Michael Tolkien


The Monk's Dream   ( Anvil )

(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.




James Harpur