Default Publishing (2006) 38 pp.
By Michael Murray
It is pleasing that people still wish to write like this. Even more, that people can still be found to publish it. There is a sense of freedom here, of a person writing what they want to write, irrespective of market forces, commercial constraints, critical fads.
In a determinedly prosaic and non-religious culture, to acknowledge a capacity and need for the sublime can be seen as heroic, or foolhardy. Or both.
Of our levels of self awareness, from meerest opinionated, through educated opinion, the visceral inscapes of belief, the switch-back nature of knowledge and certainty, a sense of the sublime can seem little more than a throwback to more primeval times.
Yet time is illusory. But still we insist on it for our justifications. We sense change, process, duration…. Is this time?
Martin Burke attempts sublimity. He is precise: it is not the ecclesiastical sublime of the beatific saints. He begins Psalm 1: “Faith/unfaith’. And already the nature and path is indicated: believer and lapsed believer; ecclesiast and free thinker. We are not dealing with classical logic’s square of opposition, but with shades of contrast, which illumine as much as occlude, each other. Just as later we come across the formulation “the acknowledged/the denied” where to deny is first to acknowledge; the currents that run under thought are as relevant as the thought, even though their expressed form can be wildy at variance.
“Faith/unfaith: is further elaborated upon by the following line: “No church but that church in Crete” – an immediate refocus: Christian, and Greek Orthodox. But note, it is “that” church, that is, a personal, private, reference. We don’t need to know the personal follow-up because the intent is with the Hellenic context. There are references to Ithaca: these are as much Homeric as Christian contexts. The tonal range allows echoes of the Homeric hymns and the ‘Lament for Bion’.
He also references Caedmon’s hymn, but does not evoke the knotty tangle of that language. He references Spenser’s splendid ‘Epithalamion’ with his “Flow, sweet waters, flow” and, beyond Spenser to the original in the Christian hymns: “I have wept by these waters”.
To approach the sublime Martin Burke has to strip away everything that would tie down, hold back: particulars of place, people, personality even. He gives us the basics: the time is Easter, but the Easter of the Resurrection; he gives the place: Bruges, that beautiful city, heart of Catholic Flanders.
He gives us the traditional Christian image of the river, that is, the life of faith. It is a Platonic Ideal of the river, and not the choked, effluent ridden flume of the Rhine that flows through Belgium.
He uses the image of the bride and bridegroom, deeply Catholic, to encapsulate the longing for union, interpreting personal integration as spiritual quest. The bride is beautiful, that is all: personality, quirks, underarm hair, all sublimated. The bridegroom is “ready”. These are the sole requirements; we are not to judge by our disappointments, betrayals, but by our moments of wonder, yearnings. Yes, there are socio-cultural constraints; yes, this is a gender mine-field.
What Martin Burke is asking of us, is that we allow him to manipulate these images, like tarot cards, so that they tell us more than the sum of their parts.
The overall music of ‘Psalms’ is the cadences of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, the tone is Rumi’s ecstatic verse, as translated by Nicholson. There is certainly a Nineteenth Century feel to the imagery; it is in the etiquette, the demeanour, of the syntax. But without the mannerisms. The language is scrupulously clean, the tone articulate and reasoned:
“Yet beauty remains and is always present
Her name is never far from my mouth though I cannot name her
Except it is with words such as these
And those to which they are allied.” (p17)
The reference to Spenser calls on the hymnal tradition he utilised. This also looks forward to Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, which is essentially atheist in sentiment. It is Neo-Platonism unites ‘Psalms’ and Shelley. Martin Burke also calls upon pagan belief of the Goddess. This mixture of Christian and pagan also brings in another element of Martin Burke’s language, the use of the imagery and tone of ‘The Song of Solomon’
‘Psalms’ is in three parts, in effect three psalms. Psalm 1, beginning “Faith/unfaith: dealing with more numinous matters; Psalm 2, beginning “April, April in Flanders” I find the most satisfying; Psalm 3, beginning “Night time”, and using the device of ‘night thoughts’ in the tradition of Edward Young perhaps
You can order a copy of Martin Burke's Psalms from Default Publishing. Click here to visit their website.