A world bathed in luminosity


POETRY: JAMES HARPURreviews AfterlifeBy Pádraig J Daly Dedalus Press, 100pp. €12

THE AUGUSTINIAN priest Pádraig J Daly shows in his latest poetry collection that the ceremony of innocence is far from being drowned. He takes us into a world of simplicity and honesty, where the myriad acts of living are celebrated for themselves.

The fast shutter speed of his imagination extracts and makes us linger on otherwise missable details from the quotidian: “a girl running, losing a heel, / A dog chasing pigeons from a tree” ( Pause); “She is bringing biscuits / Wrapped with ribbon, / A block of marzipan, / A blouse she bought / And never wore” ( Passenger).

At first sight it is a world bathed in the luminosity of a golden age, where the glasses are not merely half full but every sip is instantly replenished. Human warmth and merriment are manifest: “She enters, turns to him and smiles” ( Time of Peace); “She is taking the train / To visit her sister / . . . Smiling for happiness” ( Passenger); “We hear you laugh from the meadow” ( Sadhbh, Aged 4).

To some readers Daly’s declarations of faith in the joys of living may seem too roseate, too retro-ingenuous; but his poems about nature, birds, water and, especially, children, and the evident tenderness with which he enters their world, are a salutary reminder of Matthew 18 (“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”).

His theology is the book of life, or living, rather than the formulas of the Fathers. His faith is sustained by his witness of the human condition – “A sick woman reaching out of pain, / A child’s smile like a sacrament” – and his hope of a world to come. It is hard to imagine Daly having a full-blooded dark night of the soul; nevertheless, Psalmcomes as something of a refreshingly chilly douche after the occasionally cloying sunny prisms of happiness: “I have forgotten all my joy. / I walk a track by a grey river, / Knowing I must plod monotonously on.”

Daly’s own empathy with children, and their idiosyncracies and minute discoveries of existence, is clearly a path, ever renewed, leading him to a sense of the divine. That children should be at the dark heart of the recent Ryan and Murphy reports on the church must have dealt a deep wound. In two short poems he responds to the reports, the first an acknowledgment, the second an atonement. Daly’s plain style chisels out a fitting lapidary nostra culpa:

We huddle in our upper room,

The doors bolted,

For shame at our betrayal

Of all that is tender.

To our place of infamy, come,

Jesus, come.

– In the Light of “Ryan”

For a book entitled Afterlife, its contents are overwhelmingly of this world. Yet a number of (moving) poems about the death of family members and friends usher the reader to the most ambitious sequence in the book, Imaging an Afterlife, a kaleidoscope of 16 short sections in which the poet pictures different scenarios beyond the grave. Hell is conspicuous by its absence as the verse rotates a number of celestial scenarios and images, from feasting and dancing, the company of friends and the sight of roses to the smell of fresh bread and jasmine, and being bathed in divine light. Genuine vistas of transcendence and mystery (“By a wall of the ruined farmhouse, / He found a single horse, / Waiting diffidently”) are sometimes offset by quaintness (“the mirthful throng”) and slot-machine phrases (“the plains of our joy”, “thoroughfares of requited hope”). Yet the poem shows Daly pushing his imagination beyond the constructions of memory, tackling the unknowable rather than the known. This suggests a future direction; and I hope, too, in his next volume he will also dig deeper into his own darkness, the Jungian shadow – the crisis of faith, the despair at monotony hinted at in Psalm– to give greater balance to his welcoming realms of light.

James Harpur’s latest volume of poetry, The Dark Age, won the 2009 Michael Hartnett Award. His other books include The Gospel of Joseph of Arimathea(Wild Goose), an interior account of the gospel story