Thursday, February 04, 2021

Somerville's Callie Chapman: A chat with a multi-faceted dancer, media artist and choreographer.


I was pleased to catch up with the versatile Callie Chapman. She is a woman of many hats--as you will discover. She is an artist with a strong mission statement and one who can't be labeled into any particular genre.

You have lived in Somerville for the past 15 years--how has this been for you as a creative?

Somerville has been a 'safe haven' if you will for my creative practice. Although I have worked on my practice mostly in Cambridge, purely due to space availability, Somerville is where I can dream and where there is an acceptance that whatever is dreamed can be possible. I've received project grants and was a recipient of multiple fellowship grants from the Somerville Arts Council (including this past year). During the pandemic, the SAC provided encouragement (and funding) for creating in our homes, and that, for me, was a glimmer of light during some very isolating times.

Because of the Pandemic--many art organizations have been forced to close. How are you and the Zoe Dance Company surviving? I heard Zoe's Studio 550-- was forced out from their Cambridge home--and now you are looking for a new space in Somerville.

As a professional artist I wear many hats. One of which is directing Zoe Dance Company. Another is the director of Studio at 550. ZDC was housed in Studio at 550, which had a space at 550 Mass Ave., Cambridge. And yes, we were displaced. Not particularly due to the pandemic (although that expedited our departure), but due to the landlord intending on creating micro-unit apartments in a mostly residential area. Truthfully, we knew it was coming at one time or another, the pandemic just made it happen quicker, with less time to plan our relocation strategy (and less money in the bank to do so). Somerville has always needed more spaces for dance and performing arts. We would love to find our home in Somerville, and I think both artists who live here and want to create, perform, and present here would love it too. Somerville would also benefit from the performing artists who do live here, yet have to go elsewhere for their work. If we identify a suitable location in Somerville, we would love to fill that void and help provide that stability and outlet to showcase our working performing artists in Somerville (particularly the dance community).

Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of the Zoe Dance company? What would be its mission statement? What genre of dance does it fit under?

Zoe Dance Company was founded in 2002 with a mission statement that read, "Zoé Dance nurtures the art of dance, dance theatre and performance through accessible performance venues, educates the public and creates social awareness through themes explored in repertory." The company has performed locally, regionally, and internationally in self-produced concerts, festivals, and commissioned works. Since its inception, we have integrated digital media in many forms into the performances, and also creation. Utilizing cameras, projectors, generative art, and media servers ZDC's integrations brings the 'dream world' to its audiences through various theatrical techniques to create worlds which stretch beyond the tangible and embodied. As far as a genre of dance goes we could get into the inefficiencies of genre labeling and the strange evolution of terms that comes with it. It's as vanilla as "contemporary dance" or as niche as "multi-media dance". I like to just settle on the word "performance" as I've always been compelled to not define before I do as to open the options up a bit. Perhaps my next piece has spoken word and theatre. Perhaps it contains original music, or an art installation. Trying to contain that in a genre or even discipline is just too limiting. For the audience as well as for myself as the creator.

You are also a marketer and graphic designer, and have worked with many arts organizations. How do you meet the challenge to get the word out.? What is your process for developing a 'brand'?"

Getting the word out requires a fine tuning and a consistency of the message (whatever that may be). I worked for Boston Dance Alliance for 11 years and the building of that 'brand' when I came into the organization required many strategies and constant engagement with our base. We grew the membership form 180 individuals and dance arts organizations to nearly 400 by the time I left in 2015. It took constant programming, communication strategies, and one to one engagement. And over time I helped take a grassroots organization with no logo or branding consistency and helped craft an organization where I created the logo, colors, fonts, and consistency it needed to be clear in its message. We also had a lot of fun doing that. In shorter time frames, for shows let's say, you are working with the established "brand" of the presenting artist/organization, so again, consistency is key. Tapping into multiple networks through various methods is fundamental to being successful in the project. Having a strong and energetic team is also helpful as expanding networks and getting the word out always starts with the people who you already know.

You studied at the Boston Conservatory. Were there any folks who mentored you there that you can mention?. What did they bring to the plate?

As a 18 year old from Lynn, MA I went into the Boston Conservatory with very wide eyes, basically eating anything up I could get my hands on. I also worked afternoons and evenings for my spending money and somehow on top of the already rigorous program I carried the momentum and felt appreciative of my time there (even getting into a studio by myself to choreograph, or improvise until 11pm some nights, having to go home (to Lynn) and get back at 8am the next morning for Dance History class)). All my teachers were so wonderful there. They taught me things I now pass on to the students I teach (with credit of course).

In 1999 one of my modern dance teachers, Diane Arvanites asked me to perform with her company Prometheus Dance over the summer as part of Somerville Arts Council's ArtBeat Festival. Of course I accepted and danced "the first one out" in the piece, "The Game", which was based off of the game of musical chairs. Previously, outside of Conservatory training I was taking open class with the company at the Dance Complex when I could (winter and spring break). It was Diane who "signed up" to be my mentor at the Conservatory as the faculty was asked to pair off with the incoming freshmen. And I guess those roles kind of stuck. I danced with Prometheus Dance until its folding in 2019 having toured with the company to many wonderful places and theatres. Many of very good lifelong friendships were built in that company, and still remain to this day.

