Lazarus: prose­ – poetry
by Richard England 
published by Kite 

Richard England’s latest book is probably the most memorable literary product of this country’s dark and confused state caused by the coronavirus epidemic. Lazarus is the figure in the gospels no one is ever likely to forget. He is the man who was a great friend of Jesus, who died but was raised back to life by Jesus after having lain four days in his grave.

Images from Lazarus by Richard EnglandImages from Lazarus by Richard England

He is a puzzling figure for, though he and his sisters Martha and Mary were so close to him, when the sisters sent an urgent call to Jesus to visit them as Lazarus was very seriously ill, Jesus took it easy, and delayed his visit by days, saying that the sickness would not end in death, and that the coming event would glorify him as God’s son.

As everyone knows, when Jesus eventually reached Bethany where Lazarus lived, he was told Lazarus had died and been buried four days. Jesus, much moved, especially by Mary’s tears, goes to the tomb, asks for it to be opened and summons Lazarus to come forth. Which he does.

Lazarus remains puzzling for, as England reminds us, he has nothing to say about his four days among the dead. He should have been the man to enlighten us about that most troubling of matters: what happens to a person after death. England tries to give an explanation in two ways: the dead lose both their intellect and their sensations, and moreover, Lazarus has not been resurrected but only resuscitated. He retains the same body and will, in fact, one day die again and remain permanently dead.

Much of the book consists of England’s verse, in which the poet tries to explain, using words and imagery suggesting the altered consciousness of a person no longer alive but feeling what we would call something akin to astonishment, the sense of coming or going – where? – at one point reaching “a/sulphurous/ darkness/of/frozen fire and burning ice”; ascending or descending to “nowhere and no when/of/always/where/no/future comes or past returns.”

These verses and many others succeed in giving us some clue of a post-existence that is impossible to describe but possible to hint at. England’s verses are nothing if not evocative. When Jesus’s summons raises him back to life, Lazarus himself realises he cannot describe his post-mortem experiences, and this, the first poetic part of the book, ends tantalisingly with a brief description of Lazarus’s second and permanent death, feeling, after it is over, that “he had been there before”.

The book is about death and the afterlife, about the eternity that is entered by the person whose time is over

What happened to Lazarus until Jesus died on the cross? We are told in John’s gospel that the Pharisees were so infuriated by the Lazarus miracle that “the chief priests consulted that they might also put Lazarus to death”. Also that not long before the Passover and the death of Jesus, Lazarus was present at a supper in Jesus’s honour, the supper in which Mary made her famous anointing of Jesus’s feet with a very precious ointment. There is very little else about him, but the author reminds the non-specialist in biblical matters about the theory that the unnamed “beloved disciple” who appears at crucial points in the final tales of John’s gospel, officially regarded by the Catholic Church as being John the Evangelist himself, is actually Lazarus.

It is a fascinating theory, and not one, I suspect, that can easily be thrown out. However, the fact that the early Church did not give great importance to Lazarus, which I feel it would have done if he was the man selected by Jesus on the cross as his mother’s new son, does make the theory difficult to accept.

The book, of course, is about death and the afterlife, about the eternity that is entered by the person whose time is over. England and other authors writing in this book or quoted in it, and I assume, most of his readers, are mystified about what that post-mortem existence will be like.

In a short chapter by him in this book, Rudolf Steiner writes: “Even if we fear that post our demise there will be a nothingness, we continue to aspire that it will be a nothingness that is something or a nowhere which is somewhere”, and again “We continue to trust that our end is not an end but a beginning; although of what we will only discover at our demise”.

Like practically all of England’s other books, this is a book that it is a pleasure to handle, a pleasure to leaf through, a pleasure to read. Its quarto format, with its dark hardback cover dominated by a very good photo of Jacquie Binns’ arresting sculpture showing Lazarus casting off his graveclothes, makes it an elegant volume. The contents, with their beautifully designed layouts by the author himself and the graphic designs of Maria Degabriele – a superb and constantly changing sequence of verse, prose, and designs – make the reader go back to it again and again.

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