This volume stand out from many collections of modern poetry in its willingness to go beyond the here and now. In some respects it is a return to the metaphysical tradition, though the poems here lack the sinuous complexity of Donne and the piercing lyricism of Herbert. But how could it be otherwise? Karen Hayes is turning her eyes skyward after nearly four centuries of spiritual atrophy. True, there have been exceptions, the visions of Blake and of course T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets standing solemn and monumental; but neither a vital influence on the contemporary scene.
Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ is Hayes’ point of departure, a poem that registers the loss of faith and the need to connect to something greater than ourselves. Hayes’ ‘At the Cathedral’ captures something of Larkin’s offering, particularly in the descriptions of architecture and accoutrements, but in her account the dead do not nudge us to wisdom, they are the sharpness of pain and loss. A contrasting poem is ‘Ralph,’ for me the most moving in the volume. Here nature transmutes grief into the glory of the garden. There are historical poems like ‘The Women Who Shaped the Church,’ redeeming those who helped to make history but were then forgotten by it, and seemingly pedestrian poems, such as ‘The Twelve,’ which convincingly fuses aspects of Christianity with the workings of the judiciary.
Hayes is extraordinarily receptive to the whispers and ripples of the great unknown. It was easy for the metaphysicals. They believed and had the rich expressions to go with that belief. Anyone today who wants to grapple with the divine is faced with the enormous task of overhauling the language, of stripping it down and retuning it to the heavens. On the evidence of this collection, Hayes has made a good start.
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. His research mainly lay in three areas, the history of literary criticism, the workings of class in British literature and the persistence of sacrificial ritual in the development of drama. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has also edited two volumes on the history of British poetry as well as the three volume Wiley Encyclopaedia of British Literature 1660-1789. He hates management speak, has been involved in amateur theatre for over thirty years and is still trying to write poetry.
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