How would you convince someone who has no experience with dance to attend a performance? Why should they view your work?

Again, circling back to the presentation of "dance" in the marketing of it to be more about the experience and the performance. This helps disassociate potential stereotypical associations with the word "dance" coming from that prospective audience member. Perhaps they have the notion it could be like their 5 year old niece's dance recital and there's no way they want to sit through 'professional dancers' doing the same thing! Tailoring the marketing and the 'brand' to match what the audience should expect from going to the performance with the way they talk about it, the visuals they use for publicity materials, and fine tuning any media that's out there can really help get people to not associate the dance recital to professional dance performance. Truth is, it CAN be all over the board, so just saying it's "dance" doesn't say much at all and walking into a theatre (or even thinking about walking into a theatre) with such little information is absolutely terrifying.
While I design and create experiences for as many people as I can. To touch them in some way through many senses and sensory preferences, I also understand many people may not enjoy it. And that is totally where I want to be. Instead of chasing down and force feeding people who have other preferences in taste, I create what is important to me and design to share that experience with others. Mostly I love the theme of transformation and I believe it's a thread that shows up throughout my work over the last 19 years. I mean, that's part of the experience which we all share and can get on common ground together with. Tapping into what makes us human and sharing different relatable experiences through various lenses is what makes me want to create. The cycle is nearly completed when I've fleshed it out enough times to share it with others. It's an open ended cycle as those who experience "it" go out and have that experience linger with them for a while into their own lived experience after the show is done.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Farmers, Queens, Trains and Clowns By g emil reutter Alien Buddha Press


Farmers, Queens, Trains and Clowns

By g emil reutter

Alien Buddha Press

ISBN: 9798557613071

72 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Urban infrastructure rules! g emil reutter masterfully escorts his readers through the gritty limbo of despondent souls and derelict sprawl in his new collection of rust-laden and poetically powerful dirges entitled Farmers, Queens, Trains, and Clowns. In reutter’s world “no one is safe.” Fame and celebrity are phantoms. Barrooms proliferate. Nature does intrude but usually does not comfort. Birdsongs of dawn and hope are met by a madman with a hatchet. Other birds become bullies. Only love, faultless observation, and an attachment to the past, both to place and to another time, seem to matter. These exceptions, however, are intrinsic to the poet’s persona and center that persona with dreams of commiseration and tenderness and feathery lyrics.

Under the Pilings, the first poem in this collection sets the atmospherics. The poet returns to his childhood stomping grounds seeking remembered exhilaration. He finds instead that times have changed. His once magical portal which had promised a brave new future has now been covered with cautionary warnings. reutter describes the glory and the singular importance of that long ago escape structure this way,

In the middle of

the swarth was a tall piling as a ladder to the sky.

Underneath we created makeshift diamonds in

the summer and grids in the autumn. When the

day wore on and boredom hit we would climb

the ladder to the sky and while most only made

it up two stories, Jim and Tommy always made

it two the top, stood with arms raised between

insulators and wires as if they were kings of the

sun. So now, an old man, I return…

Also, early in the book, reutter sets two of his bar-culture pieces, Lonely Nights and Trina. They’re spot-on devastating, both with similar haunting cadences. reutter nails this underclass folk, who frequent such establishments, with precision. Experienced drinkers will recognize them immediately. Lonely Nights concludes with a one-way conversation,

Tip the bartender who made

sure I didn’t send a drink to the wrong

gal. Chain smoke, chain drink, pint, shot

send another round out. Soon there were

fifteen markers on the bar by my beer.

Hit the head, slide on the floor, grateful

Avoided a fall. At closing the door man

would chant, Time to go, out I went lucky

to get home, sat on the couch, mumbled

into the darkness.

Trina, on the other hand, derives its power from confrontation and love’s cruelty. The heart (if that is what it is) of the poem rubs the reader raw with its messiness and therefore authenticity. Dressed to kill, the desperate skinny girl seeks finality at “his bar,”

She took her place

at the bar and watched him hold

court at the corner. White Zinfandel

after White Zinfandel then gin after

gin, she fixed her gaze upon him.

He would point and laugh as would

his court until she stood, yelled at

him in slurred words. He grabbed

the girl next to him and walked to

the door, she followed yelling I love

you. The door slammed shut…

My favorite poem in this eye-opening collection reutter calls Anger Management and that is exactly what it is. A young man, believing in the exceptionalism of humankind, confronts cheery songbirds with a hatchet for disturbing the peace of his suburban domain. He is successful in intimidating a nightingale and a robin. But a downy woodpecker has his number. It’s bad to lose a confrontation with the champion of another species. It’s worse to be mocked in doing so. Here are the climactic lines,

