Harvesting in Summer by Aleksei Venetsianov (1780-1847)



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


Gilded book cover, Nests and Eggs of British Birds by F. O. Morris, 1870


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.

© James Harpur 2008


Terentius Neo and wife, Pompeii, 1st century AD


To His Wife

from Oracle Bones

Let us live dear wife as we have lived,

And call each other by those names

That lingered on our lips the first night of our love.

As years add wrinkles to our ageing skin,

I hope to God the day does not arrive

When I forget that you’re my sweet young thing

Or you no longer see me as your suitor.

Though you outlive the prophetess of Cumae

And I surpass the age of old King Nestor,

This ripe longevity we shall deny:

Instead of ticking off the days of life,

We'll count the joys they bring, my dearest wife.


Translated from the Latin of Ausonius, c. AD 310-395

© James Harpur, 2001


Golden statue of the Lord Buddha


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.

From ‘The Frame of Furnace Life’, a sonnet sequence that won the 1995 British National Poetry Competition

© James Harpur 1996


Wraxall limes Oil painting by Merrily Harpur



From A Vision of Comets

Too high for any flood

In a tree both bare and black

A nest is lodged in a fork,

Growing daily though squalls shake

Each branch and batter the rook

Who flaps with tardy strokes

Back to his hide-out

Bristling like a stook.

He topples down groundwards

Till all his feathers flock

Upstream then slot in like slates.

The pumice-pale beak starts to poke

Away leaves, stilettoes the turf

Then swaggering, braggadocio, he croaks

Out gall from the pit of his craw

And listening keenly as a crook

Gathers his Sicilian shawl

Plucks a twig, mounts and rocks

The breeze until he drops

Down into his secret nook,

Ready at once to carry on the work,

Incessant work, kept in the dark,

As when Noah, scenting the future,

Built his ark.


© James Harpur 1993


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