Waiting for the Past
Church Times Bookshop £9
House of Bread: Poems and paintings from a prayer journal
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
Collected Poems 1959-2014
Michael James Cook
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
A GLOBAL poet, a priest-poet, and a teacher-poet, sharing Christian beliefs, have written contrasting experiences of their faith in the world. Les Murray ranges freely through space and time, Bruce Driver drafts a prayer journal in poetry and water colours, and Michael Cook has contributed a cautionary tale of a writer insufficiently versed in contemporary reading.
Les Murray could be Australia’s Seamus Heaney, growing up on his grandfather’s dairy farm to write widely in imaginative language always seemingly rooted in realistic rurality. Like Heaney’s later work, Murray, born in 1938, is now looking back over his shoulder, while equally at home with the new. He recalls the arrival of electricity, in 1960, but also analyses German Goths, racism and Bollywood. Frailties of ageing, in “Diabetica” or “Vertigo”, never limit his adventurous use of language. He finds “a coracle sea” lapping “a basalt grandstand/ of rain-cup pillars” at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, while writing a poem about sectarianism, and remembers “clear-shack! pea-shack!” as the sound of rifles while shooting rabbits.
His poetry, dedicated like his other books “To the glory of God”, is both celebratory and revelatory. In Beijing he finds “wristwatch-shaped/ air conditioners on each window” of high-rise buildings, and reaches for the planetary system to adequately express absences: “These days that we’re apart/ are like standing on Pluto,/ there is the no-time of thought…” (Last World Before the Stars- Murray also excels in evocative titles).
Meticulous observations are recruited to a case, but never overwhelm it. Murray glorifies God by glorifying life and language, but never preaching. We feel for the death of the domesticated octopus- “the one who could conform/ its elastics with any current/ or hang from its cupped feet” (A Denizen) — all the more for the way Murray has honoured its life. From Murray’s teenage years to a canonisation in Rome, through a festival of brilliant observation and dynamic expression, this is a vivid, energetic, and stunning collection.
Bruce Driver’s House of Bread is a beautiful book, where his paintings and poetry complement each other. Both appear to marry the same technique, words and brush-strokes being placed meticulously to transform the apparently ordinary into something intriguing, and holy. Many of the paintings have been captured in and around London, but there are also deftly-worked interiors, nature studies, and an obvious affection for rivers and estuaries.
Fr Bruce, an Anglican priest and Religious, also writes economically, somewhat in the style of R. S. Thomas, but with added consolation. Mass is celebrated, strangers are welcomed, war-time memories revived, and descending aircraft re-kindle memories of Japan. Sometimes a number of themes are woven evocatively together, as in “August 1940”:
Waistcoat open, an
Old man awaiting the
Drone of aircraft
Up the Estuary
Hears only the
Slap of tides
Against a jetty.
Few of the poems would cover more than one page of a notebook; some are as brief as haiku. There are some intriguing alliances of text and illustration. The poem “Distances”, inspired by an arriving aircraft, is accompanied by a delicate painting of Japanese women in kimonos. “Testament” wryly recounts some of the spiritual duties and everyday locations of this member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, set against an apparently simple house interior, draped in warm shadows. There is much that is rich and encouraging in this remarkable book.
Michael Cook’s Collected Poems are the work of a pragmatic poet concerned that “poetry should be solid in structure and ... direct in the management of ideas”. He writes in various styles — “I use more verbs than adjectives”— to ask questions, rather than to offer answers. Some of the poems in this 250 page collection were first used during his 26 years as a secondary school teacher. His work bears little evidence of him being a poetry reader, or to have learned from anything he has read. He is fiercely anti-elitist: “It is unfortunate that there is a great deal of intellectual snobbery surrounding poetry and a lot of nonsense spoken about it.”
There is a lot of potential in his work, in which his faith negotiates with experiences including unfulfilled love, ill-health, the purpose of life, and threats to the environment, but this is all too often betrayed by archaic expressions, predictable imagery, a lack of clarity about issues being raised, and too many poems setting off briskly before keeling over without resolution. Robust editing would have helped, not least in differentiating between “its” and “it’s”. The spirit was obviously willing when Mr Cook took up his pen, but the fleshing-out is extremely weak.
Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.