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CRACKING LIFE'S CODE:

Philip Coleman reviews James Harpur & Dennis O'Driscoll's newest poetry collections

 

 

 

Philip Coleman review in Southword Journal


Originally from Cahir, in Tipperary, Philip Coleman graduated from UCC with a First in English and Philosophy in 1995. He is a Lecturer in English in Trinity College Dublin. His reviews on contemporary poetry have appeared in The Edinburgh Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Left Review, and The Irish Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angels & Harvesters by James Harpur

Angels & Harvesters

James Harpur

(Anvil Press Poetry, 2012)

ISBN: 978-0-85646-447-8

£8.95 paperback

Buy from Anvil

 

Dear Life by Dennis O'Driscoll

Dear Life

Dennis O'Driscoll

(Anvil Press Poetry, 2012)

ISBN: 978-0-85646-446-1

£9.95 paperback

Buy from Anvil

 

 

 

 

"Finally," the speaker of Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘Dear Life’ says in the eleventh section of the poem, ‘I have cracked life’s code, bored straight into the nuclear core of its mystery.’ Deciphering "life’s code" – "the nuclear core of its mystery" – is also a concern for James Harpur in many of the poems in his latest collection, Angels and Harvesters, recently published by Anvil Press Poetry on the same day (the 19th of May) as O’Driscoll’s Dear Life, which contains the aforementioned sequence. Born in 1954 and 1956 respectively, O’Driscoll and Harpur have established themselves as figures of note in the world of contemporary Irish poetry in English. Dear Life is O’Driscoll’s ninth collection to date, and he has also published a substantial volume of essays, a book-length interview with Seamus Heaney, and two edited collections of quotations about poetry, poets, and poetics. Harpur has also published works of non-fiction, as well as translations, and Angels and Harvesters is his fifth book-length collection. Reading these two books, then, is to engage with serious poetstwo men who have, over several decades, made a serious commitment to the art of poetry.

            For all that allows us to bring them together as prolific contemporaries, however, the experience of reading O’Driscoll and Harpur alongside each other is also an exercise in contrastsa testament to the diversity and open-mindedness of Anvil Press’s list, certainly, but also an interesting way of seeing how two members of the same generation view and treat similar concerns and problems in very different terms. Central among these issues is the question of religious faith. In a recent interview with Poetry Ireland Review Harpur has claimed that "poetry [is] a noble pursuit and a means of exploring ultimate spiritual questions". He has also described poetry as "a mission", "the means by which" he seeks "to penetrate the eschatology of life" to find possible answers to questions such as "is there a God, is there a point to life, is there life after death, and so on". However successful poetry may be in providing these "possible answers", Harpur’s mission as a poet interested in the pursuit of such questions is evident throughout the poems of Angels and Harvesters, and indeed at times it appears that his poetry is in fact directed towards a declaration of faith rather than an interrogation of it. The book’s opening poem – a version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Herbst’ which captures much of the sonic texture of the original piece through its (perhaps unavoidable) repetition of the words "fall" and "falling" – ends by insisting that "there’s One who keeps this falling / From falling farther, endlessly, gently in his hands". The reference to the "One" here is echoed in a way by the opening lines of the book’s title poem ("As thoughts arrive / From god knows where"), giving the overall impression that Harpur’s work is that of a true believer more than a tormented seeker.
            In a poem such as ‘Reflections on a Baby Crow in the Light of the Venerable Bede’s Sparrow’, for example, the accidental arrival of a young bird in the fireplace occasions a meditation on lines from the writings of an eighth- century saintlines that, as it turns out, also consider the nature of what is termed our (human) "fall from glory to this life of darkness". Even what might be termed Harpur’s more secular poems rise (or fall) into a kind of religious or scriptural idiom, as in ‘Osteopath’, which ends with an image of the speaker "ris[ing] like Adam, ribs intact" after a session on the therapist’s table, or ‘On First Seeing the Book of Kells’, which comes to the following conclusion:

 

I raise my head to see the whole

And slightly blur my focus,

The letters seem to link together

There’s someone nudging me to move,

Let it come, let it come,

Another thirty seconds, please,

And yes, it’s there, pristine and freed

In

Prin-

ci-

pio erat

Verbum.

