Fr Meslier’s Confession by A C Clarke

fr-mesliers-confession-fullOther Lives

Theming a collection seems like a good idea – it’s easier to market, and the collection might make more sense to readers for having a central tenet or argument. It can be useful for a writer, as the theme that captivates can drive poems to be written with a focus and intensity that a writer composing more randomly might struggle to maintain. And it can, in one gloriously slim volume, contain a whole world.

A C Clarke says that Fr Meslier, the eponymous star of her moving collection,“for three months entirely took over my writing”… the sign of a powerful, motivating theme. The structure of the book is in accord with the seven hours of the divine office and the form of the poems are evocatively reflective of the subject of the poems. This careful alignment of form, structure and theme makes for a satisfying and holistic reading experience.

Jean Meslier was a parish priest in Champagne, France from 1689 until his death, and was a secret atheist who wrote a confession to be published posthumously. Clarke’s book imagines Meslier’s inner life, from the constant struggles with the conflicts between his personal belief and his employment:

 

“I’d go mad if I couldn’t write the truth.

‘Contradiction’ I said!
It’s torture. My lips locked

tight, a maelstrom in my head.”

to the possibly intimate relations with his
housekeeper:

“…when our bodies speak, in the dark
under the sheets.”

Mostly the words are elegant, a moving invocation of conflict and the doubt faced by a conscience forced to betray itself.

Occasionally the poems read as if they’re not living up to their potential: “How hard I must fight down / the truth that rises / bitter in my throat / and burns!” Wine described as red, related to blood, farmyard images – catholicism in the village. Valid, yes, but not always surprising, enlightening, unusual.

Yet there is much of potent beauty, observations made with the clarity of an acute, submerged imagination. For instance, a description of fire related to the notion of hellfire: “birds scorched into freefall fireships” or of the local Sieur’s daughter in church: “A shaft of sun through the plain glass window / illuminates her hair, stipples a parting / in gold-leaf as she bows her head / over her prayer-book.”

It is moving, hundreds of years beyond the death of a man so tortured, so brave, to consider how free we are today to express our views on God and other important topics. What, in years to come, will be the secrets that we could not speak?

Clarke gives Fr Meslier these closing words:

“Do as you will world that comes after
me,
To live free is to live uncomforted.”

And I feel thankful for her honouring of a theme so pertinent and cohesive, that has opened a window onto the soul (would he hate the use of that word?) of a man long lost to the world yet, thanks to her, with a voice as lively as if he spoke here, now – and this is the joy of a thematic work of poems. It has the power to give the reader, in one sitting, the experience of time travel, of other worlds, of another life.

Bucephalus

Fr Meslier’s Confession
A C Clarke
Oversteps Books, rrp £8•00, 60pp