Sebastian Barker, The Land of Gold (Enitharmon Press, 2014).
by Ian Hunter
How sweet is the custom of the barefoot walk in the beach, so
Nonchalant by the branches of palm trees, shaped to make shady
Shelters, as the white sail of a yacht perfectly investigates the
For the time comes, when going for a walk is a thing of the past.
So writes Sebastian Barker in his poem ‘On the way to Kyparissia Beach and Back’, a journey where he notices everything, every little thing and appreciates it, nothing is too small or insignificant to escape his gaze and be commented on, noted, described, linked to other parts of this walk. He knows, one day, physically, he will not be able to make this journey at all, but there will be one final journey waiting for him.
Barker was born in 1945, and died in 2014 at the age of 68, from a heart attack only a few days after an event to launch his latest collection, The Land of Gold. He was the author of fourteen volumes of poetry as well as three collections of philosophical, theological and cultural essays. He was Chairman of the Poetry Society between 1988 and 1992 and was a Hawthornden Fellow, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and as well as being a writer-in-residence, he was editor of The London Magazine from 2002 to 2008. Towards the end of his life, he was wheelchair bound and had been suffering from incurable lung cancer, the shadow of death trapped within his body and permeating his later work, but not completely, for while acknowledging that death was his constant companion, the poems collected in The Land of Gold are life-affirming, taking stock of what was all around him and giving thanks for it.
The Land of Gold consists of four distinct sections. The first is ‘Under the Elderberry Tree’ made up of 18 poems and ‘Scorpio Rising’ which contains ‘Ten Zonulets’, which Barker derives from the noun ‘zonule’, being ‘a small zone, a band, or area’. Thus we have little playful snapshots on the art of poetry, life and death, love, sex, sleep, and the moon. Some profound, some slight, almost throwaway observations, like a literary one-liner, particularly about the nature of CVs and their mapping of a life. Of course, what poets know best are poems and the ‘art’ of writing a poem, and Barker does what so many other poets have done before him and turns the trials and tribulations of composing and improving his verses into the poem itself. He describes this process right at the start of his poem ‘The Critical Faculty of the Poet’:
Improving what was previously better
None too sure of what it wants to put
Collapsing truth by pulling out a letter
And lamenting music by cutting off a foot.
The poem goes on to describe a series of actions that sound more like GBH or an actual physical assault on his own composition until the critical faculty wins the day, at least until next time. In other poems in this section, Barker himself is the subject of the poem as in ‘The Poet’s Body’ where he imagines himself lying in state in a glass cathedral, the skin and bones of his body almost gone, except for a network of nerves, strings that his life played on, his poems the music that they made:
The human harp
On which the hand of poetry
Plucks each word by the altar.
In other poems he draws inspiration from everything around him, and regrets that they will continue, when he will not be here to appreciate them. Though he is far from being maudlin or sentimental, his poem ‘Skellig Michael’ about the fate of the monks on Iona when the Vikings land, ends with an impressive line that can induce an almost involuntary shudder in the reader, as if they are trying to ward off the dagger just about to be slipped between their shoulder blades. Many of his poems are song-like in construction, particularly ‘Scarlet Rose’, dedicated to the grand-daughter he never met, who died just before her birth. Simple and heartfelt and perhaps envious of the journey she has taken.
Scarlet Rose Scarlet Rose
Out of the darkness, look how she glows.
Finally, ‘In Basho’s Hut’ with the wheel of a starry night overhead, and perhaps also with the liberation of some wine, Barker connects with the 17th century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho and together they connect with God, two sailors separated by centuries but connected by the rivers of life and poetry.
The second section of the collection is The Land of Gold where 19 poems are laid out in sparse, incisive terms, little nicks of truth that start with the life that swims through, or darts above, or surrounds ‘The Fertile Pond’. Nature also inspires the subject matter of ‘The Houses Resting on the Hills’, but on a very micro-level with the wonder of wasps and berries and leaves which are as important to Barker as the stars in the sky, though not as great as love. This admiration of nature in its smallest forms fills the title poem The Land of Gold and not many poems will contain a line like “and bounce and bounce and bounce and bounce” to describe the effects of a storm of hailstones. Some of the poems in this section are darker in theme, reflections on the sins of man, or those done in the name of religion in ‘The Crime and the Cloisters’
The principle of black despair
The slaughtered bodies everywhere.
Section three, the shortest part of this collection is entitled ‘The Tablets of the Bread’, comprising 7 stanzas whereby the first page is an introduction to what follows, setting out the rules of the game. For what does follow is almost like a commentary to a major sporting event, a clash of the titans. Life verses Death, the eternal battle. Or, perhaps, a wrestling match that never ends, a boxing bout that goes on and on with no final bell, a race – not a sprint – but the ultimate marathon. Like the Knight playing chess in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, or even like those lesser heroes, Bill and Ted, playing The Reaper at Battleships and Twister on their bogus journey, Barker is the champion of life, gleefully trumping Death by revealing another card and another. Death can stunt and stop, but Life will always find a way:
An old man wore sunglasses because death was dazzling, but an old
Woman swept by on roller skates, hand-in-hand with
Wisdom, to show what wisdom is.
The last part, a section nearly fifty pages long, could, for other poets, easily have formed a collection in its own right. This section is titled ‘A Monastery of Light’ or ‘The Sitochori Poems’ named after the village in south-west Peloponnese. Inspired by the Greek poets Barker bought a ruin there in 1983 for the princely sum of £780, a place which had been lying derelict for 60 years. Barker then restored it using the “old traditions” and with a lot of help from his neighbours to work on the stones, the beams, the tiles, the pipes and the wiring and he became intimately familiar with the house. He lived there on and off for the next 30 years and became increasingly influenced by the long lined poetry of the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, a Nobel Prize winner. Yet although he may have been influenced by the past, he was also inspired by the spirit, his own and others – the spirit of those who dwelled in his house before him and the spirits that infused the surroundings in this ancient land, a gift from the gods channelling through him and on to the page, a gift that could not be refused or denied, when the spirit called, you had to answer or the moment was lost.
This section is an extended love poem to this village, its way of life and its surroundings. First is the poem ‘Sitochori’ comprising of 14 parts spread over 12 pages when the story of the house restoration merges with everything and everybody, the season, life and death, the locals, their traditions, history and myth and legend, all of it is here in these 12 pages. This is then followed by poems on such simple subjects as walks to the beach and back, and what lies in between, or walks on tracks through the orchards, looking out over stunning, wavering sea views and graveyards, but more importantly, the miracle of leading such a life, being allowed to lead such a life, even latterly in the shadow of death, then there is no more for Barker and from Barker, not in this life, because he has moved on, sailing on a boat of light, out of the darkness.
It seems a miracle they are there
And so it is
For man to be born, and to live, in such a place as this, is indeed
This becomes more obvious, the closer you are to death.