A Monastery of Light, Sebastian Barker, The Bow-Wow shop, 62pp, £14.99 (hardback) Sebastian Barker is the son of the English poet George Barker and the Canadian novelist and poet Elizabeth Smart. From this extraordinary parentage, a very formidable poet has emerged in his own right. Part of the struggle to ‘become oneself’ began in Greece and this collection of poems charts that progress. Running alongside it, there is the building of a physical house – significant for it serves as a stoker-metaphor for the sublime poetry that is gradually to be forged. In his introduction, Barker describes how ‘with the help of the villagers (of Sitochori)’ the house was built: ‘they and I saw to it that the restoration as done according to the old traditions, I became familiar with every stone, beam, tile, pipe … this was to be my home from home for the next thirty years.’ Then came the visitations. First was Elizabeth Smart and in a moving couplet he remembers his mother in Sitochori:
My mother was still living, when I first came up here alone. She was in bed in the house, with a tray of flowers on her lap.
This is reminiscent of his father’s line about his mother – ‘Gin and chicken, helpless in her Irish hand’ – and there is then George Barker’s own presence:
No hasty metaphysics brought me here.
It was the study of the scholar gypsy, as my father dubbed me,
waiting for the spark from heaven to fall.
With the visits of these two great writers, blessings were bestowed on the Lion House and sparks fell as the newly domiciled Sebastian Barker began to produce poems of local honesty and great lyrical beauty. Appropriately therefore, he toasts his parents early on:
Give me the picture of my father on the wall, and my mother with her
glass of wine, when we were walking tall. O, but not the mortal
O give me a glass of the wine of Taygetos!
As the book moves in sequences across the Peloponnese from Sitochori to Marathopoli and on to Psari, Barker’s poems are highly charged romantic utterances apparently in the grip of an inspired observer. A passionate convert to Catholicism, Barker sees God in everything. At times his poetry becomes a pantheist hymn to Greece and to a familiar landscape where he makes – as Patrick Kavanagh had before him – the universal out of the commonplace. At first, this is put rather straightforwardly, as in this example:
The asphodels are like the silk mantles of the tilley lamp. The breath of
God blows in them and their response is a constant inner glow.
Or again in this:
The ten thousand Stars of Bethlehem open at my feet, close in the
evening,like the cupped hands of prayer.
But later the idea appears in a more inspired fashion:
There’s nothing to match Christ’s blood like the red of the red anemone,
deeper, richer, purer than the illustrious poppy, where dialects of
daisies dedicate the ground. The ground is a tapestry of blue and
yellow, pink and purple, white and green, so intricate no needle
stitched it, nor felicitous hand.
The flowers are the gods of the hillside. The birds are its choristers …
The garden door is open.
And again in this:
This is a place to die for under an oak tree in the Spring. For here God has
extended his hand to help us on our way – kalo taxidi – the vast
orogenies, the millions of buttercups, gently persuading us to see
things more through his eyes.
It is the building of the house over years and the formation of a strong local poetic voice that marks this book as an important segment in the development of this mightily inspired poet. His religious fervour is universally apparent and nowhere more so than in his deliberations on life and death. He seems to equate the two and certainly sees death as a gateway to the redeemer. But he can be querulous:
Tears, because without them, such beauty is invisible. For tears are the
lens-brighteners of the eyes. Through tears we see the true and
everlasting beauty of transient life. For to create life, it is surely
nothing extra to make it transient or eternal
Bringing his family to bear upon the matter, he employs one of his daughters as mouthpiece to voice the tragedy of life:
Death is the answer. Death is in the tears falling down my face when my
Standing in the morning, she asks, looking all around, Daddy, will this
house last forever?
Even in such a mundane event as his entering the kitchen, Barker is consumed by belief:
I smelt the coffee in the kitchen reconfiguring my days. There was bound
less joy in the moment. Nor did I fear to die. Heaven was
in that kitchen and I went in to drink some.
This is, we must conclude, a direct statement of belief in the afterlife. But in spite of these highly charged pieces, Barker is also aware of the realities around him and the local scene:
The old men round the table playing cards at night, have hair as white
as whitewash, and all their eyes were riveted to the science of
Personally, I can’t help but see Cézanne’s wonderful painting of card players here. The image jars with his suddenly noticing NATO planes in the sky, which he sees as ‘guardians of paradise’, the thunderous sublime. At times, indeed, the poetry has a hallucinatory edge, which can be disturbing, as in an almost Dali-like description of a fly:
A massive fly lands on my page and looks at my writing, I see his brain
take it all in …
Or in the Magritte-like word-painting, which is disturbing, but also very beautiful:
The sky is too large for me to sit on the holy hill.
It would lift my brains off in a jiffy, like an eagle lifting fish.
So strapped down by hoops of steel, what can I see in the distance?
Are those merry-go-rounds, by the camel trains on the Silk Route?
Are there children in rabbit fur chasing ducks to a river?
What can that possibly be, but my mother and father joking over
wine in the evening by an open fire?
And who’s playing a piano under the cherry blossom?
Do I see through Greece – through a crucible of holy water?
Yet even in the midst of such visions, it is interesting that his parents are present, as is his son in a later sequence:
I am by the church where my son, Daniel, was baptised; and where I go
Rathana, his Godfather, is the regular cantor, sometimes chanting for
three hours at a stretch.
There are new frescoes on the walls and an iconostasis respected by all.
Athos, the husband of Demitrula, was laid out here, where we all kissed
He was a barber and my neighbour, who delighted in giving me wine. An old brass bell hangs in a plane tree, to summon the faithful to God. In this latter sequence there is again an identification with the real and Barker constantly moves the ordinary into the sublime:
I sit on a stone in paradise … So appoint me a computer to calculate the facts of the matter.
How many lives in the union between the living and the dead?
In the folded strata?
What terror, what adventure, what meta physica, pass through me
into the day-filled night?
Monastery of Light is a collection of poems but also a narrative that persists in the sensations of the line: ‘O for the smell of wood smoke when it comes from the olive tree!’ The book is beautifully designed and produced by Jessica Chaney, limited to two hundred copies numbered and signed by the author. A further fifty presentation copies and review copies are unnumbered. It is a collector’s item, surely?