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Poetry review: Thomas Lynch, James Ramsay, Ben Simpson, David Campton, Richard Bauckham, and John-Paul Flintoff

by
31 March 2023

Martyn Halsall reviews contemporary poetry of faith and searching

DEATH has sustained the life of Thomas Lynch, the American undertaker whose poetry bridges the Atlantic. Bone Rosary, which combines work from five previous collections, published across some 30 years, with 42 more recent poems, is a celebration of a well-written life, combined with elements of eulogy, and obituary.

Duty and devotion award Lynch also significant footnotes in Ireland’s recent poetic history. He walked with Seamus Heaney to the burial of Dennis O’Driscoll, whose taped conversations with Heaney became Stepping Stones, effectively Heaney’s spoken autobiography. All too soon afterwards, Lynch escorted Heaney’s body from his adopted home in Dublin to his funeral in rural County Derry, where the Nobel Laureate grew up as a stockman’s eldest son.

Lynch pays tribute to Heaney in his poem “St Kevin and the Temptress”, but other echoes are included, as in “Another Miracle”, which reflects off Heaney’s poem “The Skylight”. Intriguingly, both these poems are founded on the faith that Heaney, once destined for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, claimed to have rejected:

and everyone among us needs someone
to open ground or tend a fire at the end,
to get our bodies where they need to go,
and pray the pilgrim soul safe home again

as Lynch writes in the Heaneyesque compound of method and analysis in a poem about a Highland gravedigger.

Faith, for Lynch, is wired into his work, and yet set alongside the crises in his professional and personal life which transformed him to a literary hermit, when he strung hollowed marrow bones, prepared for his dog, into the “bone rosary” that he draped from a lakeside derrick in Northern Michigan, to which he retreated to concentrate on later poetry.

“The poems here”, he writes as an Introduction, “. . . are connected to that spiritual life, their faith claims are in the life of language and in its power to make us known to one another and to ourselves.” Strangers to Lynch’s work will find Bone Rosary an eloquent introduction, while enthusiasts will find new wonders in his evening eloquence.

Although James Ramsay’s Monuments to a Stolen Revolution are grounded in his experiences as an Anglican chaplain in Bucharest and Sofia between 2002 and 2005, they reflect contemporary issues in both Romania and Britain. In each, “the [Covid] pandemic has spotlighted the wealth inequalities, infrastructure weaknesses, and high-level shenanigans that were easier to ignore under ‘normal conditions’,” he writes. His poems are “verbal snapshots” from a fluid frontier as a Communist past was hijacked by a capitalist mirage.

Telling details are translated through personal reactions, fusing faithful observations and deep sympathy for those stranded, like decaying landmarks, amid poverty and lingering corruption. With journalistic skill, Ramsay summarises complex issues as well-observed parables:

A pensioner
at the crossroads
sells handfuls of young
nettles tied with string.

Or, watching a funeral procession from a bus:

I have a privileged view
of the unlidded coffin:
aquiline nose pointing
above the number plate
to a fibreglass sky. . .

Ramsay awards dignity to all he observes, like “the (mostly) cheery one-legged beggar”, and the boy who “sleeps on cardboard/ under a green and white/ tablecloth . . .” near the British embassy. This album of “verbal snapshots”, illustrated by his wife, Celia Ward, is a fluent and compassionate collection.

Ben Simpson provides elements of autobiography, ranging from a gap year in Patagonia to parish life in Oxford, in his Collected Poems and Meanderings, dedicated to his late wife, Georgie, “her work and vocation”. Poems, introduced in prose, range widely from theological reflection on the nativity and its contemporary celebration to memories of historic injustice revived by an old school magazine, or a farm worker’s life conjured by his old coat, “with its chunky weave/ its blotches and stains and unfashionable style”.

Simpson writes in varied forms, echoing Coleridge, adopting a triolet to celebrate butterflies, or in stately rhyming stanzas to honour “Our War Dead”. He understandably concedes that parish life for a priest’s husband in a Church that was yet fully to adopt and value the vocations of ordained women led to some poems containing “an element of anger, suppressed frustration and disquiet”. From a rich biography, including farming and academic administration, Simpson’s poems offer careful phrasing, tolerant argument, and humane delights. Evocative illustrations by Agim Sulaj, ranging from a South American gaucho to an African bee-keeper, enhance Simpson’s reflective and yet probing writing.

David Campton includes interesting thoughts on the nature of poetry and prayer among the 60 poems that he labels Doodlings and Doggerel. A Methodist minister in Belfast, he notes that his poems are often

Found, unlooked for,
When searching under clutter,
For something else.

At a meeting of Methodists and Quakers, he finds:

Worship is not a matter of words and music,
And prayer is not a retreat from the world,
But an active interweaving of heaven and earth. . .

Campton’s poems reflect this, often based on alliances of faith and concerns for social justice.

The 100 poems of Tumbling into the Light by the Cambridge theologian Richard Bauckham feel something of an anthology by a writer still exploring assorted styles without yet having discerned his individual voice. Bauckham cites various influences in various ways, from Wordsworth (amusingly) to Eliot (over-ambitiously) via Arnold (combatively). He can be tempted into over-writing in the pursuit of the over-Poetic, which dilutes his work into the whimsical, as in “Our winter praise, our faery liturgy/ dances like fiery sprites before God’s throne.” Elsewhere, astute observation and interpretation show rich potential.

John-Paul Flintoff developed his Psalms for the City from dropping into London churches after therapy sessions that followed a breakdown. The resulting poems, and his equally individual illustrations, celebrate a journey of searching, and acceptance by various faith communities, transforming hesitancy into confidence, and restraint into creativity.


Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.

 

Bone Rosary: New and selected poems
Thomas Lynch
Bloodaxe Books £14.99
(978-1-78037-618-9)
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

 

Monuments to a Stolen Revolution and Other Poems from Bucharest
James Ramsay
Small Stations Press £8.99
(978-954-384-130-1)
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

 

Collected Poems and Meanderings
Ben Simpson
D’Avila Illustration Agency £9*
(978-1-3999-1103-0)
*available from info@ocsg.uk.org

 

Doodlings and Doggerel
David Campton
New City £6.50
(978-1-905039-54-8)
Church Times Bookshop £5.85

 

Tumbling Into Light
Richard Bauckham
Canterbury Press £12.99
(978-1-78622-436-1)
Church Times Bookshop special price £10.39

 

Psalms for the City
John-Paul Flintoff
SPCK £14.99
(978-0-281-08604-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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