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How often in a good story, especially a story we value, does our attention move from the main characters to the incidental ones? The supernumeraries, as they say in the theatre. We start wondering what those other people are doing, or thinking. Why are they there anyway? Are they just scene-fillers, nothing out of the ordinary?

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has obviously asked this question, if we are to understand his new poem 'Miracle':

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in —
Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he's strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

Seamus Heaney, 'Human Chain'Heaney suffered a mild stroke in recent times and the poem speaks of the humbling awareness of how, when sick, vulnerable, helpless yourself, others step in to tend and care. As the poem also makes clear, care can be an incredibly efficient and physically challenging business for those involved. The helplessness of the one in need only increases his powers of observation of those doing the help.

The conventional homily on the miracle of the lame man rightly focuses on his faith and hope. But Heaney, I think with a certain sense of humour about the whole affair, draws attention not just to the faith and hope of the man's friends, but also their charity. It is they who will go to any trouble to help their mate in his hour of need. The poet even takes on the tone of the preacher, asking us to 'Be mindful of them' — and it has to be said, we have probably never been particularly mindful of them before. He deliberately repeats Milton's phrase, 'They also serve who only stand and wait.'

This poem is followed in his latest collection by the title poem, 'Human Chain'. Same verse form, same observation of physical labour, same sense of communal involvement dedicated to a single, satisfactory objective.

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again
With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave —
The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed
That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

The marvels of Heaney's art are here to enjoy: plain English, but compressed with meaning, the poem's argument shifting without show but always with telling effect.

Notice, for example, how the human chain starts not with a close personal experience but the abstract observation on TV, or internet, whatever, of aid workers passing bags. This simple human action starts a pattern of recognition, for he too has engaged in his time in the same basic work, which he describes in solid terms. This serves both to identify with others he has seen doing the same and to remind himself of his, and our, mortality.

For just as 'Miracle' has at the back of its mind the greater question of giving in order that another may not merely survive, but live again, so here the process of shifting sacks of grain is ultimately all about feeding others, and doing this in order to feed yourself.

The human chain is not only the line of people moving the sacks, it is any line of people moving the essentials for living. The human chain is the process of doing things together, often without a word spoken. And, as the last verse testifies, the human chain is also the backbone, the links of the spinal column that make possible all of this work, the straightened chain that makes us all human.

At one level, this is a work poem of effortless simplicity, no storyline at all. But Heaney shows through the description of manual labour how both he and his fellow workers are the main characters and the incidental ones through the process of engagement. They, and we, are the supernumeraries of the everyday exercising, often without words, our part in some agreed purpose.

Doing something for the common good is the end result of thinking it. It might be nothing out of the ordinary, yet Heaney recognises in the poem that we are bound together through labour and destined to live moment by moment an existence beyond words. An existence that is unsayable, but known.

Standing back from both poems we may notice one more remarkable image, common to both. In 'Miracle' the men's backs ache and the stretcher handles are 'slippery with sweat'. While in the second poem, we hear of 'backbreak's truest payback'. These are crucifixion images, the cross you might have to bear when you take on something you know is right.

Careful to avoid laden religious language, Heaney in his unforced yet forcible manner, presents us nevertheless with experiences we all immediately understand. And it is through the process of giving to others that new life starts to happen for all those involved.

Heaney even gives intimations of resurrection: 'incredulity' passes. The stretcher bearers are witnesses to the miracle. The bag lifter remembers that 'nothing surpassed that quick unburdening'.

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria. 

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Seamus Heaney, Human Chain, Mirale, Irish poet, Easter



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Existing comments

I'm a big Heaney fan and, Philip, you do him justice. Thanks for your thoughts. Heaney has that simple, down and dirty approach to life and, therefore to his poetry - spirituality in the mud and slush, is how I see him. His economy, pathos and descriptive powers are a joy to experience

john murphy | 21 April 2011  

I've not been terribly into poetry, but I am tempted to buy a Heaney book now. Thanks for the insight.

MBG | 21 April 2011  

I love this piece and the poetry too of course.

Happy Easter

DeniseCoghlan | 21 April 2011  

What a joy to come on this piece tonight when I'd had to put Eureka Street aside this morning for other things (sort of bag lifting and passing things - a long and demanding letter to the new editor of the Sydney Morning Herald asking for a return to the Herald's former good coverage of Indigenous issues.) Enjoying your essay felt like a real "unburdening" late in the day. Thanks for it Philip - more of your sort of bag passing soon please?

Joe Castley | 21 April 2011  

poets help us see the tiny and the overlooked. So too have you with this observation piece.

graham patison | 23 April 2011  

I enjoyed your article and these poems immensely, thank you. You and Heaney remind me that everything can matter, and/or nothing can; that everything is miracle, to be wondered at, or nothing is.

"Or it will, once. And for all.

For me, this is stark acknowledgement, reminder, not of our common, shared mortality, but of our common, shared immortality: we, beings of light that we are, and not mere hefty humans, once and for all enlightened by any taste of or trip into the Republic of Conscience, for however long and often we return to hew wood, draw water, heave sack, tote barge or lift bale, cannot long forget our common origin or our shared destiny, achieved through Love.

Thank you!

Tom Kelly | 24 April 2011  

Thanks Philip and Eureka Street. I had just being reflecting on the Eureka St Reading for the day which was John 21:1-14 dealing with the seventh of Christs miracles-- the great catch of 153 fish on the third sighting of Jesus after His Resurrection. Heaney's 'Miracle' had a meaningful resonance for me with this. The poem juxtaposed with this Gospel miracle--and Philips reflection to "observe the incidental players" had me returning to the reading to observe again the six of the seven disciples(those incidental" players) remaining in the boat after Peter jumped ship and swam for shore and for Jesus). The super human effort of their hauling in of the great catch and their dedication in remaiing true to Christs notwithstanding their leaders more theatrical demo of duty echoes of Heaney's observation of the efforts of the stretcher carriers in the earlier Miracle : "shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked In their backs, the stretcher handles Slippery with sweat. And no let-up.." The merssage of both to me “Be mindful ..as we stand and wait...For the burn of the paid-out ropes we are holding to cool, for our own slight lightheadedness and incredulity To pass,....and like those ones before us------listen and attend He whom have known all along.

Benboy | 29 April 2011  

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