Give Dust a Tongue: A Faith & Poetry Memoir, by John F Deane, The Columba Press, 230 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-1782182184
I doubt if many reviewers will be queuing up to tell John F Deane how brave he is in undertaking this poetic examination of his conscience. Faith? Holy God, most will run a mile. More is the pity because this is a good, intelligent read and one which is deserving of a wide readership for the measured and articulate conversation Deane holds with Christianity and poetry in Ireland over his lifetime.
Deane knows his project is fraught with danger: “It irritates me that ‘atheists’ are basically encouraged to announce their atheism with a certain panache, but to be a ‘Christian’ writer, or to mention God or Jesus in a poem, draws some opprobrium.” Some? There is an example of Deane turning the literary cheek! The surprise is that we are surprised that people still believe in God. Even (!) the “godless” British have their Christian writers and one does not have to go far back in time to find them. RS Thomas anyone?
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
A loose collection of well-written essays, gathered into chapters, Give Dust A Tongue is a book which will last. His mortal sin, I suspect, will be that he has not underpinned the popular narrative that growing up in Ireland – for which you can read the twenty-six counties – was like living in one large prison, a place where priests were the Gestapo and the nuns and Christian Brothers their storm troopers. Deane does write about the priests he meets on his way but they are not monsters. They are people whose vision of the world differs radically from that of many people today. Should we be shocked that people thought differently forty, fifty or sixty years ago? Is it shocking that people may look back on what passes for common wisdom today in forty, fifty or sixty years’ time and marvel at what a shower of eejits we all were?
In that regard, Deane’s book could be read as a companion piece to, say, Brian Fallon’s excellent An Age of Innocence, another book that challenges much of what passes for informed comment on cultural life in Ireland fadó fadó. (The next time someone tells you how bad Ireland was in “the 1950s”, ask them who was better off – the poor Irish person in Tipp or the poor Polish person in Soviet-occupied Poland, the poor peasant in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China or the poor black man in Wasp America or the poor peasant in Indo-China or Algeria?)
To his credit, Deane has written an honest book and filled it with some beautiful poetry. His life and times in Achill and beyond are described in the sort of prose that reminds you – and jaundiced Irish-speaking reviewers too – why people like the English language: “I was born within sight of Croagh Patrick, our pilgrim mountain, pyramid-shaped, with that little bump on the top that is a church, visible on clear days, away in cobalt-blue haze against the brightness of the sky.”
Added to his evocative English is also a reserved sensibility. There is no bombast in his writing; no urge to draw attention to himself. The work is reflective without being narcissistic, Socratic indeed, the unexamined life not being worth living. Consequently, this is a slowly distilled work, one which draws upon episodes in a long life to give a more rounded picture of what faith and poetry mean in contemporary Ireland – all thirty-two counties in this case. Deane sprinkles poems throughout the work, like blessings at the end of Mass. The poetry is central to him and rightly so. There are many, many fine poems here and they are not crude works of Christian propaganda, rather mediations on life and last things, and all the more powerful for that. They light up human existence because they understand the fragility of the human condition. God the Creator is here, Christ the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit, Giver of Tongues:
After the funeral Mass, concelebrating priests
filed out behind the casket, in white surplices
and black soutanes, like a fleet of small boats
leaving harbour under sail; they gathered
in late-morning sunshine to sing –
while dark-suited men lifted you carefully
It is a beautiful image; full of silence and poignancy. There is inspiration here too, a hint of something that cannot be seen. Deane notes: “Indeed, I have often felt that poems by writers who are professed (proudly) atheists often lack that imaginative freedom that faith offers …” By his own admission, Deane reckons that he may have done himself some damage by wearing his sacred heart on his sleeve but Christianity informs his imagination. Far from having written himself into a Christian cul-de-sac, he has, in fact, thrown himself into a faith that sustains him.
In the partitionist, stagnant rock pool that is the Free State literary scene, many don’t “do” God yet there is nothing provincial about Deane’s work. In terms of style and themes, his book echoes the concerns of, say, the German theologian Dorothee Sölle or the American Franciscan Richard Rohr – both of whom are original and thoughtful voices. The former politician Mary Harney once opined that the Irish were closer to Boston than Berlin. Deane, not surprisingly as a Mayo man, is, in fact, physically and spiritually between both and writes accordingly. He knows the US – he studied there – but also Britain and the continent. He has seen what others have failed to see – that his Christian faith has not cut him off from the wider world but brought him into contact with it in a very vital way. Indeed, it might be worth remembering too, for all the vanity of the local literati, that more people will go to Sunday Mass in Ireland than will ever buy a novel by any of the country’s hip secular talents.
Deane writes in wonder and love about his own influences – the formal literary ones and the more informal familial ones. There are many good people in his life, people who sustained him with their care and love, people who have cherished him and this little memoir reminds you of the best of Irish traditions. God knows we have our faults and failings – and Deane notes those too. Yet we are not the worst. There are many examples of ordinary decent Irishness in this book that raise the heart. Not least Deane’s courage in finding his own path and his desire to read and write. Irish culture is still one where the sportsman or the musician are held in high esteem, the talker, the wit, the drinker. Fair enough. Deane, however, belongs to a sturdier tribe, one which follows the advice of St Paul: “Do not drug yourselves with wine, this is simply dissipation; be filled with the Spirit.” Deane’s watchword is not dissipation but dedication; he follows the Spirit – to the seminary for a while and then to teaching and to marriage and children. And, all the while, there is reading and writing and thinking.
Indeed, Deane’s subtle interrogation of his past life and the Catholic Church’s role in it echoes the work of Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, who wrote: “Perhaps – and this is of course only speculation – dechristianization, insofar as it accompanied the decline of the temporal power of the Church, will prove beneficial, or indeed salutary, to the cause of Christianity. Perhaps it is not really such a terrible thing for that cause, if we take it seriously, that the Christianity which was once identified with power politics and diplomatic intrigue on the one hand, and with fanaticism and raw clericalism on the other, is coming to an end. Perhaps all the vicissitudes of its profane history will act as a sort of purgatory, a cleansing which will allow it to emerge renewed and true to its spirit. Perhaps.”
There is a cleansing in operation in Deane’s work, both in the prose and poetry, and a search for a renewed and true spirit. Perhaps he will be given credit for that much. Perhaps. Mark Patrick Hederman, critic and priest, argues: “Art can help to open both us and the world around us to dimension of the spirit, which is also the purpose of religion. In this way, some artists are prophets.” Yes, indeed, some artists are:
The word, I have discovered, is food for my surviving,
this need to lay down words on strong papyrus, in strait
and patterned lines, hints of love and yearning …
Pól Ó Muirí is Irish Language Editor of The Irish Times.