A Part of the Main


A Little Book of Hours, John F. Deane (99pp, 9.95, Carcanet)


Who, in the still, small hours of the 21st Century, would want to write religious poetry ? And what is religious poetry anyway? In his 1935 essay 'Religion and Literature', T S Eliot said 'What I want is a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly Christian.' Nearly seventy years later, Geoffrey Hill accused the Eliot of 'Four Quartets' of bequeathing to the likes of Philip Larkin 'a common species of torpor' ('Dividing Legacies, in Style and Faith, 2003).

Nevertheless, many recent poets continue to try to write religious poetry, not least Hill himself. John F Deane's latest collection represents a spirited, substantial attempt to stake out his own ground amongst this congregation, and it is mostly successful and impressive. Deane prefaces this book which epigraphs from John Donne - the famous meditation containing 'no man is an island' - and Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, discussing gifts of the Spirit and how these are used in community.

The first third of the book includes many specifically Irish landscapes: 'Slievemore: The Abandoned Village' describes the deserted valley, 'space / for the study of the metaphysics of humanness', where the emptiness is viewed as 'allowing God his spaces', an inarticulate, incomprehensible presence beyond mere human grief. Several poems set on Achill Island also create an elemental, stormy coastal seascape where the earth lies 'in mythic scope and sanctity' and the ocean is a 'songdance', teeming with life forms. These are salty and affecting pieces, only occasionally falling too far under the shadow of Heaney, such as in the too-pat 'Ass and Car' (yes, donkey cart becomes Morris Minor) or 'Tracks', a poem populated by very familiar elements (turf-sods, oil-lamp, hooded shapes in lanes).

Deane is more himself, perhaps, when he uses religious iconography to create family snapshots (for example, flood imagery in 'A Flood and Many Waters') or the elements of communion/mass in 'The Downpour' to delineate a modest picture of deluge and rebirth. Similarly, the use of the rhythms of prayer and liturgy in 'Allegri' can allude to the Old Testament figure of Saul and still create a vivid, sweeping picture of the 'elected symphonies' of grief, an emotion both timeless and contemporary.

Saul reappears again in 'A Book of Kings', one of three long sequences in this book. Here, the figure of David the psalmist is pictured with his 'sling-shot ego', slaying Goliath, singing before the king and tortured with desire by Bathsheba dancing whilst bathing on a roof. The victorious king claims he has 'grown to abhor / all violence' and instead marches 'unarmed and bitter...demanding peace', as if from a Middle East news report.

The book's title sequence gives a series of snapshots of the search for faith, whilst the several poems either called 'The Jesus Body', 'The Jesus Bones' or both, flirt with parables and stubbornly seek parallels in the Irish countryside for 'this Jesus-fox, who broiled fine fish / on a nest of stones by the lakeshore'. The last poem, 'Final Prayer', takes some of these bread-and-wine moments and stitches them to a picture of redemption and healing, settling on the crippled woman who 'will step out giddily again/ into blue erotic light', a creature from a Stanley Spencer resurrection canvas.

These poems actively reject the 'torpor' Hill complained of; they are full of travellers, frail humans and their moments of attraction and weakness, a prophet like a cunning fox stealing along inside a hedge or present in Nazareth beside the weeping women on kerbs beside blown-apart cars. Deane creates a highly contemporary form of religious meditation here and the Christian elements are used with a natural, unconscious grace. If you are at all interested in how religious poetry can still be written, this book will impress and stimulate you.

         M.C. Caseley 2009