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John F Deane, A Little Book of Hours - Fiona Sampson, Irish Times10 January 2009
Evoking the secular miracle of beautyPrevious review of 'A Little Book of Hours'... Next review of 'A Little Book of Hours'... To the 'A Little Book of Hours' page...
IT'S NO surprise that the founder of Poetry Ireland and Dedalus Press should be a poet of exceptionally wide reading and vision, nor that his own work should be rich with cultural resonances.
What is astonishing, though, is to find at the very heart of a national - indeed an international - community a poet who is writing like absolutely nobody else. It's the clarity of John F Deane's verse that makes his voice unique. In the opening of 'The Luxembourg Poem',
It is May, and the bells over Walferdange
decry the struggle between gravity and grace;
in the cemetery, pansy and bluebell stand
in pewter bowls on high-sheened marble tombs
and offer their hesitant resurrexit , while high above
jets leave diminishing fishbone trails;
There's nothing simple about these lines packed with symbolism - the doubled sense of "still life" in flowers, or vapour trails that have been picked clean - nor the second line's push-me-pull-you riff on Simone Weil's idea of Gravity and Grace. Yet, despite their complexity, they are easy to read - and they "lift off" into their May sky with effortless speed. What generates such clarity is the absolute lack of any smudge of self-consciousness. For this is ego-less verse; a set of extraordinarily beautiful spiritual exercises which "go by the way in which you are not".
It is indeed a Book of Hours, and celebratory, as such books are. But that celebration is disciplined and costly. The title-sequence of 34 poems turns a life-story into 'a fading/ many-folded and torn map', of the way from 'the turf fire' hearth-side on Achill Island, through loss of vocation and bereavement, to 'Villa Waldberta', a foundation in Germany.
In the love-story it tells, 'I trace my finger on line and fold and contour/ and find you nowhere, and everywhere, the very way/ I cannot point to any moment that is I, wholly/ and essentially, and yet in every moment it is/ you, and I, wholly and essentially, unknown'.
The unidentifiable self is unbounded; as the unbounded God is unidentifiable, even to the poet who sought him in Novitiate and Seminary: 'Mid-morning, when the others were at Lauds, / I crept away, a small suitcase in my hand'.
Faced with the limitless, and without the aid of conventional liturgy, the poet's response is to occupy the space in which he finds himself. Deane brings music, detail and the human to inhabit unsayable abstraction. The sound-world is directly addressed in poems such as Allegri and Water-Music, but it's also created by a resonant rhetoric which combines unusual word-order and vocabulary with the chimes of assonance: 'The day was drawky, with a drawling mist / coming chill across the marshlands' (To Market, To Market).
Such details from the natural world abound - in 'Towards a Conversion', an orchid's 'tiny shivering of petals' is glimpsed where 'Along the cuttings // bubbles lift through black water and escape' - but the imaginary is rich in detail too:
. . . the water
dripping from her likeraindrops from the dark
laurels, rings on her fingers
catching the ooohs of the sunhis is 'Bethsabee', from A Book of Kings, one of this collection's two secondary sequences, both of them crowded with human life. The other, Madonna and Child, juxtaposes the life and death of the poet's 'Irish Catholic mother, fortress / besieged, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold . . .' with scenes from the Madonna's life, and joins grief for a lost mother to that of the Pieta: 'crying against the pulling down of love'.
Meanwhile, A Book of Kings retells stories surrounding David, the first poet of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This world of lived experience is never completely separate from that of the Bible. Deane brings both alive with an incantatory accumulation of detail, in which, for example, ' velella velella, language-boats, come blooming in their millions // over the sea's surface' to evoke the secular miracle of beauty.
No poet writing today takes this spiritual task so seriously: nor achieves it with such exemplary, luminous grace.
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