A Monastery of Light

Sebastian Barker

The Bow-Wow shop, 62pp., ISBN 978-0-9575289-0-1, hardback, £14.99.

Sebastian Barker is the son of the English poet George Barker and the Canadian novelist and poet Elizabeth Smart. From this formidable parentage, a very formidable poet has emerged in his own right.

Part of that struggle to “become oneself” began in Greece and this collection of poems charts that progress and also alongside it, the building of a house. The building of the house is significant for it serves as a stoker-metaphor for the sublime poetry which is to be forged.

Barker describes in his introduction to the poems how the house was built – “with the help of the villagers (of Sitochori), they and I saw to it that the restoration was 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 30 years.”

Then came the visitations, first Elizabeth Smart - 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..

How reminiscent of his father’s line to his mother –

Gin and chicken, helpless in her Irish hand ...

Then George Barker’s 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.

So with the visits of these two great writers, blessings were already bestowed on the Lion House and sparks indeed fell as the newly domiciled Sebastian Barker began to produce poems of local honesty and great lyrical beauty.

But first, he toasts his parents:

Give me the picture of my father on the wall, and my mother with her
glasss of wine, when we were walking tall. O, but not the mortal
O give me a glass of the wine of Taygetos!

Barker’s poems are never dross, they are highly charged romantic utterances almost certainly in the grip of an inspired observer, as the book moves in sequences across the Pelaponnese from Sitochori to Marathopoli and on to Psari.

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 before him – the universal out of the parochial; at first in a rather straightforward way:

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...
The ten thousand Stars of Bethlehem open at my feet, close in the
evening, like the cupped hands of prayer ...
but then again in a more inspired way
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

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 through his eyes.

But the building of the house over years and the formation of a strong local poetic voice is what marks this book as an important segment in the development of this outrageously inspired poet. Yet his religious fervour is universally evident and none more so in his deliberations on life and death; he seems to equate the two, he certainly sees death as a gateway to the redeemer, but he can be querulous,

... For to create life, it is surely
nothing extra to make it transient or eternal ...

Again bringing in family, he uses one of his daughters as mouthpiece to voice the tragedy of the whole thing:

Death is the answer. Death is in the tears falling down my face when my
daughter appears.

Standing in the morning, she asks, looking all around, Daddy, will this
house last forever?

But even on 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 a direct statement of belief in the afterlife.

In spite of these highly charged pieces Barker is also aware of the realties around him, 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
the game..

I can’t help but see Cezanne’s wonderful painting of card players.

And again,

The cars wind up and down the mountains stitching families together.
I have been family-bound on that charm bracelet in so many countries!

But then suddenly he notices NATO planes up in the sky yet sees them as guardians of paradise, the thunderous sublime.

At times, indeed, the poetry has an 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 ...

And then Magritte -

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?

Disturbing, but also very beautiful.

Yet even in the midst of such visions, it is interesting that his parents are a part of it and later in another sequence his son:

I am by the church where my son, Daniel, was baptised; and where I go
to Mass.
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
him goodbye.
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. It is as if, almost as in a chess game - Barker constantly moves the ordinary into the sublime.

He sums up his situation well –

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 ta physica, pass through me
into the day-filled night?

Monastery of Light is a collection of poems, a narrative, that I am sad to get to the end of; I wanted it to go on forever; perhaps it will when I sense and re-create 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 and is limited to 200 copies numbered and signed by the author. A further 50 presentation copies and review copies are unnumbered. A collector’s item, surely?

Shaun Traynor
London Magazine
Autumn 2013