(Accepted but not published by London Magazine: 1996-7)
Harpur's monk has nightmares about the fate of William Rufus, one of several
contrasted deaths that seem to close a door, yet pose variations on whether we are
‘constricted to a star-fixed scheme/or...execute our actions freely', or whether
the ‘arrow' that strikes/ Will send us into Paradise or Hell.' The enquiry develops
via attractively translated ruminations from Bede and Vergil, an account of his father's
last days, a reflection on Enkidu's death in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a dramatic
monologue by the resurrected Lazarus. Threnodies where mystification multiplies with
visionary scope; a point mirrored when they are complemented with contrasted means
of transcending the mundane and temporal: his own pilgrimage up the misty Croagh
Patrick and glimpse of heavenly vistas, and ‘The Young Man of Galway's Lament', a
lovelorn, Celtic-Twilight immersion in landscape and legend.
The scheme and formal dexterity are laudable; but Harpur moves uneasily between
a straight-up, streetwise mode and strains of cloistered academia. His contact with
people is studiously conscientious, like the exchanges of his fictional characters.
The metaphysical seldom emerges from the substance of an experience, but nudgingly
as if in scholastic debate.
On the sanctified mountain the stones of saints ‘BRIDGID and KEVIN luxuriate/
In transient immortality...' Back near Westport ‘…the car park's muted chromes/Revivify
their colours/ And the back of Patrick's statue/ Brings me back to earth'. This laconically
bloodless fusion of the objective and recondite also mars the high-wrought Tertia
Rima sonnet sequence commemorating his father's death in hospital. Classical legend
stalks awkwardly through the wards when they become Minos' maze, or his dazed father
sees ‘his youngest son' and ‘not the impatient bristling brows of Charon'. In ‘Cremation'
the coffin slides ‘With the panache of airport reclaim baggage' but the mourners
‘...return/ to sanguine selves....Numbing out the absence, the ritual vacuum,/ The
last reductio ad absurdum.' I found myself feeling that this bordered on fustian
though it was excelled when ‘carbon flesh and bone/ acquiesce'(literal Latin) on
waves that release/ Their hushed prayers'.
More genuinely ‘liturgical' in style, and apposite to the book's theme, are
Lazarus' experience of weightless pellucidity, Christ's agonised cry, the anticlimax
of restored life, though his resentment smacks of latterday Christology: ‘...when
he wept outside the cave/ I knew it was because he had to sacrifice/ A soul released
from flesh/ To make the crowd believe.'
An imagined Sumerian episode convinced me more about the clash between divine will
and human aspiration. It simulates the plangent ritual utterance of primary epic,
particularly where Gilgamesh assures his dead companion of bejewelled apotheosis.