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Gazing Heavenwards

Gerard Smyth

The White Silhouette, by James Harpur, Carcanet, 96 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 078-178410582299

The beautiful opening poem in James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is about a winter journey, the poet leaving his Cork base for a night drive through the hush of a snow-laden Irish landscape to catch the dawn ferry to Wales and on to his final destination:

A house on Duck Street:
an outdoor light – a star that’s stopped overhead.

In a related series of evocative images that blend into one another, Harpur renders the curiously still world he experiences on this journey. The seemingly contradictory juxtaposition of stillness and the motion of journeying sums up what seems to be the fundamental interests in his poetry: the convergence of two worlds, the material one we dwell in and an “unearthly” spiritual one. But Harpur discerns and articulates an indivisible unity between these two worlds, a commingling of the known and unknown:

Home can be an island or scriptorium,
a chapel or a book,
a place or spiritual condition
you enter like a déjà-vu,
dissolving in its sudden stillness.
Or home is a place of transit
to a place of transit.

His finds his convergences and embodies them in poems about Russian icons, the ruins of old abbeys, friezes, the remnants of statuary, gargoyles, ecclesiastical art and relics, shrines that have “nothing but bones, gems and wax saints”. A sequence called “Graven Images” forms one section of the book. Looking at the Russian icon-maker Andrei Rublev’s “Icon of Christ the Redeemer” in a Moscow gallery he states

I want to touch that moment again
before the wood reclaims you
forever, withdraws you into hits grain,
your features too unearthly,
full of light for this world.

His journeys are often that of a pilgrim, from place to sacred place, and while one of his poems suggests that “our feet only carry us / to places in the world”, his imagination finds its way into the non-temporal, interiorised dwelling-place and landscape of the spirit. It might be tempting to suggest that such journeys arise out of a purely aesthetic interest but that is not the case: they are both real and metaphysical – the poet once proclaimed himself a “proactive spiritual seeker”. In another exphrastic poem based on Rublev’s “Icon of the Trinity”, Harpur again delights in sharing “the freedom of wanderers”, setting the poem in motion with his images of

flying eastwards into darkness,
a night of prehistoric stars.

“Does sacred art suffuse us  / with a sense of the Beyond?”, he asks. Yes would seem to be the answer that rings out from these poems.

The title work, a keynote of this collection, again presents the poet as searcher, taking us on another quest for the transcendent moment, in this instance moving from landscape to landscape through England, Greece and Ireland, but devising connection and harmony between each location. This poem begins:

I thought we would meet in a holy place,
Like the church in the hamlet of Bishopstone,
Empty on a Wiltshire summer’s day ...

Harpur has a flair for creating a compound of the everyday and the numinous; while the tone may be reserved and quiet, his imagination is dynamic; he comprehends the mystic without being mystical and demonstrates this through avoidance of the kind of solemnity that this kind of subject matter might draw to itself in other hands. 

In “The Perseids”, for example, a poem depicting a family picnic outing – “two lots of parents, two daughters, / assembling chairs and tables” – he manages to conveys the elevated moment with an image ( perhaps reminiscent  of James Wright’s horse scene in “A Blessing”) of “a movement on  the road / between bushes – a horse galloping, / then five more, dark brown and tan ...” Harpur’s language has unsparing precision and vividness in how it depicts and describes and is the animating force in his poetry – he a master of what Wright himself called the “pure clear word”.

While his sensibility is drawn to places of human solitude, of connection through symbols to the religious or spiritual life, Harpur is very much open and alert to “the chance events and small miracles of life”. Although this “spiritual seeker” may be looking somewhere beyond it, his centre of gravity is here in our earthly world; human knowledge is what informs the mind at work in these poems.

The challenge for a poet engaging with the spiritual and religious in our secular age is how to sound the authentic note; this Harpur often achieves by fetching images from the religious art and symbolism of the past, but renewing and refreshing them in his language of “pure clear words”.  

Another centrepiece of the collection is the inventive sequence based upon the Book of Kells (a fruitful fascination for the poet whose last book included “On First Seeing the Book of Kells”). A section of this poem begins in the contemporary setting of Monaco, where the poet discovers a replica of the book in the Princess Grace Library (allowing him to juxtapose images from our time and place with those from the more austere world of the monk-scribes who created this Celtic wonder).

In Monaco, it’s always noon.
Apartment blocks surge seaward
in a permanent standing ovation;
among palm trees, boulevards,
the bobbing whitewash of yachts,
beaches with zen-raked pebbles,
no one grows old, just more sedate.

Those scribes and their enterprise could not have found a more empathic imagination; Harpur inhabits their world with rich imagination, giving to this copious and powerful sequence pattern and shape, twists and turns as artful as the illuminated manuscript itself.

The cover image for this collection – a painting by the visionary English artist David Inshaw – depicts a “moment held in time” (as Inshaw described his pastoral scenes) very much in harmony with the mood, atmosphere and sentiment of Harpur’s poems.

Not all of these poems look to emblems of the spiritual: there are a number rooted in the actualities of the poet’s own life: “The Summer World”, a gorgeous reminiscence of “days between the last exam and the end” spent somewhere in a summer arcadia of his youth; “Portora Royal”, an affectionate return to “the last family holiday” and “Prof”, an intriguing poem that is admirable for it imaginative detail of loss and tragedy.

Along with lively versions of Horace, Virgil and Homer, the book – and Harpur’s wayfaring – concludes with an address to his namesake, the prolific nineteenth century Australian poet Charles Harpur, whose deported father originally came from Kinsale and who is here remembered for  “the fading of your errant quest / to wrestle poetry from truth ...”. There is nothing errant to be found in James Harpur’s own continuing quest to find “an earthly music audible in heaven”.

1/9/2018

Gerard Smyth's latest collections of poetry are A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus ) and The Yellow River, a collaboration with artist Seán McSweeney (Solstice Arts Centre )

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