And so it goes, anger

hatchet, thump on the tree if caused by

a slight, or a songbird or anything that

pisses him off. On a warm July morn

sound asleep he is awakened by a

reverberating staccato, drum, drum, tap

tap. Downy woodpecker hunts on tree

plucks chubby worms from bark, taps

to find a nest. He drums on tree with

hatchet, bird rests on branch, he

turns to leave only to hear tap, tap,

tap. He returns not noticing his thumps

are an imitation of the reverberating sounds

of the Downy. There is a quiet about the

tree, he turns only to hear drum, drum, drum

of the Downy. Defeated, he throws the

hatchet on the ground…

Sometimes love poems are better delivered straight with sentiment attached. Even in the city (especially in the city!) such sentiment finds its own nature and weaves it into a lovely cadence. Reutter’s paean to his lover’s beauty does just that. Consider this stanza delineating nature’s efficaciousness,

In the midst of the urban garden we sit shaded

under umbrella’s canopy, enjoy the flags of the

iris, yellows, blues of tulips, hyacinths, reds and

pinks of azaleas. Watch the ballet of sparrows

cow birds, cat birds, cardinals, the hop of the

robins. You walk the garden, take in the fragrance

return, more beautiful than before.

Interestingly, Reutter pieces drift beyond nightmare and sentiment into aspiration. His Whitmanesque poem Philadelphia celebrates a new age and new neighborhood fabric. Here the lyricist metamorphosizes into a full-fledged oracle. The poet sings of hope,

I dream of my city, of Philadelphia, of a

time when peace will come to its streets.

I see the people of this city, a city I love

in white, black, yellow, tan, brown. I

celebrate the people of my city, the good

people who love their families, aspire to

the same goals of peace, comfort, love.

This is not an easy city, a city named for


Reutter’s poetic dreams rise organically from their hard scrabble beginnings. He returns the urban back to its natural garden of conviction and ideals. First Philadelphia, then Boston, then New York. And on and on... a future faith of steely blue-collar purpose and unfettered birdsong.

Monday, February 01, 2021

­The Parma Chai Out of the Blue Art Gallery Has Moved to Somerville


­The Parma Chai Out of the Blue Art Gallery Has Moved to Somerville

By Off the Shelf Correspondent Parma Chai

****My friend Parma Chai notified me that the famed "Out of the Blue Gallery" has moved to Somerville-housed in the Arts Armory. The Out of the Blue has a long history, and I have had a long history there as well--like many local artists in our community. Although I haven't attended an event for a while--I have rich memories of the poetry readings, barbecues, and all the poets and writers I met over the years there. Probably 15 years ago the gallery put out an anthology "The Out of the Blue Writers Unite" edited by Timothy Gager and Deborah Priestly, which I was proud to be part of. I am so glad they have found a new home...

--Doug Holder

Out of the Blue Art Gallery & More has existed in Cambridge, Allston, Everett, Medford, and Somerville in various spaces for about 30 years. First founded in Chinatown in the form of house art parties curated by its founders, Sue Carlin, Tom Tipton, and Deborah Priestly, it then operated for many years solely in Cambridge, on Prospect Street and then on Mass Ave at Central Square. Tom Tipton spearheaded this beloved gallery for many years before I came on to help with its development and expansion throughout the Greater Boston Area.

About 6 years ago, the Out of the Blue Art Gallery moved from Prospect Street to Mass Ave. Our landlord at that time was kind enough to let us build up financial infrastructure on a month-to-month basis. Working alongside founder Tom Tipton as his volunteer business manager, I helped to make sure rental spaces were paid for, artists switched up their works, and generated a working rental agreement with the landlord. Long term, a small business like the Gallery had its difficulties keeping up with increasing rents right on Mass Ave, so it eventually was gentrified out of Central Square.

This is when I brought the Gallery into my own home in Medford, MA. We returned to the early days of the Gallery with home art parties in Chinatown, and continued to deliver smaller shows, art parties, and paint nights. I discarded many of my personal items, including personal furniture, and began accumulating large folding tables, speakers, mikes, turntables and other essentials to keep local art alive. My vision manifested and folks across Boston came to attend these creative gatherings and listen to art talks. Food, drink, and entertainment were provided for each of these gatherings.

Eventually, the fruit of Tom and my labor caught the attention of Allston Village Main Streets, the Middle East Restaurant in Cambridge, Everett Chicken & Rice Guys, and the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville. We began to work with various agencies to fulfill insurance policies for shows, expanded our name with the general public and began to flood the place with shows and arts and crafts for 2 years at a new, primary location at 14 Harvard Ave, the Firehouse in Allston. We also began curating art shows at the Middle East where we rotated artwork monthly. We received several awards for being an inclusive small business and were able to reach a point where rent was tenable with a little bit left to survive on. Still, I had to keep up with my other position as a full-time math and science teacher to ensure that I could maintain the costs of performers, technology, interns, and myself. But I was happy to do so, as local art and its expression have always been an essential aspect of my life.

Without shows and in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tom and I strained to keep the main Gallery location alive in Allston at the Firehouse. However, I was able to move much of the art into an Allston Village Main Streets exhibit. With the additional support of the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville, I was also able to curate 4 floors of art in a living work space. This allowed me to concentrate on promoting artists and maintain the works of the longest-term artists of the collective. The current Parma Chai Out of the Blue Art Gallery at the Somerville Center for Arts at the Armory houses 30 artists, hosts virtual performances by musicians, and supports the arts community in other ways. It also features artists and their works at Allston Village Main Streets and indoor murals at the Chicken & Rice Guys warehouse in Everett. You can view a beautiful 3D virtual exhibit of the Gallery on our website.

