The poem provides a series of dramatic visual images that Heaney associates with the road outside his second family home running northwards from Bellaghy past Mullhollandstown.
The Wood Road is as it is and was, maintained, perhaps, but unchanged: resurfaced, never widened. The first story recalls the 1950’s period prior to the so-called ‘Troubles’; a night scene: as when Bill Pickering lay with his gun … Nighwatching in uniform, a member of the infamous protestant B-Specials. Heaney captures both scene and atmosphere as if filmed in black and white: Moonlight on rifle barrels… a van/ Roadblocking the road. He comments sardonically on the patrol’s self-important, toy-soldier mentality: Special militiaman … his staunch patrol/ In profile, sentry-loyal, depicting an ‘epic’ incident on a burlesque level: a whole unit of militiamen Harassing Mullhollandstown, a mere hamlet requiring little control.
The scene rewinds to the well-ordered farming practices of Heaney’s childhood: me in broad daylight/ On top of a cartload of turf built trig and tight moving along the iconic road. Heaney recalls his pride at being promoted to ‘grown-up’: Looked up to, looking down,/ Allowed the reins. This was a care-free time As the old cart rocked and rollicked.
The poem’s pendulum swings forward in time to a drama from the period of the so-called Hunger Strikes around 1980: that August day I walked it/ To the hunger striker’s wake. Heaney captures as if from a film set both an atmosphere and a ritual: silent yard/ watching crowd/ guarded corpse and guard of honour in the shape of an impassive (stared), illegal Irish Republican Army detachment.
Finally an accident that left a literal and metaphorical stain at the end of the lane: an innocent child on her bike, killed by a road-hog, a speed-merchant from nowhere/ Hard-rounding the corner. Heaney’s ‘film’ picks out stark images depicting collision: A back wheel spinning in sunshine,/ A headlamp in smithereens.
Heaney sums up the Wood Road. Whether in the sepia brownish tint of old films or the Drip-paint … in blood effect of horror films, the road is exactly as he described it: an abandoned film-set of man-made dramas, now encroached upon by indifferent Nature: The milk-churn deck and the sign/ For the bus-stop overgrown.
- B-Specials: largely part-time and unpaid protestant volunteers affiliated to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, much disliked by the Catholic community for ‘going over the top’ in their counter-insurgency capacity. Their role was to carry out “occasional duty, usually one evening per week exclusive of training drills, in an area convenient to members, day duties being required only in an emergency”. They were used particularly between 1956-62
- Thanks to the peace process Heaney can permit himself to be more forthright about the troubled past, as reported by Robert McCrum: ‘He concedes that the Troubles had given him “something of consequence” to write about, and that “Something was at stake. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I’m aware of it since the peace process… “These were very dangerous times,” says Heaney, yielding a point with hindsight. “When the Provisional IRA began their campaign, people like myself, with a strong sense that things needed to be redressed, were excited.” Bloody Sunday and its poisoned aftermath polarised everything…But he always felt it was impossible to take sides, and I ask him if he has ever regretted not being more vocal. “Speaking out,” he insists, “one was cornered. My sympathy was not with the IRA, but it wasn’t with the Thatcher government, either.”
- 6 five-line stanzas each followed by a single line; whilst not quite ‘refrain’, this line dwells on the part of the message Heaney would have us reflect upon;
- Heaney sifts visual opportunities like a film-director on specific location;
- other vocabulary is heavy with the poet’s mocking tone: special … staunch … loyal … harassing;
- a rich range of alliteration: in fours juxtaposed turf built trig and tight mimicking the clip-clop of the horse; as a pair rocked and rollicked as the horse’s walk becomes a trot; as a chain: walked … wake … watching;
- rich, too, in assonances: van/man; Mullhollandstown/ down; daylight/ tight; overgrown; yard/stared;
- neologism: hardrounding avoids a longer, less emotive alternative e.g. ‘going round a corner with his foot hard down on the accelerator’;
- Repetition: as is and was reinforces the lack of change over 60 years.
- Contrasting adverbs denoting status: Looked up to, looking down;
- But for all its acknowledgement of life, Human Chain cannot help but be concerned with death. Many of its poems, for instance, are dedicated to friends who have died either through the wear and tear of time or prematurely, like the child hit while cycling by “a speed-merchant from nowhere” or a victim of the Troubles, like Louis O’Neill, an eel fisherman friend of the poet, who is also commemorated in the poem Casualty which appeared in Field Work, published some four decades ago. Alan Taylor/heraldscotland.com of Aug 30th 2010;
- Heaney is also concerned with location, particularly Northern Ireland, where he lived until he was a young man. Here it is portrayed as largely bucolic and wild, infused with childhood memories Christine Fears writing in The Literateur of 13th September 2010 .
- This is a book that, though as rich in the bits and pieces of the material world as any Vermeer or Metsu, also teems with other lives … Lives are conjured up through objects, so that each instance seems to offer two timelines: one to do with the remembered life, the other to do with the ongoing power of the material world to trigger memory and reclaim narrative… The Wood Road, which both ‘‘is and was’’, is ‘‘resurfaced, never widened’’… As a comment on how the artistic imagination operates (it both invents or – literally recovers the past, but also requires itself to honour the details of memory), this is wise and adroit. It is also typical of a masterful and luminous collection. Vona Groarke, Sunday Business Post Online, Sept 13 2010