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Metaphysical poets of today

15 March 2013

Martyn Halsall looks at a group of loosely kindred spirits


The Sin-eater: A breviary
Thomas Lynch
Salmon Poetry £10
Church Times Bookshop £8 (Use code CT618 )

Angels and Harvesters
James Harpur
Anvil £8.95 (978-0-85646-447-8)
Church Times Bookshop £8.05 (Use code CT618 )

A Song Among the Stones
Kenneth Steven
Polygon £7.99 (978-1-84697-212-6)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT618 )

The Day the Grass Came
Leo Aylen
Muswell Press £5.50

Readings from the Book of Exile
Pádraig Ó Tuama
Canterbury Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT618 )

Old Men in Jeans
Peter Walker
Ylolfa £4.95 (978-1-84771-434-3)
Church Times Bookshop £4.45 (Use code CT618 )

STORY and theology jostle through these collections of poems that together argue the case for identifying "New Metaphysicals" as a developing category of contemporary writers. This would be very different from earlier Metaphysical poets in the age of Donne and Herbert, reflecting a slackening of doctrinal agreement and a widening of poetic expression.

Thomas Lynch, "variously devout and devoutly lapsed", illustrates the ambition and dilemma of these writers. An American undertaker, with an ancestral home in Western Ireland, he refers to his collection as "a breviary", and identifies with his anti-hero, the sin-eater Argyle.

Such men, for sixpence, a loaf, and a bowl of beer, would absorb the sins of a corpse in a ritual before burial. In turn, Argyle becomes a scapegoat, "banished to the hinterlands of the social and moral order", poised between requirement and exile, between institution and pilgrimage.

"In the end," Lynch writes of his alter-ego, "Argyle is just trying to find his way home." For all the uncertainty of his quest, there is formality in the 24 poems, each of 24 lines, and, for all the wandering, a sense of resolution. Through creation "it seemed he occupied the hand of God: opened, upturned, outstretched, uplifting him." The exilic bravery of Lynch's work exposes the power of a searching faith in powerful depictions of person and place.

James Harpur brings together the angels and harvesters of the title of his fourth collection in fluent Celtic discussion. Theology emerges out of the apparently ordinary, as the ordinariness of the saintly is re- examined.

Actual snow may not have fallen in "Christmas Snow", but in varied memories and evocations the coming of Christ is recalled and proclaimed again. In the world of the "scuttled trolley", where shoppers are "gripping rods of sleek umbrellas As if playing giant straining fish", a farmer waits at the far end of Advent "standing by a gate Above the mercury lanes of Wicklow".

Like Argyle, Harpur finds God through the wonders of the natural world, but also finds faith strengthened by earlier saints and pilgrims, about which he writes with elastic fluency.

Kenneth Steven tells a single story of self-imposed exile in some 30 pages of poems that compose a sixth-century speculation. He imagines four Celtic monks leaving Iona for greater solitude, and probably reaching Iceland. Three eventually decide to return, but we leave them suspended on a mysterious sea.

Steven has a vivid ability to evoke mood through place, conjuring the mysterious out of simple, direct expression. His story begins as "light lay in all the fields and the curlews wept in the blue wind"; and his theological exploration is equally intriguing:

it was God, who sent us here, one said
closing his eyes
no, said another, it was the island
that was sent by God to find us.

Leo Aylen's 20-page title poem re-casts the Fall into a devastated post-industrial world, redeemed by the return of grass from an otherwise apparently doomed Edenic island. Death stalks the narrator, the Norse god Odin and the managers and technocrats that control the world, but the earth will survive: "That is the joke of it all."

Aylen is equally concerned with pen-portraits, human stories about a community policeman or an eccentric professor, a lustful widow in the Belfast Troubles, a re-examination of Dante or Aristophanes, and poems drawn from his work as a traveller, researcher, and film director. His language is always vibrant, urgent, and expansive. There is an energy in this collection which could leave readers gasping.

In contrast, Pádraig Ó Tuama's poems are still and reflective, quietly insisting on the supremacy of shared faith and friendship against the institutionalised obedience of formal religion. A late poem celebrates the consolation of practical devotion, under the moving title "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live." Here, his prayer and dedication can re-emerge only when he is given the space for the self-expression celebrated throughout this collection.

Most of Peter Walker's poems are quite short, and yet feel over-written, self-consciously literary, and trying far too hard. When a poem called "The Wild Geese" opens with the lines

steely musculature of evolution
ball and socket greased within

the capacity for wonder falters.

Dr Halsall is Poet-in-Residence at Carlisle Cathedral and poetry editor of  Third Way magazine.

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