Though we had to close the doors to our Firehouse location in July, we feel fortunate to help local art stay alive. We are extremely thankful to the Center for Arts at the Armory for helping to keep our mission alive and are very grateful as well for the businesses that operate here that enjoy the art and want to help sustain it! Like the Out of the Blue Art Gallery, the Arts at the Armory has faced unique challenges during the pandemic, but the Board and Executive Director are working to preserve art, music, and theatre in the Greater Boston Community. I am humbled to be a part of this incredible space and the many other nonprofits it serves.

We continue to sell art, have masked art interviews with the artists, and explore other innovative ways to promote the arts and artists. I would like Boston residents and beyond to know the Gallery as a vibrant place for both artists and academics. As a destination for folks to create magic in a space of comfort, beauty, and collaboration.

Because of the pandemic and a desire to build financial infrastructure for long-term sustenance, I am no longer taking in new artists to promote but I am, instead, working on booking small rehearsal and recording events at the Armory. Please contact me if you are seeking to rent space here for any of your small performance needs. Part of those funds will go to the Gallery and the other part will go to the Armory. I am always available to provide 2-3 person masked tours of the 4 floors of art free of charge. Please contact me with any requests to see the art in person at

The Gallery is incredibly thankful it could continue its mission to preserve local art through the pandemic. It would never have been possible without the generosity of our art-loving community, the artists and their works, and the foundational passion of its founder, Tom Tipton.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Seamus Heaney’s Last Poetry Collection Human Chain Ten Years On by Michael Todd Steffen

Seamus Heaney’s Last Poetry Collection Human Chain Ten Years On

by Michael Todd Steffen

The Hastings Room Reading Series was informally established by Steven Brown and myself with the help of Daniel Wuenschel as a quarterly poetry reading event in the spring of 2014, with the generous support of First Church Cambridge, 11 Garden Street, offering their elegant library, the Hastings Room, as a venue free of charge. The series has never had any financial support or official charter. Our readers have appeared for the pleasure of our audiences. They have included Pulitzer Prize winners Lloyd Schwartz, Frank Bidart and Franz Wright, National Book Award winner David Ferry, as well as pillars of the local scene such as Doug Holder and Gloria Mindock. While the series has hosted some of the best Boston area poets like Martha Collins, Fred Marchant, David Rivard, David Blair and Joan Houlihan, we have hosted notable national and international poets: Natasha Sajé, Louise Callaghan, Greg Delanty and Ernest Hilbert.

In August of 2014 on the one-year anniversary of his death, we dedicated our end-of-summer reading to the memory of Seamus Heaney, whose place in the Boston area and affiliation with Harvard is well known. The scope of Heaney’s influence has been witnessed by the many brilliant Memorial readers we have invited who are not particularly “Heaney” scholars, though Daniel Tobin, Meg Tyler, Valerie Duff and George Kalogeris have been in the close circle of Heaney readers and they have graced our series and the memorial readings with great insightand feeling.

Many other reading series have successfully combatted the isolation of COVID-19 by continuing, and even multiplying, their readings on the Internet, while the Hastings Room Series has gone fallow. Yet the upkeep of the Heaney Memorial struck me as important, even urgent in light of another anniversary, the ten-year mark of Heaney’s collection Human Chain, and its unsettling resonance into the dire circumstances of 2020.

In response, I wrote out my thoughts on the importance of the title and the title poem of this collection, and reached out to the friends of the series, our poets and lecturers, asking them to join in on a “chain” or collective written-word discussion on the book, to all topics of its great reach pertaining to the so plain so strange poetry of Seamus Heaney.

C o n t r i b u t o r s

Michael Todd Steffen

Valerie Duff

Denise Provost

Fred Marchant

George A. Kalogeris

Joan Houlihan

Daniel Tobin

Joyce P. Wilson

Meg Tyler

Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain ten years on

Of Seamus Heaney’s collection of poetry published in 2010, simply the two words of the title, HUMAN CHAIN, nearly surround us these ten years later in the grim reality of a mortal virus that lives and thrives by virtue of our very physical connectedness, the chain that binds us as one human race upon the planet.

Yet Heaney’s title also evokes his own rural background and the way his poetry illuminates farmland hardware like the shunting of a tractor engine or the feel of the handle of a turnip snedder. So, physically, the iron chain. With its dolorous connotations of human slavery, throughout all human history but most relatively recently here in America, the seeds of this second tragedy of racial outrage and its cast over these worrisome spring and summer days of isolation, frustration and boundless grief.

For all the visionary universality of those two words, the title poem itself, “HUMAN CHAIN,” startles our curiosity by being very local, physical and focused on the ordinary, even under duress. Heaney has seen aid workers struggling to pass heavy sacks of grain, person to person,in a human chain, for the purpose of preparing food for “the mob” in distress for relief while soldiers are shooting over them.

In his rural life, Heaney has passed sacks of grain like this before, loading them from a farmer’s co-op onto a trailer. The sight of the catastrophe, in person or on television, or the Internet, triggers the personal physical memory of the work of forming a human chain to work together to accomplish something that would be overwhelming for one person, especially under the stress of the authoritative clamor over them. This strikes me as paradoxical for the standard image of the poet who is generally assumed to be solitary and independent. Yet as all of us know, and this effort at a chain e-mail conversation would show, there is a great connectedness to our work and our lives.



