle and marks the backbreaking work undertaken by aid workers dedicated to the survival of victims of Third World social and political disaster. In the final couplet Heaney reflects on his own dwindling potential as a link in the human chain.

Heaney is reviewing footage of basic supplies being delivered in emergency aid, bags of meal passed hand to hand / … by the aid workers. He adds drama to news clips. The victims, driven mad by starvation, are subject to repressive control: soldiers/ Firing over the mob.

A memory is sparked: Heaney is braced again, doubly braced: both mentally attuned to the shock he is witnessing before his eyes and physically poised for the act of loading heavy sacks as a farmer’s son.

He breaks down the process: firstly securing grip on two sack corners …  I’d worked to lugs, prior to the heave. Dealing with the sack is portrayed as physical confrontation as between two assailants: eye-to-eye; the heaving is based on has a rhythm one-two, one-two upswing; it is repetitive and anticipates the stoop and drag and drain of the next lift. The poet describes as un-surpassed the sense the relief felt once the weight is released: That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback.

Heaney reflects on the phrase A letting go: what was literally a release of grip applies metaphorically to a person’s demise. In one sense his youthful sack-tossing days are over andwill not come again. In another sense, as illness has made it so clear, Heaney acknowledges the final letting-go, the ultimate death that awaits him, as it awaits us all, just once. And for all.

  • Professor Terence Brown 1944-: born in China, the son of Presbyterian missionary parents; ed. Belfast Academical Institute; prominent in rugby and cricket as a schoolboy.Terence Brown is Professor of Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin, where he is also a Senior Fellow. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and of the Academia Europaea
  • He attributes the dedication to ‘SH’s view that as a teacher I have helped to pass on a tradition of love and respect for poetry.’ His e-mail of Sept 23, 2010 to DF
  • That Island Never Found is a collection of poems and essays in honour of Terence Brown by some of Ireland’s leading writers and scholars. This poem is included in the Festschrift. In the cultural history of twentieth-century Ireland, Brown is regarded as having played a central role for decades in the island’s critical imagination. His gifts as a scholar and teacher are recognized.
  • 12 free-verse lines in tercets; one long sentence split by a dash; a final phrase accepts the human condition;
  • the imagery recognizes that harvest yields a financial return: Two packed wads of grain (suggestive of rolls of banknotes); the dual meaning of purchase (physical leverage and financial transaction);
  • Heaney succeeds in packing much into the short alliterated phrase: drag and drain defines the awkward posture, overtaxed muscles and overall sapping of energy summed up in backbreak’s truest payback;
  • assonance: seeing/ meal; again/ drain;
  • repetitions echo the repetitive task: hand to hand/ eye-to-eye; one-two/one/two.
  • In this brave and unsentimental book, continuity and finality compete for prominence. The title poem concerns itself with ‘A letting go which will not come again. Or it will, once. And for all’ as Heaney, in a masterful elision of image and memory, compares aid workers passing bags of meal ‘hand to hand/In close up’ to his experience of heaving sacks of grain on to a trailer(Tel/O’Riordan)