Blessings of the beginner's mind


POETRY:IN A RECENT INTERVIEW James Harpur proclaimed himself to be a “born-again agnostic” who also happens to be a “proactive spiritual seeker”. Much of his poetry is prompted by this quest, which takes him on pilgrim routes through places of association with Christian history and tradition.

This is more than an agnostic’s fascination with holy sites and “spiritual seekers” of the past; it is poetry that moves well past the more usual treatment of these subjects to give us a sweep of references, as well as refreshing and refreshed perspectives, a different angle, you could say, and one that sometimes blends erudition with lyrical audacity:

I’m looking at a dream

Cut from someone’s sleep and pressed

On vellum like a transfer;

Or a swathe of skin assaulted by

A mad tattooist . . .

– On First Seeing the Book of Kells

Like Harpur, the American poet Jane Hirshfield is also a seeker, a poet whose questing journey has now been charted in several magnificent and distinctive collections that bear the influences of her engagement with a different tradition: Zen Buddhism. She has in fact been praised by Czeslaw Milosz for her ability to illuminate “the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness”, a quality that stands at the core of her work, giving it its charge and scrupulousness.

While their work has these differing provenances, both poets could be said to be inward-looking, each of them in search of that “slowing down of time” that allows us to move into another world, as Harpur suggests in Tobacco, Psalms and Bloodletting, another of the poems in Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 64pp, £8.95), his new collection.

Thought and expression move in fluent harmony; the serenity that hovers over a Hirshfield poem is matched by the controlled tonal range that Harpur has made a signature of his work.

Where he is explicit, she tends toward the allusive and allegorical; she might well concur with Dylan Thomas’s view that a poem is like a city, it has many entrances.

Unlike Thomas’s, her poems speak quietly. She opts for the paring down of language, forming it into taut lines of suggestiveness and gracefulness. Her poems are acts of contemplation. She favours the deep image, and there is balance and order in her orchestration of those images:

Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,

right solitude oils it.

How fragile we are, between the few

good moments.

– Vinegar and Oil

In Harpur’s case, the casual ease of his poems can be deceptively low key, but he is always sure of his direction and takes us there in the company of his considerable poetic gifts, commanding our attention all the way.

He comprehends the mystic without being mystical: the harvester of the collection’s title poem simply

Walked into nothing

Just left the world

Without ceremony

Unless it was

The swish of scythes

The swish of scythes

In a reimagining of his school days in Dormitory, he retrieves a time and a place in a series of striking images that concludes:

Later, the moon pours in and makes

things marble

And boys as peaceful as they were in


Lie dreamless as dogs on medieval


The striking image is his forte; he is a poet for whom “everything flows / in shapes and textures, shades and brilliance”. Having already written one of the best poems about rain (Roscommon Rain in The Dark Ages), he now gives us one of the truly great poems of recent times in his Christmas Snow, a tour de force that echoes Joyce’s lament at the end of The Dead that “snow is general all over Ireland”.

Whether it’s a visit to the osteopath, to the Book of Kells or to a graveyard (where he inhabits the voice of an old soldier remembering old wars), there is in all of his poems the same direct, and accomplished, response to experience.

Hirshfield’s work has a mysterious quality that is uncompromising and challenging but rich in its detail and single-mindedly attentive in its focus. Though her quietness of voice might suggest otherwise, her poems have weight, and her riddles contain real and hard-earned insights that coax us towards and into the poems.

Her Buddhist affirmations have depth and wisdom to them, qualities exemplified in poems such as The Pear and many of the other short lyrics in Come, Thief (Bloodaxe, 104pp, £9.95).

In a quote derived from her understanding of Zen philosophy, Hirshfield once remarked that “one marker of good poetry could be that it returns its writer, its reader, to a beginner’s mind”. Not dissimilarly, Harpur, in Deserted, writes: “My heaven is a stripping of the mind.” These two very fine poets know that a “beginner’s mind” and clearing an imaginative space are essential prerequisites before they venture into what Harpur calls the dark beyond the light.

Gerard Smyth recently received the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the University of St Thomas in Minnesota

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