The authors’ own Introduction to this beautifully produced hardback book notes that Deane and Harpur
have known each other for many years and shared readings,
discussions and introduced each other’s work, finding friendship
and mutual encouragement in discovering that [they] were both
fascinated not only by the life of poetry but also by the divine,
the sacred, ‘God’.
It is this fascination, and the writing out of it, which underpins this ‘joint selection’ of poems: although there are poems about a wide range of subjects, they are, the authors suggest, ‘poems in search of God’, poems which ‘bear witness to […] probings into the ineffable’.
This raises two issues. Firstly, I hoped for more of a poetic conversation, and not a selection of poems by each author, the one followed by the other; perhaps even new work, produced in collaboration or as a direct response to the other’s work. Secondly, an issue the authors are all too clearly aware of, that faith rooted in specific religion is somewhat out of fashion, as is the idea (put forward in the Introduction) that poetry ‘springs from our argument with God, or the absence of God.’
I find the idea of poetry somehow being inspired by the divine or a muse, somewhat antiquated, as I do ‘the search for meaning, for certainties’, which the authors suggest (again in their Introduction) has never been more important, particularly as a result of Covid, but also generally. I am not alone, however, in accepting the notion of truths, plural, rather than Truth, isolate and declamatory. Recent developments in the sciences, engineering, the arts, psychology and sociology have shown us how much knowledge is tentative and of its time, rather than fixed, final and certain.
It would be wrong to suggest that Deane and Harpur are in any way dogmatic, evangelical or theologically certain: both write poems that question and consider, even when addressing the divine directly, both doubt and debate. Although Harpur’s poem ‘from St Symeon Stylites’ is about and perhaps spoken by St. Symeon, we might consider the poet’s voice too, admitting that
Most days I think I’m split in two,
A spirit yearning for the light
And a body of delinquent appetites.
That phrase, ‘delinquent appetites’ seems to be both enticing and full of self-disgust, and although the poem is full of lonely, resistant prayer it ends up with a doubting question: ‘Sometimes I wonder if I pray / To keep the Lord away?’
Deane often explores his belief and doubt through revisions of the Gospel stories. ‘Words of the Unknown Soldier’ notes, in very un-soldier-like language, how ‘he stumped us, this Jesus of yours, with his / walking on water, fandango, entrechat, glissade’, whilst the lengthy sonnet sequence ‘According to Lydia’ brings a feminine point-of-view to bear on key moments, finally countering imagined ‘onslaughts of foolishness’ with the beatitudinal ‘blessed is the one who does not lose faith in me.’
Mostly, however, both authors choose to see or encounter the divine reflected or present in the physical world around them. Bones, birds, star clusters, woods and corn circles are all cause to stop and consider man’s place in the grand scheme of things. In fact, man’s relationship to the natural world, and even more specifically the ‘Christian failure to incorporate the reality of evolution and its consequences’ is what Deane suggests has ‘alienated thinking people’ from ‘”traditional” religious tenets and activities.’
‘Poetry, God and the Imagination: a Dialogue’, actually a 2018 email correspondence, ends the book, and in many ways it is the best part, offering up a frank and thoughtful discussion to the reader. Deane’s Catholicism, or at least his Catholic upbringing, is very much on show as he suggests that ‘To accept evolution is inevitably to deny the doctrine of “original sin” and even that of the “Immaculate Conception”. I don’t know about the latter as that veers off into ridiculous discussions about human purity, virginity and sexlessness, but the former was always explained to me, by the Baptist church I attended as a child, as a matter of relationship to God, not a physical genetic inheritance!
The discussion is wide-ranging, covering the spiritual, the poetic and writerly, as well as religious institutions and mystical theology. Surprisingly, Deane turns out to be ‘a devoted follower’ of Teilhard de Chardin, the author of a cosmic theology informed by both evolution and philosophy, whilst Harpur prefers ‘a multi-construct Christ figure’ although he admits to mostly trying to focus on his ‘own interior silence’.
