Eileen Battersby, ĎAmid the beauty and the blessed’, review of J. F. Deane, The Instruments of Art, in The Irish Times (31 Dec. 2005), Weekend.

Details: Eileen Battersby, ‘Amid the beauty and the blessed’, review of J. F. Deane, The Instruments of Art, in The Irish Times (31 Dec. 2005), Weekend. Sub-heading: No other contemporary Irish poet, and few Irish writers, have mastered the art of eloquent, impassioned expression as artistic statement as beautifully as John F Deane.

This is a major European writer of conscience well noted by his international peers, if less widely celebrated at home. In gravitas, sophistication and magisterial urgency of intent, Deane looks to Kinsella and beyond him to Yeats.

Equally though, in common with Yeats and Kinsella, Deane possesses an instinctive feel for beauty. There is the presence of a thinker in his work - occasionally a rhetorical presence - yet there is also subtle gentleness.

Deane, like Hopkins, is above all a religious poet.

This new collection, The Instruments of Art, deals with the major dilemma of the artist, the demands of creativity. At times, as in “Canvas”, this takes on a darkly religious quality:

I had been reasoning with myself, had grown
angry, resolving nothing; thought of this charnel earth,
its sodden meadows, its daub, heard how it cries
come! put your hand here and feel my wounds!

Death is a recurring motif as Deane, the poet watcher, witnesses many souls taking their leave.

For all the rage - and there is a great deal of refined anger, even theatricality - Deane is committed to justice and many causes, yet in this book he is often at his best when observing the natural world in a mood of mildness, such as in the atmospheric “Old Yellow House”, possibly the most thematically cohesive, self-contained poem of the six sections.

He is a formal, intellectual poet, and one with strong narrative sense - he has published short stories and two novels; his polemic has a message, but not an agenda.

His personal salvation lies in the physical landscape, as in the following examples from “The Meadows of Asphodel”: ‘Over peat acres / bog-cotton sways like a chorus of souls arrayed / for paradise ...’

And from simple observations, for example in “The Visitors”, where he notes the presence of: ‘Three waxwings / perched on the winter rowan, exotic birds, / sleek and crested, flashes of crimson and gold / across these dun days.’

Another strength is the power of memory, for example in the poem In the Teeth of the Wolf: ‘I remember how the breeze / came softly from the sand-dunes, the marram grass / thin-fledged and yielding’; and the glimpses of an earlier island life - Deane was born and raised on Achill - linger through the poems, as in “You”: ‘I am sea-born, and sea-inclined; islanded / on this earth, dragged each- which-way, and tidal.’

Of the many fine works is “The Dromedary Caravans”, in memory of artist Tony O’Malley.

In it, Deane evokes an elegiac portrait of the artist as Everyman and as an individual engaged in a personal quest.

... Day
for the laying into rest of the man
who had found, at last, his way
into the uncoloured, still point
at the soul of his paintings ...

Echoes of the respective torments of Van Gogh and Munch are central. In their travails is reflected Deane’s moments of doubt. But there is also the excitement of encounter and first discovery, as in “House at the Crossroads”:

The front door had a brass knocker
with frosted, ice-coloured glass on either side;
when I heard Beethoven’s Fifth
symphony for the first time
I remembered mother’s anxious
reaching for the door

Also from “The Old Yellow House” sequence, Carpenter is another example of Deane as watcher, a role in which he often achieves the folk-like resonance of a painter conscious of social history unfolding:

Grandfather’s grave
lies amongst rank disorder; a high stone cross
holds the history of the world
carved in pastel-coloured lichens ...

It is a beautiful collection, if overshadowed by the cerebral splendour of Toccata and Fugue (Carcanet, 2000), which is a major book; this new volume is more muted, and carries its inner rage with an impressive discipline.

Deane’s vision is multi-dimensional but the poems that will linger - and indeed - should earn him a wider audience he deserves, are the gentle memorial and memory pieces mostly from “The Old Yellow House” sequence in which this concerned, deeply serious artist of conscience suspends the declamatory and pauses to remember a moment, an image.

[ close ] [ top ]