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.

~ ~ ~ A reflection on Heaney and the reach of his last book, Human Chain.

 When I came to Boston in 1994, Heaney had been in residence at Harvard for almost a decade, and was, at that time, on the cusp of receiving the Nobel prize. Shortly after it was awarded, I remember standing body to body in the vestibule of Harvard’s Memorial church, having inched along with a throng of others in the darkness across Harvard Yard, to hear him read with John Ashbery and Jorie Graham—his first public appearance post-Nobel.

While I couldn’t see the readers at the pulpit (I was probably staring into the back of someone’s head or jacket), there were speakers in place to broadcast to the gathered crowds. I remember the joy in his voice from above as he read “Poet’s Chair,”—his secret delight shared in the delivery of the line, “Leaves / on a bloody chair!” He was Ireland’s poet, but he was also Boston’s. Harvard Yard always brings Heaney back for me, as his poem “Canopy” (for David Ward, whose art installation lived in that space from 1994-1995) brings back the Yard to us all, and as it must have done for Heaney who had been away for so long when Human Chain appeared in 2010. I like to think he missed us, too:


It was the month of May.

Trees in Harvard Yard

Were turning a young green.

There was whispering everywhere.

David Ward had installed

Voice-boxes in the branches,

Speakers wrapped in sacking

Looking like old wasps’ nests

Or bat-fruit in the gloaming—

Shadow Adam’s apples

That made sibilant ebb and flow,

Speech-gutterings, desultory

Hush and backwash and echo.

It was like a recording

Of antiphonal responses

In the congregation of leaves.

Or a wood that talked in its sleep.

Reeds on a riverbank

Going over and over their secret.

People were cocking their ears,

Gathering, quietening,

Stepping on to the grass,

Stopping and holding hands.

Earth was replaying its tapes,

Words being given new airs:

Dante’s whispering wood—

The wood of the suicides—

Had been magicked to lover’s lane.

If a twig had been broken off there

It would have curled itself like a finger

Around the fingers that broke it

And then refused to let go

As if it were mistletoe

Taking tightening hold.

Or so I thought as the fairy

Lights in the boughs came on.

~Valerie Duff, September 7, 2020

Links in a H u m a n C h a i n

Putting aside my work on a family biography to consider Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain, I’m struck anew by the biographical nature of so many of the poems in this collection. I point to several here, not in the spirit of “review,” but by way of cataloging the human chains these poems evoke, and how they link the whole work through emotional substance and tone.

Remembering his parents with complicated nostalgia in “Album,” Heaney writes about moments in their shared past and even before, even imagining his parents’ “wedding meal/And I am at the table….” His narrator self expresses regret for chances untaken to demonstrate affection for his father:

Were I to have embraced him anywhere

It would have been on the riverbank

That summer before college, him in his prime….

In “The Butts,” Heaney describes a heartbreaking substitute intimacy, digging into the wardrobe full of his father’s suits with their “Tonic unfreshness” where “a kind of empty-handedness transpired….” Spare vernacular describes deep, elegiac feelings. Even within the realm of poetry’s fictions, such writing about family members feels like a variety of autobiography.

“Route 110,” among its other rambles, announces, “And now the age of births….” and celebrates the arrival of Heaney’s first grandchild. It reminds us that some human chains run through families and time, longitudinally. Yet this and other poems in this collection also involve human chains which are lateral, linking author to friends, clan, and wider community.

The poem “Eelworks” describes how the act of courtship brings the narrator admission to a group of men and their way of life, with its “Cut of diesel oil in evening air/Tractor engines in the clinker-built/Deep-bellied boats….” “Miracle”- so beautifully described elsewhere in this tribute – honors the support of even unacknowledged members of a circle of kin and friends.

Route 110’s lowly bus line takes its narrator from purchasing a used copy of Aeneid VI, “To Italy, in a wedding guest’s bargain suit,” and on to the home of neighbors, who have wrapped each individual grain on a spray of oats in “glittering foil/They’d saved from chocolate bars, then pinched and cinched” to give the home’s “wee altar a bit of shine.”

Since “It was the age of ghosts,” we are conducted to wakes: one where “For three nights we kept conversation going/Around the waiting trestles…” and, in stanza ix, to one for “Mr. Lavery, blown up in his own pub…” and another for “Louis O’Neill/In the wrong place the Wednesday they buried/Thirteen who’d been shot in Derry?”

At the end of this stanza ix, Heaney, again acknowledges the unacknowledged. He writes of the dead:

Unglorified, accounted for and bagged

Behind the grief cordons: not to be laid

In war graves with full honours, nor in a separate plot

Fired over on anniversaries

By units drilled and spruce and unreconciled.

This image of the ceremonial firing of guns over ground sacred to the honored dead is the obverse – or, possibly, the reverse – of an image central to the poem “Human Chain.” Put immediately into the action, like its narrator, we are

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand

In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers

Firing over the mob…

So the title poem of this collection connects these two disparate uses of gunfire, just as this poem and the work as a whole connect various kinds of human chains into a web or net, not just of kinship or proximity, but of humanity.

