Common Notes


Semibreve, John F Deane (131pp, £9.99, Carcanet)


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 out.

      © M C Caseley 2015