Kevin and the Blackbird

from The Dark Age

 I never looked, but felt the spiky feet

Prickling my outstretched hand. I braced my bones,

My heart glowed from the settling feathered heat

And later from the laying of the eggs

Heavy, as smooth and round as river-rolled stones,

Warm as the sun that eased my back and legs.

When I heard the cheepings, felt the rising nest

Of wings, the sudden space, the cool air flow

Across my fingers, I did not know the test

Had just begun – I could not bend my arms

But stood there stiff, as helpless as a scarecrow,

Another prayer hatching in my palms –

Love pinned me fast, and I could not resist:

Her ghostly nails were driven through each wrist.


          © James Harpur 2008      


from The Dark Age


The naked hermit, cliffs of ice, the cold,

The island of the saints emerging from

Black fog as light, its shore of powdered gold


And apples ripening in every orchard

The youth who welcomed each of us by name –

These died around the settled fires of Clonfert.


But Judas on his rock, wind-burnt, stripped wise,

Writhing above the slaughter of the sea

Remains pristine inside my deepest darkness


His eyes alert for the approach of demons –

I see them glowing as when we rowed away

And hear his voice above the raucous ocean,


‘Hell is stasis, keep heading for the sun

And when you reach the light, sail on, sail on.’


    © James Harpur 2008          

My Father’s Flat

from The Monk’s Dream


Tugging apart the curtains every day

He always saw, three stories up, a grand

Sweep of the Thames, the trees of Battersea


And, squatting there, the Japanese pagoda –

Inflaming, a parody of a bandstand,

Its four sides flaunting a golden Buddha.


It glowed like a lantern near the glitzy braid

Of Albert Bridge at night.

                                    If he had crossed

The river he might have heard Renounce the world


Escape the gilded lips or seen Gautama lying

In mortal sleep, his face relaxed, his flesh released;

Even in death, teaching the art of dying.


At night, across the river two golden eyes burn

Into the heavy velvet of the curtain.


    © James Harpur 2008          
    Magna Karistia

 from Oracle Bones


‘I leave parchment to continue this work, if perchance any man survive and

any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which

I have begun.’        Friar John Clyn, Kilkenny, 1349


 Lord, your work is now reversed.

No cockcrows spit the bloody dawn

Wheat whispers like fields of glittering wasps

The fruits of orchards hang down

Fat and untested...we crumble to the dust

From which we were once born.


How can all this dying bring redemption?

How will you burn us into angels

With skin of gold of the light of sun

From blackened bodies dumped in wells?

Forgive my doubts of heaven

Amid the sweet miasma of this hell.


Who will survive to shoot memories

From age to age like swallows

Joining distant countries?

Who will preserve fire, earth, snow

The first green shivering of trees

The flow of pilgrims to the Barrow?


The reason that you made us –

Surely – was to witness your creation?

Without us what will be your purpose

As you walk around your garden

In eardrum-silence, echoes

Of the hooves of Death spreading on


And on – each night my sleep is beating

Over what my being has amounted to

Beyond cold vigils, chanting

The isolation of beatitude

Always giving thanks and never doubting

Why so much of it was due.


I gave my youth to find your paradise

Within this cell and cloister

Now every little sacrifice

Flares and rages – has stripped me to a pair

Of jittery fiery eyes

Skidding off corpses everywhere.


Lord, for years I have been dying

Leeched white by sterile days,

Lacklustre nights; instead of trying

To exorcise the haze

Of tepid piety – instead of crying

Out for grace, I mouthed your praise


While desperate to feel your fire in me,

Yet dreaded it, resisted till the kiss

Of apathy

Or warm embrace of fickleness

Would welcome my return to the

Familiar chapel of my emptiness.


You could have driven me pure

Transfigured me with light – one vision

Just one! would have made me sure

This life of yours was really mine.

Each day, like a dog, I waited for

Your unmistakeable sign


And now it comes – as flaming blood

Distilling fear to keener fear

And no escape; no ark bobs on the flood

Of this fetid waveless atmosphere –

The dark age has come – God

Deliver me, prepare


My soul...the world’s light darkens,

The future tunnels to the past.

This blank paper is my afterlife, a token

Of the hope I’ve lost.

Lord start again. Make the earth

Afresh from this

                       Great Dearth


    © James Harpur 2008          

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