A decade after Heaney’s death, we are confining ourselves apart, trying to avoid the scale of death by disease that we have only read about in history books. Heaney, I feel, would feel and appreciate both aspects of our pandemic – the human chains transmitting infection, and the human chains of rescue and healing.

I think it’s telling that the poem “Human Chain” was included in the 2014 anthology Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors, which was given to all graduating medical students in Scotland that year, before any suggestion that 2020 would be a plague year.

All of us now need all the tools we can wield or invent to escape our various predicaments – even tools as crude as

Two packed wads of grain I’d worked to lugs

To give me purchase, ready for the heave-

We, all of us, need a poetry of connection, to feel the tug of our human chains – and that is what Heaney supplies.

~Denise Provost September 18, 2020

The first thing I'd like to say is to reaffirm what I wrote in a review/essay about Human Chain published in Salamander, 16.2, in the Summer of 2011.

In this piece I offered the idea that taken together over a lifetime Heaney's writings were at heart a defense of poetry in and for our time. In both his poetry and his essays Heaney's fundamental stance was that poetry is its own uniquely valuable way of knowing, feeling, and being. In Human Chain, I sensed a continuing exploration of that faith in the art by showing us how poetry embodies a certain kind of inner-life or spiritual connection to the world, to others, and to ourselves.

In the back of my mind was Walt Whitman's "Noiseless Patient Spider," with its creature sending out filament after filament until "the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my soul." I think Heaney might have said those filaments were like poems, and the connections the soul established thereby were not clanking chains, but more like gossamer threads of feeling, often subtle, but stronger than one might think, and ultimately more beautiful than one might expect.

That is how I read and understood the poems in Human Chain. The title poem, for instance, with its line of aid-workers tossing burlaps full of meal while soldiers fire their weapons above them presents a moment of grievous social crisis. But among those tossing the sacks, there is that gossamer thread of connection, their sense of working together, even under extreme conditions. Throughout this book, in recollections of family, teachers, friends, stories, and other writings, Heaney gives us glimpses of such soul-sustaining connections that live on in the works of the imagination that are passed from one hand to another, from one life to another, even beyond our mortal limits.

~Fred Marchant August 11, 2020

This poem is ready for whatever history or nature has in store. You must grow up to what you have stored up, Heaney once said. Those sacks of grain. The human chain.

How wonderful to celebrate such a deeply humane magnificent poet.

~George A. Kalogeris ~ ~

I’ve always been deeply affected by Heaney’s “Miracle” from his collection Human Chain, for its unsentimental focus on the work around healing, the way a “miracle” is enabled by many lowly tasks, by “the ones who have known him all along,” and the poem’s deflection from the expected sense of intervention of the divine in the title. In this poem, the homely work of neighbors and friends counts for as much, if not more than, the miracle of recovery itself and reflects the reality of how someone suffering needs labor by others to recover. Heaney says this poem came from his own experience of recovery after having suffered a stroke, so it’s likely that the authenticity of observation in this poem—and gratitude—comes from that experience. The power of personal experience informs his always astonishing, superbly-crafted lines—their understatement and unflinching, visceral directness.


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 who had known him all along.

In the spirit of Heaney, I offer my own version of a well-known miracle and recovery.

Christ Healing a Blind Man

After Seamus Heaney

Strange hands hovered, found the place

my sight would be, and I felt his breath

and smelled the fish in it and tried to turn away,

when from the hands a future came: a tree

some mourners stood beneath, three, with loud and shaking

shouts at first, then the word forsaken spilled

from his gall-filled mouth. I see you, I said, and he laughed

and pressed down harder on my sockets’ second sight.

Then see yourself, he said. The low voice gave me chills.

Because I didn’t see myself, but how he hung suspended

under clouds. His crown—on closer look, a wreath of thorns—

tilted, and from his rib poured the living wound a skeptic

would be taken by his hand to touch and know—

and then I saw his face come slow and bend

to me, his hair and dirty beard and deeply in his eye:

the tree, the cross, a handful of nails, the INRI.

~Joan Houlihan~

  The Key to the figural imagination and key to Heaney’s trans-figurative poetic is the idea that, in fact, the poet does not need to leave the rag-and-bone shop world to ascend the stair of transcendence. As William Lynch again observes, within the figural vision “the temporal flow of human life” may be seen as “a formed thing, a significant form. It is a progressive and planned movement into and within the infinite” (2004, 58). From this vantage, the transit of Heaney’s poems both individually and collectively exemplifies how poetry is a formed thing made through time, a weave of imaginative constants. Despite the poet’s lapse of faith, Heaney’s poetry may be read most profitably as a latter-day example of the figural imagination decentered from the tripartite cosmos of heaven-earth-hell in which the poet grew up and re-centered along its own axis. And if, as Heaney believed, the “shock waves of the consciousness reflect the upheavals of the surrounding world,” then the poet who would be “most the poet” must allow that condition—the condition of increasing ontological as well as religious doubt—pervasively into the work without losing the thread of meaning that holds the entire weave together.

