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Review of The Instruments of Art
Enda McDonagh, The Furrow, June 2006Previous review of 'The Instruments of Art'... Next review of 'The Instruments of Art'... To the 'The Instruments of Art' page...
The Spaces of Our Grief
There is so much joy in all good poetry, even Irish poetry, despite Chesterton's shallow comment that all our songs are sad. Yet the joys are often bracketed by profoundly tragic people and events. This is certainly my experience in reading and re-reading the two recently published collections of poetry by Irish authors John F Deane and Jerome Kiely on which I wish to reflect here. My superscription is taken from a poem by Deane in his collection, The Instruments of Art, but it might also be aptly used to describe Kiely's collection, Swallows in December. The affinity is deeper still in that they are both religious poets or perhaps more accurately poets whose religious insights underpin and transform some of their best poetic achievements, feats rare enough in current Irish poetry. Beyond these affinities lies a whole difference in form and style; the more complex forms of Deane contrasting with the simpler but no less profound forms of Kiely. Here the poet as priest of Achill Island and West Mayo plays quite different melodies from the priest as poet of West Cork on sometimes similar themes.
The titles of the two collections already hint at the differences in mood and melody. Deane's The Instruments of Art not only picks up on his other artistic interests, painting and music, but signals the labouring to be beautiful which all artistic creation involves. Kiely's title, Swallows in December flows more easily although the theme suggests the unusual experience of beauty out of season. The better way for the non-professional critic may be to reflect, prayerfully as the occasion demands, on some of their more powerful and beautiful poems.
As Deane was the first to hand I will begin with a few remarks on his collection as a whole and then concentrate on some individual poems. On the cover is a detail from a typical, complex and moving painting by the late Tony O'Malley, entitled 'Shadowy Carvings of an Ancient Execution, Good Friday 1992'. O'Malley's paintings have always resonated with Deane's poetry and he has a particular relationship with those paintings which O'Malley did every Good Friday. However the blurb on the back cover points out: 'The guiding spirits (here) are Edward Munch and Vincent van Gogh'. Informed of this, the reader-reflector may sill have to wrestle with the language and images, the rhythms and the references which these profound poems present.
As happens frequently with Deane's collections (cf. his recent Mishandling the Deity), he interweaves natural, narrative and explicitly Christian themes while mediating in this volume the unsettling ways of his guiding painter spirits. This is most evident in the title poem, 'The Instruments of Art', with its subscription: Edward Munch. The opening stanzas describe Munch's working conditions with an underlay perhaps of the poet's own.
We move in draughty, barn-like spaces, swallows
busy round the beams, like images. There is room
for larger canvases to be displayed, there are storing places
for our weaker efforts; hold
to warm clothing, to surreptitious nips of spirits
hidden behind instruments of art. It is all,
a series of bleak self-portraits, of measured out
reasons for living. Sketches
of heaven and hell. Self-portrait with computer;
self-portrait, nude, with blanching flesh; self
as Lazarus mid-summons, as Job, mid-scream.
There is outward
dignity, white shirt, black tie, a black hat
held before the crotch; within, the turmoil, and advanced
decay. Each work achieved and signed announcing itself
the last. The barn door slammed shut.
The spaces of the artist's grief are creative 'in larger canvases to be displayed' and even in the 'series of bleak self-portraits' and 'outward dignity' until 'The barn door slammed shut'.
The making and unmaking of love and beloved, of would-be priest and artist are depicted through the poem with 'patience in pain / mirroring creation's order'. But not all in vain:
everything depends on where your eyes
darkness comes, drawing back its black
drapes across the window, there will remain
stillness of paint, words on the page, the laid down
instruments of your art.
'The Old Yellow House' as title for group of poems and for individual seems an obvious reference to Vincent van Gogh's Yellow House at Arles which he hoped to turn into a community centre for artists. His previous religious and social engagement may have played some role in the ambition and elicited Deane's sympathies much later. Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin lived together there for six months amid increasing argument. After Gauguin left, it ceased to operate as a centre while Van Gogh and house deteriorated. At this stage he cut off his left ear and presented it to a prostitute. Mental instability increased but in the institution which cared for him he continued to do some of his best painting. In the group as well as in the title poem there are some faint echoes of Van Gogh but most of these arresting poems seem more redolent of Achill than of Arles.
More echoes of Van Gogh in Provence, his painting and his suffering, recur in the final sixth section, 'Seasons of Hell', with the Redemption coming through implicitly and explicitly in the moving poem with that title.
This section, focused on Holy Saturday and the Christlike artist, reaches back to section II, entitled simply 'The Artist.' This consists of fourteen sonnets mediating on the traditional Stations of the Cross in different Church settings from Bunnacurry. Here we are at the heart of Deane's artistic and religious faith, Christ as artist and his instruments of redemptive art.
For Deane despite the suffering and death, creation in nature remains a prominent, beautiful and even miraculous theme. In its Hopkins-like precision, 'The Gift' offers a splendid example and is worth quoting in full:
And did you catch it then? That offered flash
of brilliance across the gloom? There by a curve
of the river, by the salleys and ash-trees, a brash
iridescence of emerald and blue -
kingfisher! Skulking you were, and sulking, astray
from sacrament and host, with your dreary
dwelling on the ego. Pathetic. Pray
grace in that sacred presentation, the high
shock of what is beautiful leading you to betray
this self-infusion for a while. And then that cry -
its piping chee-chee-chee, secretive by the stream's drift
and you step closer, cautiously, grace being still
easily squandered, till you have it before you: the gift!
Loveliness, and a dagger-like poised bill.
...In Deane and Kiely in their very different life experiences and poetic gifts we have holy scriptures for our age. May they be read, mediated on and prayed over by all who would wish to get beyond the tabloidery of our current media and their clichéd critics.
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