Heaney adapts a New Testament miracle to pay tribute to those who came to his aid in crisis.
The Nobel prizewinner and his wife, Marie, had been in a Donegal guesthouse in 2006 celebrating with close friends the 75th birthday of Anne Friel, the wife of playwright Brian Friel. Heaney fell ill during the night, could not find his balance and discovered that his leg was twisted. Such were the symptoms of stroke.
Fortunately, surrounded by strapping fellow guests his ‘support chain’ of Human Chain, he was carried downstairs to a waiting ambulance and transferred to Letterkenny hospital. ‘I cried and I wanted my daddy, funnily enough,’ he admitted.
Heaney is commemorating not the beneficiary of a biblical miracle (the one who takes up his bed and walks) but, rather, his own ‘stretcher-bearers’ (the ones) whose undaunted efforts (shoulders numb … ache and stoop deeplocked in their backs) to navigate a narrow staircase against the odds (stretcher handles/ Slippery with sweat) and sparing no effort (no let-up) helped facilitate the miracle of Heaney’s recovery by delivering him for healing to the ambulance.
Images from a Donegal hotel landing dissolve into a scene at Capernaum on Lake Galilee. The paralyzed man brought by his friends to be healed by Jesus is trussed up much as Heaney was (strapped on … made tiltable) but raised to tiled roof level and lowered through a hole they have made in it.
Heaney skips the miracle itself in favour (be mindful) of those who ferried him and who, their job done, could only stand and wait, left with the scars of the haul (burn of paid-out ropes), the lightheadedness of their exertions and their incredulity at witnessing the cure.
Without the miraculous presence of his own first-aiders (those ones who had known him all along) Heaney suggests his stroke might have left him with a less felicitous outcome.
- numb: deprived of sensation;
- stoop: bend forwards and downwards;
- deeplocked: still rigid, tight after a period of rest;
- let-up: respite, pause
- tilt: incline, tip;
- paid-out: let out, extended;
- incredulity: disbelief;
- 12 line poem; free verse. 2 complete sentences separating the ‘story’ from an appreciation of those who sacrifice themselves for others;
- Using allegory and written in the third person the piece bears all the hall-marks of personal experience;
- Sibilant repetition helps describe a task made more difficult by lack of grip: Stretcher handles slippery with sweat;
- frequent plosive [t] after no let
- -upmimics the grunts of concentration and effort;
- the final enjambed couplet slows the pace, allowing the symptoms to dissipate.
- The story of the paralytic being brought by four friends and healed by Jesus can be found in three of the four Gospels: Matthew 9:2-8, Mark 2:1-22 and Luke 5:17-26.
- The Robert McCrum interview offers other insights: Heaney identifies his support chain: “[The poet] Peter Fallon and (Desmond) Kavanagh carried me down the stairs (of the Donegal guest-house where they were all staying); McCrum reports that Heaney denied a biblical intent: ‘Around this time, perhaps responding to the larger stage on which he always finds himself, he began to write a poem, Miracle, inspired by the gospel story of the paralysed man lowered through the roof into Christ’s presence. Heaney insists that it’s not a spiritual poem, but one that marked “being changed a bit by something happening. Every now and again you write a poem that changes gear.” He had never written a poem in response to scripture before, and says he is not a believer’.
- But it’s also a reference to the disorientating experience of being carried, helpless, to an ambulance, and of feeling the support of those bodies doing the lifting. These allusions ripple out from “Miracle” Charlotte Runcie, living.scotsman .com, Aug 20 2010.
- The miracle is felt by these close observers as a physical thing, a ‘slight lightheadedness and incredulity’ that is intimately connected to the resilience and sweat that went into achieving it. The Biblical story underpins the image of humans as levers, hoists, props, each other’s limits and each other’s best support;
- This is where Heaney’s obsession with writing about bodily exertion gets personal; the poem’s impotent patient, perhaps a stroke victim, is referred to only in the third person, his passiveness exaggerated by the brusque physicality of those around him. Charlotte Runcie, ibid;
- This short tribute to stretcher-bearers everywhere (“handles/ Slippery with sweat”) segues into Human Chain’s title poem, which sings the joys of grain-sack hauling as “backbreak’s truest payback”. Jeremy Noel-Tod in the New Statesmen of Sept 13, 2010.
- His poem Miracle, which he describes as central to the collection, was directly inspired by his illness. Recalling the people who had to carry him up and down stairs in the immediate aftermath of his stroke, he draws on the biblical imagery of the men who carried a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed. “I realised the guys that are hardly mentioned are central… without them no miracle would have happened,” said the grateful poet. Eimear Flanagan, BBC News Aug 23, 2010
- Heaney himself was once a ‘brancardier’ on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, sponsored by an aunt (District and Circle, 2006)
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;