The White Silhouette

From The White Silhouette

 For John F. Deane

‘There went a whisper round the decks one morning, “We have a mysterious passenger on board.” … Often I thought of that rumour after we reached Jerusalem  … When I saw the man all in white by the Golden Gate carrying in all weathers his lighted lamp, I always thought, “There is a mysterious pilgrim in Jerusalem.”’

Stephen Graham, from With The Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem (1913)


I thought we would meet in a holy place

Like the church in the hamlet of Bishopstone

Empty on a Wiltshire summer’s day

The trees full of rooks and hung in green

And the stream in the meadows a rush

Of darkling silver beneath the bridge

Where I saw my first kingfisher flash

Its needle, leaving its turquoise stitch

In my memory. And I would sit

In the church and close my eyes

And wait in vain for something to ignite,

And wonder whether this was my life

Wasting away in my mother’s home.

Sometimes I’d bring Herbert’s Temple

And read the quiet order of his poems

And picture him, as once he was glimpsed,

Hugging the floor in his church at Bemerton

Asking love to bid him welcome.

I sat with an upright praying disposition

Preoccupied in self-combing

Too callow and spiritually impatient

To notice if you had slipped in

As a tourist to inspect the choir or font

And buy a picture postcard and sign

The book with ‘lovely atmosphere’;

Or as a walker taking refuge from rain

Or a woman primping flowers by the altar …

 (To hear James read the whole of this poem on the UCD Poetry Archive, click here)


 Angels and Harvesters

from Angels and Harvesters


As thoughts arrive

From god knows where,

Or sun breaks through

A fraying cloud

Emboldening a patch

Of trees, or grass,

They just appeared

From nowhere

Among the harvesters

The field a world

Of cutting, gathering,

Cutting, gathering.

Their outlines sometimes

Flickering brighter,

They walked between

The bending figures


Pausing to watch,

Like ancestors

Almost remembering

The world they’d left,

Or foreigners

Amused to see

The same things done.

They moved around

Unseen by all –

Unless one glimpsed,

Perhaps, light thicken,

A glassy movement,

As air can wobble

On summer days.

And then they went

Walked into nothing

Just left the world

Without ceremony

Unless it was

The swish of scythes

The swish of scythes


(To hear James read this poem on the UCD Poetry Archive, click here)


 The Monastic Star-Timetable

from The Dark Age

 ‘On the holy night of Christmas

When you see the Dragon above the dormitory

And Orion poised above the chapel roof

Prepare yourself to sound the bell.’


Darkness freezes round me in the cloister.

The vellum words and stars inflict their patterns

Whispering like the ceaseless prayers we send to God.

No one must lie asleep who must protect the world.


‘On the festival of Saint Germanus

Look for the jewel of the Archer’s arrow

Hanging above the middle of the tower:

That is when to start the night-time hymns.’


The stars are our seasons, the keys of our prison:

Winter snowfall, glittery scatterings of spring rain

The globes of poppies in the harvest fields

The dying meteors of copper beech, oak and elder.


‘On the day of the Lord’s circumcision

When the bright star in the knee of Artophilax

Is level with the corner of the dormitory

It is time to bring the taper to the lamps.’


The thrill of live flame! A writhing spirit,

The chapel like a soul skinned with gold.

This is the light I seek beyond the constellations;

O lux aeterna, burn off my crusted life!


‘On the feast of our beloved Saint Agnes

When you see the Virgin’s spears rising clear

Above the space between the sixth and seventh windows

Make ready for the sacred office.’


I dread nights of fog, mist, vapours, cloud

The clinging absence, the separation from God.

Lord, how long before a star expands inside me

Flooding my soul and flesh with gracious light?


‘On the feast day of Saint Clement

Orion will rise above the end of the refectory –

But wait until you see the sword and scabbard

Before you wake the brethren.’


So many nights I have waited before eternity

Listening for music, looking for meaning,

But all I’ve felt is the dark between the stars, my heart

Beating, like a bell, the phrases of mortality.