 

            In a sense, this poem is less about the Book of Kells or the experience of seeing this extraordinarily beautiful artifact than it is about Harpur’s faith, and his belief in the truth of the Gospel of Saint John, from which these words are of course taken. It might be suggested that Harpur’s arrangement of the phrase "In principio erat Verbum" reproduces the visual character of Folio 292r of the Books of Kells, but that would be an exaggeration: mere line-breaks cannot replicate the astonishing play of visual effects on the illuminated ninth-century page. A long tradition of scholarship, including recent work by artist and scholar Don MacGabhann, has increased our understanding of the complex, and truly stunning, visual and semiotic complexity of these illuminated pages. What is revealed in Harpur’s poem, on the other hand, is the poet’s own desire for spiritual truth, signaled a few lines earlier by the speaker’s beseechingly bathetic repetition of the phrase ‘Let it come’. Repetition as a technique is used frequently throughout Angels and Harvesters, and it often seems inclined towards an emphasis of emotional affect, as in ‘Christmas Snow’, with its three Christmases in a row in the final line. At other times, however, it serves to augment Harpur’s lyricism, as in ‘The Falcon Carol’, while at the same time reinforcing the fundamentally Christian vision of his poetry:

 

                        And as three weary pilgrim kings

                        Looked up and saw his glittering wings

                        The falcon saw a darkened town

                        A stable glowing like a crown

                                    And knew that he had found the truth

                                    That he had found the truth.

 

            As an expression of spiritual longing and a description of the poet’s relation of his readings in the history of Christianity to his everyday experience, Angels and Harvesters is an interesting and valuable collection, especially at a time when many Christians, and especially Roman Catholics, are struggling to keep the faith. The book invites readers to return to some of the so-called early Church Fathers – Bede, Origen, Evagrius Ponticus – as well as Julian of Norwich ("a whisper of her name / Seemed a shouted imposition")but while poems such as ‘Sinner’ ("i.m. Marguerite Porette, died in Paris, 1 June 1310") offer strong evocations of medieval faith, Harpur’s contemporary poems are somehow less convincing, even if they are driven by and derived from the same spiritual bases. ‘The Leper’s Squint’, for example, which begins with the image of "A day the colour of old chewing gum", is unable to contain or carry its fierce historical baggage ("The siege of Limerick, the Wild Geese, / The boycott of the 'Jewish colonists', / George Clancy shot by the Black and Tans"). What the poet himself calls his "tourist memory" in the same poem often threatens to undermine the book’s spiritual integrity at the same time that it weakens what might be termed the poet’s handling of the medium of verse in itself. While there are moments of achieved lyrical grace throughout the collection – the beguiling music of ‘The Song of Richard Rolle’ is particularly memorable – even the most plangent of his poems seem to lapse too readily into affects that are cumbersome and overwrought. The repetitions in the stanzas of ‘The Falcon Carol’ are musically appropriate, but the repeated line ("The swish of scythes") at the end of the title poem or the thrice-mentioned "Christmas" in the last line of ‘Christmas Snow’ (strains of a composition of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure chiming a bit too clearly in the distance) feel forced if not superfluous.

            The populist strain in Harpur’s music is perhaps already apparent at the end of his version of Rilke’s poem: the image there of the "One" who keeps us all "gently, in his hands" is reminiscent of another song that was especially popular in Ireland during the papacy of John Paul II, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’, although its history goes back to the African American spirituals of the nineteenth century. Whether Harpur intends such allusive cultural expansiveness or not, his work seems less troubled by the broader questioning of the relationship between religion, ideology and power that has occurred in recent decades than that of O’Driscoll, whose book Dear Life contains some of the most incisive interrogations of religious faith to have been offered by an Irish poet in recent years. Moreover, Dear Life confirms O’Driscoll’s status as a major poet of international significance, one whose ruminations on local (Irish) problems such as the decline of the Catholic Church or the demise of the Celtic Tiger are framed within poems whose formal brilliance and philosophical vigor allow him to be read as a figure who cannot be contained within narrow critical narratives of national significance. Dear Life is a major achievement: a substantial collection of poems in which O’Driscoll’s masterful handling of poetic form is demonstrated on every page but which also gives voice, as a cover note puts it, "to twenty-first century attitudes towards religious belief".

            The views about religion and faith encountered in Dear Life have of course existed for a long time, and the book’s epigraph from Paul Valéry ("God made everything out of nothing, / but the nothingness shows through") echoes even earlier interrogations of faith and religion in the works of Karl Marx, for example, and Friedrich Nietzsche, to name only two of the most important nineteenth-century philosophers of atheism. Marx and Nietzsche offer two useful poles for thinking about the ways that O’Driscoll writes about faith in Dear Life, however, because his work is poised between an examination of the interplay of social and economic forces in the material life of the self, on the one hand, and one’s cultural or aesthetic sense of things on the othersomewhere between the rule of capital, one might say, and what George Steiner called "the death of tragedy". In the context of the many poems that critique the nature of financial materialism and blind faith in Dear Life, it is not an exaggeration to say that a poem like ‘The Sunday Game’, for instance, provides a powerful insight into a society in desperate need of change. Beginning with a description of a time "back then" –

 

                        when they congregated

                                    in the neighbour’s kitchen

                        for the Sunday game:

                                    the one neighbor with TV

 

– the poem refuses an easy sentimentalisation of the past. While it could have been a celebration of community, the poems ends instead by focusing on "the woman of / the house" as

 

                                                she lifts the kettle off

                        the hob again, fills it from a shaded

                                    bucket, the summer-blistered

                        hall door open to all comers.

