The Perseids

James Harpur

August 2017

On the plateau of Bosmenditte
we watched the sky deepen
and the last Pyrenean peaks
creeping from the bronze age,
the six of us on the grass,
two lots of parents, two daughters,
assembling chairs and a table,
foraging for rotted twists of oak
to make a fire, a token of the dying sun.
We broke bread on top of the world,
poured red wine into mugs,
and alternated between
the pitter-patter of conversation
and listening to the rhythm
of clonking bells: a group of cows
had gathered by the slope’s edge,
watching us with moon eyes,
their bodies cream-white.
And from a nearby tor
a dozen sheep ambled down,
approached the cows and stopped
like stationary clouds, glowing
in the still-darkening sky, our fire
the sole flickering of movement.
Until a movement on the road
between bushes ― a horse galloping,
then five more, dark brown and tan,
their manes flowing like mantillas ―
they halted opposite the cows
and sheep, and joined the vigil.We lay on rugs on spongy moss
huddled for warmth, heads on stomachs,
our prayers and wishes at the ready.
And nothing came.
The animals entered dark outlines
and constellations marked the bones
of giant mythic beasts and beings,
Cassiopeia and Ursa Major,
Pegasus, Cygnus the Swan.
And still we waited, with nerves
and hearts as much as eyes,
as if we were waiting for new lives
to open up miraculously
or some spark to jolt us
into different ways of thinking.
And as we wondered, ‘Will they ever come?’
three of us shouted, the others
exclaiming ‘Where? Where?’ ―
we pointed to the interstellar spaces
and there, a streak of light, a cry of wonder,
then a rush of thicker light, its wake
fizzing like a rocket’s tail,
a smaller star unzipping a patch of dark.
And on they came, popping up,
as slight as blinks
or like torches of white fire
drawn across the immensity of space ―
as if a veil had fallen
and we were watching
the stirrings of the universal mind,
each cell and synapse and signal
in the firmament of its being.
Up our wishes flew, and prayers, too,
our backs moulded in the mountain top
our eyes filling with endlessness.And in the freckled darkness  
the stars looked down on us
and on the gathering of silent animals,
as if they willed us there, the ones
they had been waiting for,
ensouling the universe
with our thoughts for sick and absent friends
and wishes for uncertain futures ―
the stars saw the meaning of life ―
if only for the time it took
to see and lose a prayer
in our evaporating trails of love.

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James Harpur has had five poetry collections published by Anvil Press and is poetry editor of the Temenos Academy Review and a member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of the arts. His Angels and Harvesters (2012) was a PBS Recommendation and shortlisted for the 2013 Irish Times Poetry Now Award; and The Dark Age (2007) won the Michael Hartnett Poetry Award. Other prizes and awards include the UK National Poetry Competition, the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize, an Eric Gregory Award, and a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. His other books include Fortune’s Prisoner, a translation of the poems of Boethius; and The Gospel of Joseph of Arimathea. He lives in West Cork.

At the heart of James Harpur’s The White Silhouette is a meditative poem inspired by the Book of Kells – a poem that follows threads into themes such as the nature of the divine, the efficacy of sacred art, and the way of silence. The title poem – described in the TLS as a ‘compelling spiritual memoir’ – is a haunting journey of ‘missed encounters’ in the landscapes of Wiltshire, Tipperary, and Patmos. Elsewhere, Harpur writes about pilgrimage, the Perseids, mystical experiences, and icons and iconoclasm – from Rublev’s golden images to decapitated angels in Galway. He complements his explorations of the sacred with more directly personal poems, including elegies and elegiac translations from Homer and Horace.

Harpur’s poetry is distinguished by its lyric grace and mytho-historical resonance. The musical texture of his lines conveys the warmth, clarity and intimacy of a voice exploring the mysteries of natural, human, and metaphysical worlds. The White Silhouette is the richest summation of his spiritual journey to date.

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