Heaney’s poetry accords remarkably with the directive to reflect the shock waves of consciousness precisely because of its contested nature. Yet it faces extreme doubt in a manner that refuses “the process of dematerializing” (SS, 449). For all the attentiveness in his poetry and prose to the spiritual conditions of his time and to the historical conditions that have led us here, Heaney affirms that he “can’t conceive of a poetry that hasn’t a subject to deal with” (SS, 449). This conviction goes to the heart of his vision or reality, however lapsed his religious views, as well as to the heart of his poetry. These lines from “A Herbal” make that clear: If you know a bit About the universe It’s because you’ve taken it in Like that, Looked as hard As you looked into yourself, Into the rat hole, Through the vetch and dock That mantled it. (Human Chain, 43) For Heaney there is nothing immaterial about the world, and there is consequently nothing immaterial or dematerializing about language. The world as it is, is alive with transfiguration: you take in the world, the world takes in you.

The lines “Because you have taken it in / Like that” embody what is essential to the figural imagination: the world is real and we know it is so because of the grounding of consciousness in a broader similitude on which language depends. The disruptive effect of Nietzsche’s declaration “God is dead” and Heaney’s tacit “generational assent” to that condition stands at odds with Heaney’s stated poetics and his practice of the art. In the figural vision of reality, consciousness and the world are linked in similitude, or, as Heaney declares, “I had my existence. I was there. / Me in place and the place in me” (HC, 44). Such a vision of intimate communion need not appeal to doctrine to be regarded veritable. On the other hand, “A Herbal” ends with lines that speak movingly to the spiritual longing that implicitly undergirds both Heaney’s work and its broader significance: Where can it be found again, An elsewhere world, beyond Maps and atlases, Where all is woven into And of itself, like a nest Of crosshatched grass blades? (HC, 44) The end of “A Herbal” juxtaposes the centripetal and centrifugal poles of Heaney’s imagination, its parabolic dynamic now pitched into the utterly transcendent where it doubly performs the transfiguration of self into world and world into self (“Me in place, the place in me”), and then of the transcendent into the immanent, the immanent into the transcendent. Heaney’s figure of crosshatched grass blades is the humble equivalent of Dante’s figure at the end of The Divine Comedy, a knot where all is in-woven into one. The figure of Dante’s Cosmic Rose admits a Reality beyond representation. It represents the point at which the figural transcends itself in a mystical singularity of One in Many, Many in One, and All in All. Heaney’s late woven nest and his earlier harvest bow are both “knowable coronas,” artistic “love knots” that envision the end of art as a peace passing our understanding. Each brings the longing for transcendence-within-immanence home in the homeliest of figures.

~Daniel Tobin, from his essay “Beyond Maps and Atlases” in The Soul Exceeds its Circumstances: The Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney, edited by Eugene O’Brien

(Notre Dame, 2018). 

Opening Seamus Heaney’s book The Human Chain, I was stunned by the first poem, “Had I not been awake.” The title is a quotation, and while I don’t recognize the source, I was struck from the beginning by the subject and setting, which was completely familiar to me. I often wake up in the middle of the night. Heaney describes this wakeful state when everyone else is asleep and the world is dark as a precious time. If the narrator had not been awake, alert, and in a state of readiness to hear the sudden gust of wind, he would have missed out on an experience that drew him out of the depths of sleep into the state of the quickening soul.

Had I Not Been Awake

By Seamus Heaney

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

A wind that rose and whirled until the roof

Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,

Alive and ticking like an electric fence:

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly

And almost it seemed dangerously,

Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then

Lapsed ordinary. But not ever

After. And not now.

Heaney describes awareness of the real world with leaves from a sycamore, animals outside the house, and winds that rise, whirl, and blast. The concrete descriptions in his poetry give the reader footholds to perceive his poem as a journal of his habits. He has trouble sleeping, he hears leaves hitting the roof. Yet what comes outside of his description, and between the lines on the page, moves beyond a record of the details into an event of transformation.

In the middle of the night, is he apprehending danger? Someone has suggested that Heaney’s “whole of me a-patter/ Alive and ticking like an electric fence” is the sign of his damaged heart reaching a new state of health after a long convalescence. (He had a serious heart attack in 2005). Clearly, it is evident that he is up, alert, and ready to work. Also, Heaney is describing a natural occurrence of wind and leaves on the roof as a "courier blast," which implies a message being sent, the awareness of a transfer of energy from a messenger or divine mediator. Poets often talk about that interim state when the consciousness, not far from the mind of sleep, can receive ideas without inhibitions of daily pressures. Sometimes a poem resolves itself in the mind overnight and is ready to assemble itself upon the page upon waking.

So Heaney is enervated by something that will end up in a poem he is composing. Afterward, the whole thing passes in an instant. Reality ensues, and the poem ends affirming that whatever it was that has happened does not rest with him now.

But he does remember experience thoroughly enough to write about it. And I remember, when reading the poem, how the vigorous iambic pentameter lines became inscribed in my mind. When I received a telephone call in the middle of the night some years later, I thought of Heaney’s poem. A nurse was on the line with a message for my husband who had fallen asleep downstairs. His mother was failing and he should go to her immediately.