(To hear James read this poem on the UCD Poetry Archive, click here)


Kevin and the Blackbird

from The Dark Age

 I never looked, but felt the spiky feet

Prickling my outstretched hand. I braced my bones,

My heart glowed from the settling feathered heat

And later from the laying of the eggs

Heavy, as smooth and round as river-rolled stones,

Warm as the sun that eased my back and legs.

When I heard the cheepings, felt the rising nest

Of wings, the sudden space, the cool air flow

Across my fingers, I did not know the test

Had just begun – I could not bend my arms

But stood there stiff, as helpless as a scarecrow,

Another prayer hatching in my palms –

Love pinned me fast, and I could not resist:

Her ghostly nails were driven through each wrist.



Cranborne Woods (17 May 1994)

from Oracle Bones

(For my mother)


We stopped the car, ducked below the fence

Felt time unravelling in a revelation

The seconds fall and scatter into thousands


Of tiny saints, a reborn multitude

Flowing past the trees, through pools of sun,

Each earthly form a spirit flame, pure blue.


They watched us drift among them, large as gods,

As if we’d come as part of their parousia

To stay with them forever in these woods.


As time grew darker we slipped away like ghosts

And slowly drove … towards your death next May

When once again I saw the risen host


Could watch you walking weightlessly among

The welcomers, the gently swaying throng.


(To hear James read this poem on the UCD Poetry Archive, click here)


 My Father’s Flat

from The Monk’s Dream


Tugging apart the curtains every day

He always saw, three stories up, a grand

Sweep of the Thames, the trees of Battersea


And, squatting there, the Japanese pagoda –

Inflaming, a parody of a bandstand,

Its four sides flaunting a golden Buddha.


It glowed like a lantern near the glitzy braid

Of Albert Bridge at night.

                                    If he had crossed

The river he might have heard Renounce the world


Escape the gilded lips or seen Gautama lying

In mortal sleep, his face relaxed, his flesh released;

Even in death, teaching the art of dying.


At night, across the river two golden eyes burn

Into the heavy velvet of the curtain.


To hear James read this poem, part of the sequence, ‘The Frame of Furnace Light’, on the UCD Poetry Archive, click here)



A Vision of Comets

from A Vision of Comets


The flight was delayed.

Outside, the night sky was clear,

And the land that had received the sun all day

Now slept in silence.

It could have been a Greek island

Or the new land of America.

He was returning home, for good, or for bad,

And the welter of accumulated memories

And friendships loomed up from the pit

Of his stomach in sudden queasy waves.

Time tickled on and passengers sat in rows

Under the flickerings of neon

Slowly numbing themselves to the worry

Of wondering when the flight would flash up.

Eventually, sunk in the midst of

Painful feelings of regret and loss,

A sense of peace overtook him,

An inner inexplicable assurance

That his journey home was right.

He felt suddenly at ease and, turning round,

Saw people rising as one from their seats,           

Quickly assembling their luggage and moving

Towards the gate for their departure.

He went back against the flow to find his bags

And say goodbye to those who had been his intimates.

Strangely, as he approached the place he’d been,

He saw what seemed to be starry darkness –

As if the wall had melted away –

And people vanishing into the fringe of his eyes.


He somehow knew the young man who stood there.

It must have been outside for the darkness

Stretched all around sealing the horizons.

He approached the man, who pointed to the sky,

And there, igniting the dark in golden sprays,

Eight glowing comets moved softly through the night,

Slowly rising, turning, dipping, gliding

Like gilded dolphins hooping through the ocean blue.

Their tails, from which auras of sparkle

Would fizz and fade, were interwoven and moving

As if guided by an intelligence,

As if the comets were on the kite strings controlled

By this young man as he moved his hands.

Then the comets began dissolving –

Yet their particles realigned and coalesced

Into luminous strokes with dots and squiggles –

And he realised they were giant words of Hebrew,

That they were telling him what his purpose was,

What his mission was on earth.



    Home    Biography    Novel    Books    Poems    Talks    Contact