From the Archive
Editor’s Choice: Sebastian Barry’s shortlisted poem from a 1975 competition and his Brian Moore review from 1985
Sebastian Barry in 1997, when he won the Ireland Funds Literary Award of £10,000. Photograph: David Sleator
Sebastian Barry’s latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is reviewed on Saturday by Denis Donoghue, but he first made the pages of The Irish Times in April 1975, when his poem was published as one of the runners-up in a poetry competition for under-21s won by one Aidan Mathews. Another poem was published later that year. Ten years later, he reviewed Brian Moore’s Black Robe.
From The Irish Times, Tuesday, April 22nd, 1975:
POETRY COMPETITION: Competitors had to be under 21; and there was a large entry. The final short list as printed here reveals a certain conservatism. The prize has been awarded to Aidan Mathews, 69 Ailesbury Road, Dublin 4
Sitting in an armchair I recalled
the cloth-like heat of summer,
the room with its pencils sharpened
looking out on the waving garden
with a seat of blue,
where I could rest upon a colour
and wood hid, a soft secret;
the dividing hedge and rose-bush
a wind-rolling shape or
rambler with his thorns;
green apples on the tree’s tapestry,
the artist’s proud eccentric fruit
brought in his rosy age
in boxes to his house;
the brick house,
the hot granite ledges,
jars upon them, late of jam,
to tempt and tune the wasp;
and I could smell it all
like an ordinary man.
This was lovely childhood,
the garden of my grandfather.
From The Irish Times. Friday, December 19th, 1975:
Can I Defy ...
Can I womb-insect time defy
steal back our beauty, butterfly?
No, you are made for the dawn’s
I with this sun cease to crawl.
Weave ‘away on dappled wing
before a cruel lie of love
pin your body to a sonnet
then carve with guilty explanations
never-fading scars upon it.
Leave me, now to fed the soil, be
quick before mad love goes
casting cries to ease his pain,
climbing hills that he might sight
through the morning mist again.
From The Irish Times. Saturday, June 1st. 1985: The Jesuit Father and the Savages, Sebastian Barry reviews Black Robe by Brian Moore (Jonathan Cape, £8.95)
THERE ARE FEW writers willing, even when able enough, to set off on virtuoso, taxing journeys. It is cheaper and more reassuring if certain clays remain his or her domain, and it is less frightening to pace the boundaries of an often excellent garden.
Brian Moore has earned great thanks from the impressed membership of his special Geographical Society. In this new book, “Black Robe,” carefully produced by Cape, he has set off again, alone in the manner of writers, and fought his chapters and his newly-placed themes in the bonds and carriages of his desk.
He has brought back a smoothly-readable, important story, that brings one into a white, unbewildered country whose markings are mainly trees. Across this severe he has charted the honest struggle of a French Jesuit, Father Laforgue, to resist the emptiness of the Canadian wilderness, and fill it with his god before the newness fills him. As the story belongs to the seventeenth century, the complexity of the priest’s impulses and beliefs are brought forward by the simplicity of his trappings. Clothed in his robes, carried in his canoe up an immense, undressing river, he is more naked than the Savages he has come to save.
He is forced to encounter matters that do not greet him, affairs of the forest that are turned from him and imperiously hidden. He knows nothing of the place he enters, and it mocks his omission. He has his slipping cargo of Jesuitical doctrine and his own protected faith, but without the definitions of his home-place, and his mother and his superiors and the ordinary landscape of France, he finds everything he understands under a white, simple attack.
Under this weight his sexuality pulls forward and momentarily overcomes him – he watches his boyish companion, Daniel, making love to an Indian woman, and allows himself to be voyeur rather than admonisher.
* * *
BRIAN MOORE keeps out of his invention, and lets Father Laforgue fend and argue for himself, just as he lets the Indians go their own way and speak as they wish, too. We have only Father Laforgue’s mind to guide us, and he is generally lost, and only the familiar difference of the Indians otherwise.
The latter use a forceful, scatological language, not unlike a group of Dublin people when they are alone and not subject to the paradoxes of politeness. They curse each other and insult each other agreeably, never taking offence – rather Dublinish, up to a point. So it is especially interesting to follow the colour of this folded story, because the Savages are more truly ourselves than the colonial priest, and he is alien.
The Indians are fated to have their own definitions scoured out by the advance of the wilderness of Father Laforgue’s civilisation. They understand the character of the snowed-under country, and the strong trees, and the edible animals. He, pious, under temptation, and gentle, does not. They can see, normally and without mumbo-jumbo, the spirit of death when she comes and stands among the trunks; he is pathetically, as far as the Indians are concerned, blind to her. It is therefore no wilderness to them, and they are not Savages to themselves. They are the same pattern as Father Laforgue, but only in metaphor, and he is not capable of such metaphor so close to the picture , and nor are they.
The tragedy is, Father Laforgue has the power to make this alien place familiar (“the fucking Jesuits were the real rulers of this country,” as a French trader thinks to himself), in the absolute, exacting spirit of a seventeenth-century religious man.
He notices other Frenchmen have become half like the Indians (they already have a similar scatological addiction). Some appear to have metamorphosed entirely – as Daniel too does eventually, but under the paradoxical simplification of a promised Christian marriage. Laforgue is miserable about this – he fears it for himself too. Though he is metaphorically already and always the same, he knows it would destroy him to be the same in fact. And since he thinks it is his life’s purpose to toil, away from the familiar, even to be a martyr with his name on the calendar, he cannot leave, and return himself to himself, but he must fashion this new place into his old place.
He does not realise that this will nullify the Indians, he does not even know that the epidemic, which decimates the village at the top of his journey, has been brought there by a Jesuit like himself. He is circumstantially ignorant and disastrously purposeful, despite his suspected weakness. His gestures to save himself , or rather that unfashionable foil, his soul, will mean the dumping of everything that implies meaning to the Indians. The assertion of his soul, among souls of another belief, will negate the multitude, and purify his.
He is not sure if the conversion of the Indians to Christianity can make them have Christian souls. He is sure of little. An admirable, perilous man.
* * *
THE STORY, THEN, is about how man in his own place is integral and “native” – an Indian to his own India – and about the doomed impulse of any one kind of native thinking he must save another type from their difference, which is really his difference.
As for the Savages , we can safely claim them as our own race in a number of respect: they ritualistically torture each other when they are of separate tribes and happen to meet, hacking off fingers and burning other limbs. Perhaps their promiscuity is not immediately similar, but the piety of the Irish Savage is probably an imposed one – Saint Patrick’s offering to the Indians of our very other place. We are these Savages in Brian Moore’s book, but post-Laforgue. Neither one thing or the other, neither profoundly clinging on like the gray priest, nor any longer what we wish to be like the Algonquin or the Huron, we can read hear with sorrow for civilised Europe, and sorrow for our post-Laforguean selves.
The book is powerfully paced, though possibly the second section is hurried. The main narrative plays a dangerous, confident game between diction and tone. Father Laforgue surrounds himself with a styled, clean diction, its snow hiding the troublesome traps and roots. The Indians speak as if Father Laforgue is translating them as they go along, as indeed he is doing, most of the time. So the book has its linguistic signposts, and is as true as it can be to them.
The writer’s own interest in and allegiance to both sides is energetic and original, his acceptance of both priest and sorcerer as equal things, poignant and special. There is no attempt either to denigrate or glorify – Father Laforgue has his moments of masturbation and the Savages have their friendly, beshitted talk. It is so honest a book that in claiming its own new territory, it surveys it without prejudice or empiricism , and gives it the means to a name.