by Tim Pearce
from Signs of the Times No. 60 - Jan 2016

Coleridge, best known for The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, also wrote a number of meditative poems which have come to be known as the Conversation poems.

Martin Halsall, a retired journalist, compiled this book of poems after a year as Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral - he says,

Like journalism, they grew from notes, conversations, observations, reflections and experiences, from being there.

Some, like Mirrors, are mainly observations, but he readily turns what he sees into a thought to ponder.

The poem is inspired by the tilting mirror in the nave which reflects and magnifies the stars decorating the Cathedral roof and allows visitors to see them without crooking and straining their necks. The poem ends:

Ironic that we approach them at ground level.
But, come Advent, dusk, someone might stay
to watch in case a new star rises, moves.

Sometimes, he catches a thought from a psalm in a service. On Unicorns takes verse 21 of Psalm 22 in the King James version:

Save me from the lion’s mouth: thou hast heard me also from among the horns of the unicorns
Only a fleeting canter of word in a psalm
and meditates on the power of myth, regretting at the end:
Only ever a footnote in the scholar’s draft,
extinct after translation by the Stuarts.

In later translations the poor unicorn transmutes into a wild ox. In another poem, ‘Ark’, based on the animal carvings under the canon’s seats in the choir, he adds the delightful idea: ‘Unicorns stayed on, stowed away in a psalm’ - so they never got off the Ark!

In one poem, The Shopping of the Magi, he turns a wry smile on the likely reaction of the wise men if they happened to turn up in the cathedral nowadays to acquire presents for the new baby from the Gift Shop:

Shopping list: probably a toddler from an ordinary sort
of family, so, no, not bookmarks of the cathedrals’ icon
as possibly not great readers...
Even the Holy Socks had failed to entrance them,
Though the ceiling’s galaxy provided directions.
For all the warmth of the welcome they had not come back;
Something about angels, and going home a different way.

This is a collection of very readable, thoughtful and mostly undemanding poems, written with affection and admiration, which carry unexpected shafts of light into unexplored corners of cathedral life and also show how an outsider, a 'foreign correspondent' as he as he describes himself in one poem, can be drawn into the great kaleidoscope of an historic but still vibrantly living community.