                                    No questions asked.

 

In twenty-four lines O’Driscoll provides a vignette of Irish rural life that is worthy of John McGahern. The confluence of images – the fact that it is Sunday, summertime, a domestic scene in which a woman literally slaves away while the menfolk "get stuck in: loud wheezy cheers, / blunt denunciations of the ref" – combine to make this a remarkable and disturbing analysis of an idyllic vision of Ireland that persists in the popular imagination. The poems of Dear Life show again and again, however, that questions are being asked of this vision not just in local but also in global terms.

            O’Driscoll is a learned poet, and the poems of Dear Life may be read in relation to a wide range of literary and philosophical antecedents. As in Harpur’s Angels and Harvesters, indeed, the idea of "the fall" is one that pervades the poems of Dear Life, from the poem of that very title (‘The Fall’) to the prose poem that constitutes the eleventh section of the book’s title poem that was quoted at the start of this review. In the rest of that section O’Driscoll writes:

 

[…] having no paper to hand, I seized a newly-fallen autumn leaf, sketched my findings on its palm, not reckoning with the pilfering wind that snatched it from my grasp. Leaves swirl around my feet now in a crinkled tinfoil din. Thousands of leaves. A sybil’s mixed signals, they shift positions, shuffle their decks like tarot packs, gyrate suggestively. I go on my knees in search. Keep on drawing blanks.

 

            This poem can be read as a response to one of the central texts of literary modernism, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which contains the following epigraph: "Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω." Taken from the Satyricon of Petronius – which was also important to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the writing of The Great Gatsby – the passage was translated by Eliot as: "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she answered: 'I want to die.'" In ancient Greek story and legend the Sybil at Cumae gave prophecies by writing letters on leaves which she would then scatter to the winds for those who sought her counsel to decipher for themselves, and of course the significance of this is clear in the context of Eliot’s great poem of prophecy and fragmentation. In O’Driscoll’s text, then, the figure of the Sibyl at Cumae is resurrected along with Eliot’s "tarot packs" in a way that signals both the Irish poet’s sense of connection with a larger modernist poetic history and, more importantly, his appreciation of the continuing relevance of myth and the poetic appropriation of it in our twenty-first century world.

            O’Driscoll’s formidable literary and cultural awareness and knowledge are everywhere evident in this collection, both in terms of the poems’ content and in their play of form. One section of the title sequence takes the form of a Berrymanian ‘Dream Song’, for example, while some of the greatest poetic craftsmen of the twentieth century – Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, and Anthony Hecht – are echoed elsewhere. In one poem (from a piece interestingly entitled ‘The Taskmaster’) the speaker cries for what he calls ‘the gift of eptitude’, but O’Driscoll’s position as one of the most formally skillful poets of his generation is clear in this collection, even when he lifts whole phrases from the works of others and recasts them in new contexts, as he does in ‘The Long Corridor’, for example, in which one section begins with the phrase "Bare ruined choirs", from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold"). As Eliot famously put it: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." Only a poet at the very height of his powers would dare to make such an audacious move, but this is just one example of the remarkable inter-textual and technical resourcefulness that characterizes Dear Life as a whole and sets it apart as one of the most accomplished volumes to be published by an Irish poet in the first half of 2012.

            It is true to say that Dear Life expresses a dark view of faith that complicates the sense of spiritual longing and hopefulness that is evident in Harpur’s Angels and Harvesters, and it is interesting to read O’Driscoll’s poem ‘Snow’ after reading Harpur’s ‘Christmas Snow’ to appreciate what might be termed the metaphysical distance between the two poets. Nonetheless, they both give voice, in very different ways, to the various and vast emergencies of our contemporary occasion, and one cannot help but feel that Peter Jay and Kit Yee Wong of Anvil Press Poetry had this in mind when they published the two books on the same day. It would not be untrue, or trite, to end by saying that both books offer something for everyone, from the self "Searching into space […] / Almost remembering paradise" of Harpur’s fragile lyrics to O’Driscoll’s reaching indefatigably after "the postscript stage", with "just enough room on the thin-skinned / page to allow you set the record straight".

 

 

©2012 Philip Coleman

 

 

Author Links

 

Philip Coleman at Trinity College Dublin

Articles by Coleman in the Irish Left Review

Times reviews by Coleman

 

 

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