John Deane is nothing if not productive: just over two
years after his substantial 'Selected Poems', Snow Falling on Chestnut
Hill, comes another major collection of
work. The familiar Deane themes - music, Christian spirituality, his Achill
Island upbringing - are all present and correct. This volume, however,
extends his range in a more sombre direction, containing as it does several
poems on the death of his brother in 2010.
Deane's books have always been thronged with ghostly figures, and here these
presences are again evident: 'November', for instance, begins with 'the
parlour … filled to overflowing/ with the beloved dead' and ends with them
speaking out against grieving. In 'Workshop', Deane reverses the process, and
becomes the ghostly observer, a witness to the picture conjured by memory.
One thinks of Heaney's Irish lanes clustered with the dead in his North-era work, during more troubled times. Several of
Deanes's relatives or villagers are pictured in this way - the midwife, the
sweet-shop lady ('Dolores') - but it is when he adopts a more biographically
intimate note that these poems strike home.
'In the Margins', for instance, offers a picture of early recognition of
poetic success by a fellow craftsman; the priestly tone is of shared
'application to the word', with all the scriptural overtones the phrase
suggests, and the fetishisation of implements such as the fountain pen,
'plump and easy-tempered'. Deane does not, however, simply provide cosy
homespun pictures of rural life: Mamie, the midwife, dies alone, her warmth
given to generations of new-borns, whilst she 'left her cold body/ draped
across stained arms of the sofa'. The sequence 'The Workhouse', finds several
patients visited in a home in their final days, and Deane teases out their
past lives letting the sharp contrasts speak for themselves: the landlord,
'prince of the pint-pullers', for example, now reduced to 'watching through
and far beyond the TV screen' ('The Patient'). There is a gentleness evident
in these portraits which rarely tips over into mere sympathy.
'Brother' and 'Unfinished Symphony' are two of the poems tackling the pain of
personal bereavement, but there are several others throughout the volume.
'Brother' moves through memories to the funeral procession itself and the
'red and golden roses' Deane drops into his brother's grave. The family
mourners are 'sodden…with grieving', but a blackbird at dusk offers a final
symbol of a kind of consummation. On the other hand, 'Unfinished Symphony'
recalls overheard music (a recurring Deane motif) and sees the earth as a
'part-notated manuscript of a symphony' with natural symbols such as hares,
fruits and jackdaws as 'the long struggle towards the harmonies' and anticipating
a 'thunderous Amen!'
Music remains a constant in Deane's writing, a consoling and ordering
presence, from the title poem (a note measurement) to the frequently
referenced works of composers such as Bach. Some of his meditations on this
concern the physicality of playing or the formal patterns of mastering the
keyboard: 'Playing on the White Notes' and 'Tuning' explore the transfiguring
power it has, 'the sounds of
April/ whispering over into May, the thunder of apple-blossoms/ dropping from
the tree', and are among the most lyrical and affecting pieces here. The book
concludes with 'Blessed and Broken', a long pilgrimage-sequence, set in
Jerusalem and other Biblical places. For me, these were the least convincing
poems, being a little too reliant on travelogue-style details and the power
of defamiliarised names ('Capernaum', for instance, becomes 'Kfar Nahum'). I
have enjoyed many of Deane's previous sequences, but some of these felt a
little too journalistic and redolent of the traveller's notebook, however,
they may exert more power over time.
At over 120 pages, this is a generous selection. Those who have read Deane's
work before will need no further recommendation, but it is the tight,
self-contained pieces on music or pictures of individuals that really stand
© M C