review by Liam Guilar
These books consciously situate themselves in the tradition of Christian poetry in English, although Aiken’s posse leading Jesus (128) has nothing in common with the speaker of Mathew 25:31-46 except a name. Both poets write memorable lines and images and both, in different ways, force their readers’ attention on to the books’ content.
Satan Repentant is divided into five books of short poems and each book is introduced by an ‘Argument’. These are prose summaries of the poems. Aiken’s control of the narrative across the poems is excellent. The poetry doesn’t need the prose, and the prose makes the poetry redundant, but the duplication keeps the story at the centre of the reading process while removing any possibility of narrative tension.
As a prose story the book reads like an entertaining graphic novel. Satan decides to repent. God insists he become human and live a ‘good life’. The denizens of hell and the hosts of heaven try to stop him. They test and torment him. There is a confused apocalypse.
At which point this review could stop. Poetry can be praised as entertainment.
However, Satan Repentant signals its desire to be taken seriously. It is a narrative poem, in English, about Satan. It begins with an untranslated line ascribed merely to ‘Dante Alighieri’. The substance and structure evoke Paradise Lost. Aiken rewrites some of Milton’s famous lines. There are passing references to The Book of Job, and the Model Reader has the biblical knowledge to understand the circumlocution of ‘Esau’s brother’s stair’ (80).
The book has been taken seriously. On the back cover, David Malouf describes it as ‘a tour de force’. Putting Aiken in the company of Milton, Mary Shelley and Blake, he praises the ‘great intelligence and wit’ with which it takes on ‘some of the abiding questions – moral, social, theological – at the centre of our culture’.
I suspect readers will be split between those who enjoy the story, and those who try to take it seriously.
The problem facing the latter is evident in Aiken’s treatment of Mother Theresa (58-61). She is not only in hell but ruling a corner of it. He calls her ‘the virtuoso of sadism’, ‘the all-mother / of suffering’, ’the nation of suffering’ (58), the ‘awful God-witch’, ‘matron / of undue suffering’ (60). She feeds on the souls of millions of babies. She is mating with the council of Elvira, ‘All nineteen bishops and twenty-seven presbyters’ (60).
One could ponder why, of all the councils of the Church, Aiken chose this obscure one. After attempting to visualize the mating, one might pause to consider his judgement of Mother Theresa. Whatever that judgment is, it is neither measured nor rational and is buried under the excess of its expression.
For Satan’s observations about life on earth to have any validity, the world he lives in has to be credible. But earth is presented as a place of unrelenting misery where all humans suffer because of religion. The secularization of society since the eighteenth century and the secular atrocities of the twentieth are ignored. The real test of Satan’s pride should have been his discovery that with only fifteen per cent of Australians attending church at least once a month, he and God have become an irrelevance. 
When Satan arrives at his great revelation, the narrative collapses thousands of years of philosophy and theology into trivia.
After committing murder, Satan has preached a similar message to fellow prisoners (98-9). The claim that doing ‘what you will’ will put an end to suffering is bizarre, especially when preached to an audience of convicted criminals. Satan’s studies in religion and philosophy should have alerted him to the fact that defining ‘the best’ and reconciling it with ‘what you will’ might be a problem.
Perhaps the anti-climax is deliberate, but the irony seems lost in the book. Satan repentant’s ‘Do what you will, you don’t need God’ is the message Satan unrepentant was making in the first place. It’s easier to read Satan Repentant as an exuberant parody of poetry that takes itself seriously than it is to take it as a serious contribution to centuries of theology, philosophy and theodicy.
James Harpur’s The White Silhouette deliberately situates itself in the tradition of Christian lyric poetry. Like so much of that tradition it explores the complexities of personal belief in such a way that a reader with no interest in Christianity can still enjoy the poems.
Harpur’s strength lies in creating images that invite reflection without dictating conclusions: ‘I heard staccato prayers, like nails / Banged in, as if to board up windows’ (33).
However, there’s a didactic strain to the writing that might grate on some readers. The last section of ‘Kells’, the second part of the book, is a lecture on creativity no less a lecture because it is put in the mouth of the muse speaking to the poet. The move toward the generalized and epigrammatic is not always successful. Statements like ‘Imagination is nothing but / the recollection of the holy’ (60) are obviously not true.
The sequence ‘Kells’ is the heart of the book. Each of its four long sections explores ideas suggested by The Book of Kells,mixing the voice of the poet who is writing a sequence about The Book of Kells, with historical and fictional speakers.
‘Gerald of Wales’ (56-64) seems to be exploring the role of sacred art and its ability to ‘suffuse us/with a sense of the beyond’ (57) although it drifts into a consideration of the conflict between worldly and spiritual success.
The majority of the piece (59-64) is a monologue spoken by Gerald of Wales (c1146-c1123). Harpur’s practice can be illuminated by five lines:
The second and third lines are adapted from Gerald’s autobiographical writing. The image might be Gerald’s, but Harpur has selected, condensed and used it to represent not only the narrative of Gerald’s life, but to offer a critique of that life. The story of the illumination of the book (59-60) is also Gerald’s, but in retelling it Harpur has turned it into poetry.
However, tact and humility are not words associated with Gerald of Wales. In this poem ‘he’ speaks lines that are hard to reconcile with his own writing and what is known about his life, nor would he accept the simple distinction between personal spirituality and public success that Harpur uses him to personify.
In another section in ‘Kells’, Harpur invents words for ‘Scribe B’, but except for his existence, nothing is known about ‘Scribe B’ and the unacknowledged but skillful integration of medieval texts gives that poem an appearance of authentic speech.
But Gerald is well known. He is one of the most autobiographical and opinionated of medieval writers. Should a writer pull a name from history and use it to represent beliefs, attitudes and values the historical owner of that name would not recognize or accept as their own? If Aiken’s Satan is not credible because the world he experiences is not the one we live in, does the value of Harpur’s argument hinge on the accuracy of his presentation? I think it does.
It is also possible that Harpur found these phrases somewhere in Gerald’s many works. This leads to my major criticism of this book. Adapting and appropriating medieval materials is an acceptable poetic practice. Harpur does it seamlessly and with enviable skill. Whether such poetry should be annotated is an ongoing debate with no clear-cut answer. The editors of The White Silhouette thought annotation unnecessary: in this particular case, I disagree.
Gerald of Wales, 1185 is the only reference given for the quotation at the head of ‘Gerald of Wales’ (56). It could read, ‘The History and Typography of Ireland, book 2, section 71’. The miracle story (59-60) is from section 72. In other sections of ‘Kells’, Harpur introduces speeches by Plotinus (42 and 46) but whether these are his invention, or Plotinus’ words, is a mystery. There are many more examples. Acknowledging his sources would alert readers to what is grounded in history and what is invention because in this case, the balance between the two substantiates or undermines his argument.
For readers who care about the content of the poetry they read, both books raise interesting questions. Both are excellent in different ways, and both are a testimony to how broad the term poetry has become, in that it can include two such different works that still belong to the tradition of Christian poetry in English.
Liam Guilar has a doctorate in creative writing from Deakin University. He is a medievalist with an academic interest in narrative poetry and rewriting the Middle Ages. His most recent collection of poems, A Presentment of Englishry, was published in March 2019 by Shearsman in the UK.
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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker