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Contemporary poetry by Jay Hulme, Paul Scully, James Harpur, and Kim Taplin

by
22 April 2022

Martyn Halsall reviews contemporary poetry reflecting on faith

ISSUES of identity permeate these four poetry collections; of being trans, or from another geographical culture, labelled saintly, or writing from a varied biography. Together, they argue for acceptance, of whom God has made us, and who we are becoming.

Jay Hulme celebrates, as a trans poet, a radical reformation from atheist upbringing to adoption by a welcoming Christian community. Isolated as a “Plague Christian”, reliant on a stolen Bible and the telephone numbers of four Christians “who happened to be queer” but locked down miles away, he wrote the poems published as The Backwater Sermons. These were first laid out before the altar of the Leicester church that became his spiritual home. They are poems of Christian cost and determination; of enlightenment and encouragement.

Optimism, spiced with humour, seasons many of these poems written from the front line of isolation. The small and immediate animate these “sermons”; a boy on his bicycle “flushed with fear, and joy”, a man risking his health with obsessive mowing, and the funeral parlour “busy these days” in “The Only Shop Still Open”. Hulme grants spiritual consolation within desperation at the beginning of the pandemic: “The world is paused. Death stalks the streets on wisps of breath. Our homes are our refuge and our jailers.” Meanwhile: “I’ve been wondering about angels, recently; / how are they coping, with the influx?” For those who might struggle with poems such as “Beatitudes for a Queer Church”, Hulme offers a postscript: “If you consider queer-affirming Christianity ‘heresy’, that is your problem.”

Paul Scully appears to follow the verbal song lines of his fellow Australian poet Les Murray in his longer, denser poems in The Fickle Pendulum. This takes reference from a quote by Philip Yancey: “Doubt always co-exists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?” Lives of the faithful doubter St Thomas, daring scientist Galileo Galilei, and the poet and theorist Laura Riding inform many of these poems.

Poems about St Thomas add layers of imagination to explore and decode ascribed texts and events. Humour and vivid imagery enliven theory. Long poems set Galileo in atmospheric context while also re-setting his ideas within later science. Scully’s densest writing, and most difficult reading, engages with Laura Riding, who, ironically, rejected poetry in 1940 as insufficiently precise for the ideas that she wished to illustrate.

He adds vivid autobiography, as in “A Chorale of the Savanna”:

The waterhole at dusk is a gravity of thirst,
a regalia of species in the reeds, a nerve
arcing to the throat-song of lions: wariness,
the pulse of animal calm.

James Harpur also used the restrictions of the pandemic for imaginative exploration, writing from St Columba’s native Ireland of both the saint’s travels and teaching, reflected in the contemporary Iona Community. He sets The Oratory of Light “in the spirit” of the saint, in a Celtic world in which the miraculous is everyday, and 21st-century spiritual bereavement would appear faithless.

Harpur begins his collection on his own pilgrimage to Iona, while also using a range of writings about, or ascribed to, Columba, often within the haunting context of exile, and often in short lyrics imbued with longing:

I love Derry for its peace
And all its purity;
And for all the angels on each leaf
Of every oak tree.

Harpur’s eighth poetry collection wears its wide reading with the lightness of a pilgrim’s backpack and, like a still pool, repays repeated readings, and reflection. His option of the persona of a Columban monk in some of these gently challenging poems adds to the sense of walking with Columba in a parallel period of loss and change.

It would be intriguing to know which poems in Kim Taplin’s scrapbook of poems were written during which of his listed occupations: teacher, supermarket assistant, parish priest, lavatory cleaner, public-school chaplain, and car-park attendant. This debut collection wanders too widely, without direction or argument, and its range of styles illustrates a search for a convincing purpose.

Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.

The Backwater Sermons
Jay Hulme
Canterbury Press £10.99
(978-1-78622-393-7)
Church Times Bookshop £8.79

 

The Fickle Pendulum
Paul Scully
Interactive Press £12
(978-1-922-33266-0)
*available from ipoz.biz

 

The Oratory of Light: Poems in the spirit of St Columba
James Harpur
Wild Goose publications £7.99
(978-1-84952-790-3)
Church Times Bookshop £7.19

 

Warp and Weft
Kim Taplin
Aspect Design £7.00
(978-1-912078-07-3)
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

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