The Examined Life, by James Harpur, Two Rivers Press, 95 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 9781909747876
In his foreword to James Harpur’s new collection of poetry, Stephen Fry observes that for many readers, memories of childhood, especially those of private elitist education, should be “firmly off limits”. He “heaved a regretful sigh” on first receiving Harpur’s manuscript – a collection in five sections, each inspired by the poet’s five years as a teenager at Cranleigh, an English boarding school, from 1970 to 1975. But, Fry continues, as soon as he began reading the collection, he quickly realised it to be “[a] quite marvellous work … an Odyssey”.
Unlike Fry, I didn’t approach The Examined Life with trepidation. On the contrary, I was thrilled to receive a copy from Two Rivers Press – an inventive publishing house based in Reading in England – and was more than delighted to be whisked back to the 1970s and the boarding school days of James Harpur’s teenage life, which he so skilfully depicts.
Harpur is one of the finest poets writing in Ireland and I have long been a fan of his poetry, distinctive for its lyric grace. It’s also possessed of a clarity of voice which is warm, enormously intelligent and often very funny. I’d already encountered some of the poems from this collection when they were first published in Poetry Ireland Review some years back, and had also heard a selection of them being read by Harpur on RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany. Three of the poems had been included in Harpur’s previous collection, The White Silhouette, published by Carcanet in 2018. All of my encounters with these new poems by Harpur had instilled in me an overpowering urge to read more of them.
And sure enough The Examined Life, once arrived, failed to disappoint. Here are poems which are beautifully crafted and searingly honest, depicting not only the poet’s years in school, his friendships and experiences – often very funny – but also his parents’ separation and the profound effect that this emotional event had on the teenage Harpur, coping with leaving home for the first time.
The poet Dennis O’Driscoll once said that what we want from poetry is heartbreak. The power of Harpur’s poems lie in their ability to bear witness to this heartbreak. The very first poem, “Telemachus”, is painfully revealing. His mother knocks on the young James’s bedroom door to explain that his father “wants to take a break from us. / You know he loves you.” But her son instinctively knows “That Dad had long since sailed from Ithaca: / and ‘only for a bit’ would mean ‘forever’.”
This is a carefully balanced collection and it’s a relief to the reader that the hurt of “Telemachus” is placed side by side with “Scholarship Interview”, a poem which is comic and poignant all at once, capturing perfectly the innocence of the bewildered boy facing the intimidating school interview panel with their “semi-circle of unhooded eyes”, and their bizarre questions, including one about what Harpur would do if given a single shoe.
They will me on
as if I were a toddler trying to stand.
‘I think I’d put it in the rubbish bin.’
A sigh-witheld silence before they scratch
a saltire beside ‘Imagination’.
There follows the rough and tumble of school life in poems which are all perfectly pitched. There’s the sleeping in dormitories: “Someone is tuned to Radio Caroline / and earplug-deaf intones a nasal chorus / ‘I hear you knocking but I can’t come in’ / sniggers beget sniggers, a sleeper burbles, / I want to fall somewhere else, like Alice.’ There’s the lonely urge to call home in “The Payphone Trap”, where we read of one poor boy, “his face ghoul-lit behind the quad’s grey glass / gulping at the familiar; and soon / his parents turned up from his nursery past / removed him smoothly as an ambulance.” There’s the brutal mayhem of dinners: “Salt up! Butter up! Now! / Pass the fucking ketch!’’ There’s the disaster of a Latin class in “Terra Incognita”, where the master asks who can tell him what the word vagina is. Frustrated by their silence, he “chalked up what we longed to know, and there / revealed at last, the mystery of woman: ‘Noun singular feminine first declension.’”
There’s hilarity to be found too in the larger-than-life depiction of matron with her “ward-sister-white coat”, her “tent-peg nose” and the “trapdoor laugh of a marionette”.
And of course, it’s the seventies throughout this collection, filling the pages with the energy of this time – garish food, flared jeans, Led Zeppelin, Harpur’s crazy ride on his wild older brother Monty’s motorbike. But it’s also the time of the Troubles, the horror of his girlfriend’s father, Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, being killed by an IRA bomb in 1975: “I felt as if I’d lost a dad / again – the listener / I’d never really had; / a soulful empathiser.”
The poet’s best friend appears throughout this collection too and is the inspiration for many poems, the most touching of which is “Jonesy”, which celebrates the fierce connection that often characterises teenage friendships. They dream in school of “unexamined lives worth living”, are embodiments of Plato’s idea that “the gods split people when they’re born”. Tragic then, the conclusion of this magnificent poem – the adult Jonesy on a train, “his face the level of the window glass / reminding me again his wheelchair / has claimed him as its other half.”
This collection is quite brilliant – oscillating as it does between the comic and the tragic, rife as it is with nostalgia, in the very best sense, for a particular period in the poet’s life that has now quite gone. And throughout, Harpur takes guidance from the world of Troy. The Examined Life begins with a father leaving the family home in “Telemachus”. Fitting then that it ends with the poem “Ithaca”. It’s the final day of Harpur’s school life: “the chapel roars ‘Jerusalem’ / me and Jonesy side by side / for one last time.” Impossible here not to feel for the poet, who like Odysseus, has travelled far and, when bound for home, puts “his baffled hands on shoulders / of comrades he’d never see again. / Amen.”
Enda Wyley his published six collections of poetry, most recently, The Painter on his Bike, Dedalus Press. She is a judge for the International Dublin Literary Award 2021 and a member of Aosdána.