Angels and Harvesters, James Harpur (64pp, £8.95, Anvil)


James Harpur's fifth collection patrols the boundaries between the numinous and the everyday, the spiritual and the banal, the angels and the harvesters of the title. As before, the poems are set in an unashamedly religious, transfigured landscape, but do not simply repeat the epiphanies and explorations of his earlier poems.


Earlier volumes such as Oracle Bones were filled with lengthy monologues from monks and Middle English churchmen of the past; Harpur's second collection, 'The Monk's Dream', followed this by including personal fragments tracing memories, such as those occasioned when parents die. In this new collection, there is again a more insistent personal note, such as in the two brief school poems, 'Dormitory', where the dominant note is nostalgia, all Radio Caroline and the 'Crimean beds' of boarding.


Harpur still provides plenty of examples of landscape description, here in two winter landscapes, 'Christmas Snow' and 'The Falcon Carol'. The former seems the more effective of the two, risking a lot on the falling lilt of repetition as the narrator scans a myriad of ordinary lives: 'icing knifed on marzipan / in kitchens dimming into evening'. A celebratory poem, the panoramic eye here recalls some of Auden's roving 'hawk's eye view' poems of the 1930s. 'Monte Cassino in Kerry', by contrast, settles on a painting as symbolic of the long years of a marriage unravelling. Cassino itself is a relic, but so is the painting, an iconic 'survivor of a world closed off', it is 'a witness to itself', of wartime horror, but ultimately it becomes 'a curio / of history', imprinted with memories, death and grief, reflecting the emotions of the painter, Harpur's father.

In these poems, Harpur is scrabbling around among the ordinary debris of lives, and the resulting pieces are carefully modulated and elegiac; in the second section of the book, however, longer poems return to the mystical figures of the past - Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich - and one gets a sense that he has been here before. Having said this, also within this section are a number of poems that seem replete with explorations of conversion experiences and religious epiphanies. 'The Pram-Pusher's Tale', for instance, is one such, a long monologue about the experience of 'drowning in radiance' which happens and then, just as soon, recedes, leaving 'a reservoir of peacefulness', but also a return to the banal 'pramful of anxieties. A kind of pavement mysticism is explored here, a new note for Harpur, a long piece not lacking in momentum and power.   

The best pieces in this book still take place in a more recognisably religious landscape, however, and the title poem, which recalls for me Roger Wagner's painting 'The Harvest is the End of the World and the Reapers are Angels', plays with images of harvesting and angelic visitation. There are powerful antecedents here to this sort of metaphysical playfulness - Marvell and Donne - but the poem ends on a genuinely haunting note:

      Éand then they went

      walked into nothing

      just left the world

      without ceremony

      unless it was

      the swish of scythes

      the swish of scythes'

The challenge facing Harpur is to retain the otherworldliness of the earlier voices from his previous volumes and develop further the newly-personal tang of some of these poems. In some ways this volume resembles A Vision of Comets
, his first collection from 1993, but in other ways this collection seems to suggest a writer in transition; where he goes next will be interesting.

            © M.C. Caseley 2012