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A Profound Poetic Pilgrimage

Pól Ó Muirí

Dear Pilgrims, by John F Deane, Carcanet, 112 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1784105860

It is the small observations that spark your imagination immediately. The poet sees “a pride of bishops” in roadside flowers, a heron as “a battered parasol” and “catwalks of goldfinch”. They are lovely, evocative images, simple in many ways and yet images which you make you look again.

Why did you not notice the pride of bishops or the heron, feathers askance in the loch’s wind, battered as a parasol – not an umbrella, mind – but a parasol, an altogether thinner thing? Catwalks of goldfinch? Yes, catwalks. It is such an apt description that you wonder why it has not become a collective noun for goldfinch before this. After all, if we can have a murder of crows, why not a catwalk of goldfinch?

In his latest collection, Dear Pilgrims, John F Deane does what poets are supposed to do – he sees what others do not and he shares that prophecy in poetry. This book is full of fine poems that raise the reader in wonder. Here is life, sacred life, meaningful life, loving life, creative life. In “Rainbow”, he writes:

Already another year
is touching on high tide; winds
have been raising waves across the swollen meadow,

clouds grey and white and grey again
bunch up, like summer crowds on the slow road~
home from the shore. Joy made covenant with me.

It is such simple language – wind, waves, clouds, meadow – but delivered with such artistry. The reader is part of the canvas, standing in one of those famous Paul Henry landscapes, as the clouds mix and spin through grey and white to grey again. The meadow is “swollen” and you can feel the squelch of water; people “bunch up” on the “slow road” and you are on the back road to Clones or to Croke Park or Croagh Patrick or Sunday Mass. You know this sensation; you know this camaraderie but have never had the words for it. Until now. Deane has crafted a new vocabulary for you, a new way to see and sense.

The title is evocative too. “The Rainbow” appears next to “Noah after the Flood”; a sign of covenant, a joyous sacred promise, a reminder from God that things will be better.

In “Dusk to Dawn”, our friend the heron “stands – motionless as a battered / parasol – among stones in the quiet shallows, / heron-eye wide and watchful; / noon-time sunlight will set ablaze.” Those goldfinch in “Pulse” walk “in a fashion parade / of colours, of party-feather boas; now, in dusklight, / the breeze is snuffling in the high poplars.”

There is light, colour, creativity, imagination, everywhere in this collection; an interest in and care for life. Noticing the small things in creation, Deane reminds us of the bigger things. He walks with God the Creator, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

He is not naive though. In his collection Semibreve, he saw “Israeli murder-jets fly past in earth-juddering noise and anger / till all I can think of are the naked feet of Christ” while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He knows the violent ways of the world but turns to poetry as prayer and to a community at prayer: “Now I form part / of a diminishing comradeship, who make our way, Sundays, / under the great, hushing trees // to rummage again through rites and mysteries. / I kneel, contented with what remains / after those deckled years” (“The Wall-Clock”).

“Deckled” sent this Irish speaker heading unashamedly for the dictionary: “rough-edged” or “trimmed”, pertaining to paper, if I have understood correctly. That in turn gives the reader added food for thought. It is not just “rough” years the poet has been through but rough years with paper. It is a nice nod from a craftsman to his calling.

There is peace too in “Best Western”, a stillness and silence that tells of another history of sacrifice:

The convent:
its neglected aisles, denuded transepts;
there were prayers here once, touching on how all human flesh
falls to the all of clay. Now in the walled garden,

apples and pears have grown small and hard as pebbles;
the sisters have found rest
in neat rows, a small white cross their portion, miniature roses
growing over.

History too is on the doorstep in Townland:
Bethlehem: the village, and the townland,
crowded and expectant
like a fair day in Bunnacurry; in our dark cowhouse
there were snuffling sounds.

That too is a wonderful image of his native Achill. Bethlehem and Bunnacurry twinned in poetry – as they should be. These are the words of poet who lives history, who breathes at one with the world around him. Deane reminds the reader that we live only for a short while on this rock in space but that that time is precious and profound. We are all dear pilgrims – whether we realise it or not.

01/10/2018

Pól Ó Muirí is Irish Language Editor of The Irish Times

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