Visions of Light Plucked from an Age Rashly Called Dark
A Contrary review by Grace Wells

James Harpur has undertaken a brave and unsung journey. Immersing himself in the dusty, even dowdy, ecclesiastical material of the Dark Age, he has brought back from that “unenlightened” epoch poems that capture an enticing esoteric essence. Harpur hasn’t flown off from familiar Dark Age notions: he’s quick to state the sentiments that root his characters,

		That my kneeling naked, impotent, in caves
		Would freeze my lusting for her innocence.
		The more I purge myself
		The more the specks crawl out
		Like ants I stamp to death in rage —
		How can God love my shrinking flesh,
		My frailty, lack of constancy?

Harper uses these abasements not only to ground us, but also to give us perspective; the leaps to faith, the moments of grace and enlightenment that follow are all the more effective. 
Harpur has St Symeon Stylites, the pillar hermit, articulate,

		Most days I think I’m split in two.
		A spirit yearning for the light,
		And a body of delinquent appetites

and by exploring the biographies of Stylites, of Irish saints, a cast of monastic characters, and a selection of translations from the work of Boethius, Harpur manages to both illuminate the shed skins of human longing and craft spaces of solid light. 
While many esoteric and “self-help” writers divert their energies toward self-abnegation, instructing we leave down our suffering as if it were an unnecessary garment on the path to the divine, Harpur asks us to examine suffering more fully, to look for the gifts it offers. Harpur moves through the earthly matter of human being with an absolving touch. What creates the grace in his Saints’ lives is loneliness, physical pain, fear of dying, homesickness, lust; beneath the stones of endurance, behind the rocks of duty, in the grip of pain—in all the places modern man has been taught to flee, and yet will always dwell because of the nature of earthly life—there is God. 
Nonetheless the presence of divinity within The Dark Age is tender, subtle, Harpur is not proselytising. And if the force of “God” is present throughout, it’s mostly through the inexplicable process that brings the supernal into art, sewing itself through the poetry with a gilt thread that makes Harpur’s words sing.
Harpur becomes architect and builder of a house deep in the landscape of the mysterious. Here he designs walls to enclose solidities, there, unexpected windows provide bursts of luminescence, or allow we look out onto the shining unknown. Harpur gives us darkness and light, storm and shelter, the one articulating the other,

		My prayers were sucked from me and overnight
		God’s love descended like a snowfall.

Throughout there’s a distilled wisdom:

		Hell is stasis, keep heading for the sun
		And when you reach the light, sail on, sail on.

The only disquieting note is that the collection, which is divided into four parts, opens with a short section of Harpur’s autobiographical poetry. Although they are fine poems, there are only five of them. Is this too few or too many? Their presence engenders dizziness; a lack of solid flooring, there’s a sense of imbalance, as if Harpur the man is crowded out by his Saints. Yet careful reading reveals bridges between the two worlds, and though Harpur is far too modest to ever suggest himself for sainthood, there’s an informal parallel, which restores humanity to the Saints and serves to make all our small lives glorious.
Harpur has moved back into the Dark Age to bless Christian roots, to soften the edges of that era’s harsh reputation and expectations. Time traveller, he does not return empty handed, he delivers not only a purity of vision but forgotten teachings on stillness and compassion that lie deep in “Western” tradition. Though early in his long and magnificent poem, ‘St Symeon Stylites’, Harpur has Stylites cry out, “Forgive me Lord –/I think I hate my neighbour”, he concludes the work by seeing those who come towards him, 
		Peasants and emperors, the lame
		On Stretchers dragged by mules,
		Astrologers and priests and monks
		Merchants and soldiers, prostitutes—
		Bearing the burden of their lives.

		Each one of them is Christ
		Walking alone through fields of wheat
		Or by the Sea of Galilee.

Reviewer Grace Wells is a British poet living in Ireland. Her poems have appeared in the Autumn 2007,  Spring 2007, and Winter 2006 issues of Contrary.

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The Dark Age
by James Harpur
2008, Anvil Press
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | spring 2008

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Gobnait’s End  |  James Harpur

Nine pure white deer would mark my bed of earth,
The angel said, and my rising into glory
But not on Inishmore.

				Afraid of death
Wondering what devilish trick could blanch deer
I left to flee the ending of my story,
Those bloodless creatures sucking on my fear.

I tried to slip my fate in woods, strange valleys.
I chanted, prayed to slow my heart, but still
I heard the pulsing of mortality.

Until that snowing day near Ballyvourney.
I almost missed them standing by the hill.
White against white
			nine curls of breath.
						The journey

Stopped. I kneeled. Thanked God. Shook off the fright.
Then rose up in the glow of falling light.