Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill presents poems from each of John F Deane’s previous five Carcanet collections alongside the substantial new title sequence. The opening piece, ‘In Dedication’, sets the tone with its affirming exploration of suffering, faith and endurance:
Curlews scatter now on a winter field, their calls
small alleluias of survival; I offer you
poems, here where there is suffering and joy,
evening, and morning, the first day.
It’s inviting to take “small alleluias of survival” as emblematic of the book. Similar phrases occur elsewhere: in ‘Late October Evening’, thrushes and blackbirds hurl “valiant songs against the gloom”, while the dedicatee of ‘Report from a Far Place’ is “witness to what a life saves out of the assault”. On the other hand, “small” is hardly the epithet to apply to lengthy sequences such as ‘Fugue’, ‘Madonna and Child’ or ‘Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill’.
The dead are an important presence throughout these poems, beginning with Deane’s wife, who died young. In the earlier pieces, he struggles to make sense of loss. ‘The Instruments of Art’ asks:
… What, now,
is the colour of God is love
when they draw the artificial grass over the hole …
By the close of ‘Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill’, there is more coherence. Deane’s dead father and grandfather kneel among his “eldering congregation” and the ghost of his late wife visits him amid a snowstorm with the benediction “live at peace in the rush / of arctic wind”.
Most of the living Deane writes about are in pain or hardship. ‘Fugue’ wrestles powerfully with the heartaches and beauties of Deane’s relationship with his daughter. Other people, such as the girl in ‘Acolyte’ who has a “mutilated brain” and rocks “in unmanageable distress”, arouse in Deane “the hopeless urge / to lay my hands in solace on the world.”
This is not to say the collection is bleak. Deane reaches for hope and renewal, often deftly balancing them against the agony and questioning. In part he achieves this by frequent recourse to the sheer life of the natural world, which “is whole, holy and unsoiled” (‘House Martins’), but it is primarily a product of the Catholic faith at the heart of his outlook.
For Deane, God’s presence seems oblique, furtive, often hidden in suffering; he comes, in a recurrent image that draws us once again to nature, “like a fox, magister of the subtlest arts / of being.” (‘Madonna and Child’) We are offered not a crisis of faith, but a faith of crisis. This lends the poems a broader palette than the personal. However, it feels insufficient justification for the blurb’s claim, “these poems … meditate on the relevance of Christian spirituality to our troubled times”. A handful address wider events but the focus remains on Deane’s inner life.
For instance take ‘The Apotheosis of Desire’, which intersperses a visit to Jerusalem with sections in the voice of Mary Magdalene. There are references to the conflict and the tourist kitsch of the city, but the conflict explored is the pilgrim’s: “I came seeking”, “I will be earthed”, “I have been handling / only my own desires”. For contrast take ‘Cedar’, an angry, urgent and raw snapshot from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The 48-page title sequence, which closes the book, is anchored firmly in Deane’s “own / blithe and sorry histories”, combining these with musical references from Palestrina to Gorecki, the baptism of Christ, alongside mentions of 9/11 and Anne Frank. It is unmistakeably a work of later life, moving from childhood memories, towards a mature naivety:
… I am relearning
ignorance so I may write foolishly again and say
it will be all right …
and concluding with joy at a granddaughter’s birth: “Freude! / out of the bleak black soil of the earth”. Drawing together the book’s themes with fluidity, it provides an impressive capstone.
A body of work consistent in quality and vision emerges in this book. At his best, Deane makes a quiet, resonant music. As he says in ‘Fugue’: “Attend. Be faithful. Grow fluid. Be at peace.” For those open to that call, there is much to appreciate in this sound of a life deeply lived and generously given.
Andrew Philip’s second collection, The North End of the Possible, has just been published by Salt in April 2013.
Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet Press, 2012, £12.95
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)