DRIFTING IN A VAST SKY 

Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill: New and Selected Poems,
John F. Deane (165pp, 12.95, Carcanet)


John Deane has long been an important figure in Irish poetry, being a founder of Poetry Ireland and The Dedalus Press, but this selection of his published work from 2000 onwards should raise his profile here. The oldest collection represented, Toccata and Fugue (2000) sets out his stall with economy: a poem like 'In Dedication' utilises the raw Irish landscape and religious language to describe it - curlews cry 'small alleluias of survival'. Any poem describing the first days of Genesis risks recalling Geoffrey Hill's 'Genesis', but the 'suffering and joy' outlined here sometimes resembles a softened, more optimistic R. S. Thomas. Where Thomas offers doubt, however, Deane is more interested in transformation: 'Penance' offers a picture of transfiguration, recalling Stanley Spencer: 'They are hauling up / the bits and pieces of their lives...', and they return with 'feet blistered'. Foxes, lambs and ewes also begin to haunt the landscapes of his poems and 'Fugue', a longer sequence, takes the reader back to the marsh roads and 'cattle shifting / languorously' in Achill Island, Deane's birthplace.

Manhandling the Deity
, from 2003, offers similar fare, but here the smaller lyrics seem more powerful and concise. 'Nightwatch' and 'Fantasy in White' also bring a poet's transforming eye to 'our suburban villages, our dormitory towns', describing the ghostlike homeless 'who might/ be Plato, Luther, Hopkins but for some tiny thing/ that slipped and shifted them a little to the side.' They are interpreters, bearing occult knowledge. The second poem offers white butterflies, 'winged snowflakes' bringing 'a moment of purest wonder'. Other poems such as 'Canticle', also freeze a moment of wonder or epiphanic revelation, 'the given note of a perfect / music' and the dead drifting in a 'vast sky'. In these volumes, though the longer sequences are impressive, Deane is at his best in the jewel-like lyrics.

Deane's next two volumes, The Instruments of Art
(2005) and A Little Book of Hours (2008) shift the focus slightly to include long meditations on art. The title sequence of the former volume is dedicated to Edvard Munch, perhaps a surprising name to encounter, but some familiar images shiver out from this long sequence on art: 'the sky at sunset...opening its mouth to scream' and later 'the bridge humming to your scream'. The close, sexually-charged atmosphere of the painter's studio is explored, alongside illness, sex and death: an exhibition confirms 'it is hard / to shake off darkness' and, though the painter/poet hopes for a canvas 'filled/ with radiant colours', it is stillness and darkness that ultimately reassert their presence. 'Madonna and Child', a further long sequence from the 2008 collection, looks back at a mother's death and again comes to rest on the 'stillness by the grave' but ultimately includes other female voices, 'mothers, daughters, sisters...their cries/ across time and space' crying against 'the pulling down of love' and all the crucifixion-symbols thus implied. Once again, Deane reasserts an ever-present religious meaning to his experiences, even in grief.

These are deep waters and Eye of the Hare
(2011) is a more summery collection. In 'Shelf Life' Deane creates a beautiful meditation on the contents of a cupboard shelf, and 'Sheets' offers another maternal memory, flapping sheets becoming 'elemental arms, holding me in her love.' Several tender love poems and a visit to Samuel Beckett's grave also offer evidence of the value of selfless love. Finally, the collection also offers the long title-sequence, forty pages of connected spiritual meditations which read like linked lyrics. These are autobiographically orchestrated to illustrate Deane's love of music, name-checking Britten, Bruckner, Handel and many others. The verse forms offer chant-like responses and culminate in 'Coda', the birth of a grand-daughter in Amsterdam on a 'red fox morning':

     passage of trams outside the window, iron-heavy, sparks

     overhead, the drift of spores like thistle-down migrations,
     wool-gatherings on the floor of air; higher still
     the trails of jets, travellers, skylines, shifting off to take their place
     along the clouds; rabbits at their slow hip-hop...

'Listen!' Deane concludes, 'harmonies lifting into joy...out of the bleak black soil of the earth', and after reading this collection one feels suitably uplifted.
  
     M. C. Caseley 2012