TOWARDS the end of The Heart of Things, Richard Holloway quotes a Russian proverb: “We are born in an open field and we die in a dark wood.” If this is — as one suspects — Holloway’s final book, that proverb encapsulates both his honest and often disconcerting determination to stay with the realities of life, as well as his insistence that such a life must be alert to metaphor, even (especially?) when one has abandoned God or God has abandoned us.
The Heart of Things is, most of all, an invitation to enjoy Holloway’s “commonplace book” or “miscellany”. In short, it is a deeply personal collection of poems, images, and quotations, as well as recollections gathered over a lifetime. It is an anthology that will speak tenderly and sometimes searingly into lives that have more past than future, more memory than promise. It is also a book for all who are living with loss as a result of the pandemic, which, I guess, is all of us.
Each chapter takes a deep dive into timeless and ever timely themes: “Passing”, “Mourning”, “Warring”, “Ruining”, “Regretting”, “Forgiving”. This book, then, gathers words of power and passes them on; these are words that have shaped, inspired, and challenged Holloway over his 90-plus years, and he offers them to his readers as a gift. This book delivers poetry from masters of regret and longing such as Louis MacNiece and Eavan Boland, as well as thinkers who (rightly) trouble Christian complacency, such as Nietzsche and Weill.
Those of us who have travelled with Holloway on his journey towards a kind of hopeful atheism, rich with the echoes of myth and faith and fate, will be unsurprised that he rehearses his well-known and well-made arguments about sexuality, dogma and the limits of religious narrative. He is surely right to say that when religion loses its sensitivity to the poetic, it tends to undermine itself from within.
What felt fresh about this anthology is the depth of his vulnerability. He wants to treat with the fact that soon he shall die. He calls Jesus a “soul-poet”, whose “poem for us was called ‘Forgiveness’”. Holloway’s wrestling with what that means for him as death draws nigh is deeply moving. He closes with one of his own poems, in which he says: “Now as my own life / spools its last reel, / I’m still not sure / if Someone was behind it.” None the less, he closes in affirmation: “But wasn’t it great / the show. . . it was, it WAS!” His final word is “AMEN”.
This is an immensely readable book. It would be possible to read it in a single sitting, but to do so would be to misconstrue the riches on offer. If this book is Holloway’s final gift to us, it is a beautiful and generous one.
Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
The Heart of Things: An anthology of memory and lament
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