The Land of Gold
For all our dexterity with the language, we just don’t produce poets with the voice of Sebastian Barker in Ireland, whose death coincided with the publication of this outstanding volume, a hymn to life, to death, to Greece and, above all, to love.
The key to the distillation of this immense work, (with frequent revisiting, if not the metre, then the themes), is Barker’s illustrious predecessors, two English poets who straddle both the first and second Romantic movements, Byron and Blake, rarely in history appearing in the same sentence – having so little in common.
The magic in Barker’s poetry, which often mists into and out of prose, has roots in both – though not exclusively – with the visionary Blake complimenting the empirical Byron: if you concocted a child that was half-Byron and half-Blake, the result would be either a prosaist like Patrick Leigh Fermor or a poet like Barker.
There are, upon a first reading, immensely rich pickings in The Land of Gold by Barker, who at least lived almost twice as long as Byron, and with whom he shared a fascination with Greece – modern and old – and a capacity to look upon love anew.
The Land of Gold is divided into four sections: ecstasy and impending loss; poems through the prism of southern France; despair and existence and, finally and gloriously, redemption in Greece. Barker is incapable of writing a boring line because life never seems to be less than infectious. He is a master of all styles and, apropos of my opening line, he can summon the ghosts of Blake and Rimbaud to add the archaic to his palette, with a nod to the architecture behind Ginsberg’s Howl, constructing gloriously ripe versets which, in the hands of anyone but a master, would fade after an initial flowering.
‘A leaning monk looks over a porphyry front, and there is a body floating.
Propped on beds of amaranth and moly, the Lotos Eaters sing the song of melancholy.
Clouds die in the blueness. The curious vine climbs the yellow trellis to watch.’
(from The Tablets of the Bread)
The lines have the zeal and the drive of a modern O Wild West Wind: Barker is a poet not content to be obsessed with nature, but charged with a joy to revisit and re-invent. And yet, for all of the colour and the lightness and the giddy rhyming, The Land of Gold is a paen to melancholy. The poet, who died from lung cancer, never shied from contemplating mortality (‘the waves of the sea hurry in one direction’) but, fortunately for us, he brought to the page, as a noted Hellenophile, his love affair with life, which never, in these pages, wavers.
‘Here is the garden of the poem,
The place where love and language meet,
What was language of us and them
Has become the contemplative seat.’ (from The Garden of the Poem)