Assessing the events of that night and the days afterward, I sensed a poem forming about the experience, and there was the first line: “I’m glad I was awake when the call came.” A look at Heaney’s poem assured me that I had not stolen the line measure for measure. In fact, how can I compare the music of the two, when the one is so much more superior? But I persisted. (The poem is addressed to my husband as “you,” and the epigraph in italics is from notes by the film director Ingmar Bergman).

Her Passing

By Joyce Wilson

Your mother’s death at 3:30 a.m.,

The quiet hour saved for births and deaths,

Came as she would have wanted it.

I’m glad I was awake when the call came

And I could tell you of the nurse’s plea

To hurry to your mother’s side.

I’m glad I was the one who chose her clothes,

the handkerchief embroidered with her name,

The silk chemise, the tailored blouse.

I’m glad I was the one who sang the songs,

Recited verses, stood and took the host,

And heard your brother speak his mind.

I’m glad I was prepared to find the gifts––

The call, the clothes, the ritual, the host––

That she arranged and left for me.

I’m glad I was the one to hear the news

About her spirit’s thrashing and escape

And not her roommate, who was deaf.

I’m glad I was awake to know the hour

Of her quick transformation into fire

And its admission into us.

(From Take and Receive, Kelsay Books, 2019)

My poem was also probably influenced by another poem by Heaney, Number 7 of the sonnet sequence “Clearances.” I read this poem now, and I barely see the connections. The scenes, the English languages, the cultures are markedly different. Yet it was the mood and the participation of those in attendance of a death that I took away from his lines. They prepared me for the way I could consider the unfolding of my life. Not my life lived, but considered.

The important thing to note, also, is that the subject of my poem, my mother-in-law, was also prepared. She called a special meeting with her son and told him that, at age 93, she was ready to die. She left things to be found that she knew we would need once she had passed. Her readiness made the aftermath a joy amid the sorrow.

I learned recently that those close to Heaney sensed that he was preparing for his death, that Human Chain is a collection of poems that speaks his farewell. Theo Dorgan suggests, in a lecture on Youtube, that we read the last poem in Human Chain (2010),” A Kite for Aibhin,” and compare it to “A Kite for Michael and Christopher ” from Station Island (1985). In the older poem, the kite is "the soul at anchor there," and the string is a line for the boys to hold, to feel “the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief” (44) and, out of responsibility passed down from father to son, to take the strain. In the new poem, the string breaks, . . . and—separate, elate---/ The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.” Might this be Heaney’s image of his impen-ding death, the isolation and freedom of it?

~Joyce Wilson

For Heaney silence was always a generative space, as was the act of listening into it. Recall, from The Haw Lantern, “A soul ramifying and forever/ Silent, beyond silence listened for” (“Clearances”). The silence he has left behind differs. I find myself turning to Human Chain again and again, amid the pandemic and its consequence, because I need his moral compass. The third to last poem in the volume, written in memory of the musician David Hammond, alludes to a section from Tennyson’s In Memoriam. ‘The door was open and the house was dark’ finds the speaker calling out Hammond’s name in an empty house, although he knows the answer “would be silence/ That kept me standing listening while it grew.” Those of us who loved Heaney and his poems are perhaps aware that we are engaged in a kind of collective listening to his silence right now. Silence allows us the space to remember, to reflect. If we are really lucky, it might show us how to move forward.

As September spills its golden light across my desk, I think of “The Baler,” where sounds (and the memories they evoke) collect and emerge as a chief concern: the cardiac clunk of the baling machine, the race of a tractor’s engine, woodpigeons cooing, all suggestive of the season’s, and our, ephemerality. However, the outdoor sounds quiet as the poem draws to its close. Once they fall silent, what remains is the voice of the painter Derek Hill, who says “he could bear no longer to watch/ The sun going down/ And asking please to be put/ With his back to the window.”

When we listen deeply, we become aware of what we do not hear. In poems that return to childhood scenes and figures, Human Chain offers few pointed references to the current political moment or to England (“imperially male”), although we still notice the textured Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and compound-epithets that marked his earlier poetry. We don’t hear the Petrarchan sonnet’s intake of breath and exhaled release or the Elizabethan sonnet’s resolving couplet. In fact, in this volume he often directs our attention towards sensation and away from hearing. A remarkable image closes “The door was open and the house was dark,” an image that intimates no distinctive sounds. On the doorstep, the speaker feels:

Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming

Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

On an overgrown airfield in late summer.

The empty house has a “not unwelcoming emptiness,” granted to it through the comparison to “a midnight hangar / On an overgrown airfield in late summer.” Why is the emptiness “not unwelcoming”? Within the confines of the poem, its silences, there linger memories of activity, of human warmth, past but invisibly present. The hangar itself is surrounded by a fertile world, “overgrown,” the tall grasses of late summer untouched by a mowing machine. We aren’t told about the natterjack toads or the corncrakes or perhaps even the reed warblers that sound out in late summer but here, at poem’s end, we almost hear them. I strain to -- especially to hear one more time the race of a Heaney tractor engine. Instead we face into the “not unwelcoming emptiness” of his absence, listening “open-eared to this day” into the silence he left behind.

~Meg Tyler