Both seem to agree that religion is ‘rooted in mystery, epiphany and personal experience’ and rather worrying that ‘that’s what it shared with poetry.’ Or should, because Deane is adamant that ‘too much contemporary poetry […] seems vapid and imitative, saying nothing and saying it well.’ In the same way, he notes that ‘it has always amazed me how the churches got it wrong’, although later he redirects the discussion because ‘we are not going to get too far with the theological and rational surveying of the world and poetry.’
Later on there are mentions of Simone Weil, Richard Rohr, Yeats and Hopkins, but the main drift of the conversation seems to be towards a critique of poetry that society thinks can be measured in financial terms, and then a suggestion that the mystical, inspired or ineffable is a counter to this. Whilst I agree that Western neoliberal capitalism and the measuring of anything only in terms of profit, potential or otherwise, is wrong, poetry has always had more cultural than financial value. I do not, however, want creative writing made mystical. Language is what we use to think and talk to each other, it is how we process the world; when we recognise how fluid and full of possibility it is, we can create anew. Whilst much of the poetry here is beautifully worked, thoughtful and intriguing, it does not in the main evidence what many of us would think of as a ‘radical approach’ which Deane suggests is needed. The re-mystification and obscuration of poetry and how it can or might be written does no-one any favours.
Rupert Loydell 11th January 2023
Category Archives: Irish Poetry
Darkness Between Stars by John F. Deane & James Harpur (The Irish Pages Press)
The authors’ own Introduction to this beautifully produced hardback book notes that Deane and Harpur
Tears in the Fence 76 is out!
Tears in the Fence 76, 208 pp, is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, multilingual poetry, fiction and flash fiction by David Annwn, Charles Wilkinson, Lydia Harris, Jane Robinson, Daragh Breen, L.Kiew, Valerie Bridge, Sarah Watkinson, Poonam Jain, Helen Scadding, Alan Baker, Paul Marshall, Peter Dent, Andrew Henon, Mohammad Razai, Jennie Byrne, Luke Emmett, Mark Goodwin, Eleanor Rees, Sophie Segura, Robin Walter, Jill Eulalie Dawson, Rachael Clyne, Wendy Clayton, Mike McNamara, Diana Powell, Simon Jenner, Rodney Wood, Janet Hancock, Hannah Linden, Elizabeth McClaire Roberts, Michael Henry, Alan Dent, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Birgitta Bellême, Melanie Ann Vance, Mary Michaels, Huw Gwynn-Jones, Mike Duggan and John Kinsella, from Metaphysics.
The critical section consists of Joanna Nissel’s Editorial, Mark Prendergast in Conversation with Abigail Chabitnoy, Sam Warren-Miell on the British Right’s world of poetry, Robert Hampson on Nothing is being suppressed by Andrew Duncan, Barbara Bridger on Maria Stadnicka, Aidan Semmens on Jeremy Hilton, Barbara Bridger on Sarona Abuake, Kathleen McPhilemy on Giles Goodland, Sarah Watkinson on Steve Ely, Alan Baker on Lila Matsumoto, Kathy Miles on John Freeman, Marcus Slease on Chrissy Williams, Carla Scarano on the Poetry of Ian Seed, Vicky Grut on Wendy Erskine, Olivia Tuck on Victoria Kennefick, Andrew Duncan on Khaled Hakim, Graham Harthill on Gerry Loose, Siân Thomas on Pnina Shinebourne, Mandy Pannett on Caroline Maldonado, Paul Matthews on Kay Syrad, Norman Jope on Paul Celan translated by Joan Boase-Beier, Kiran Bhat on Rishi Dastidar, Guy Russell on Derek Gromadzki, Rupert Loydell and Steve Waling in Correspondence, Morag Kiziewicz ‘s Electric Blue 11 and Notes On Contributors .
David Caddy 14th October 2022
things that happen by Maurice Scully (Shearsman Books)
Maurice Scully, in my garden 20 years ago, advised me on pruning a young laburnum tree. My dilemma was the removal of one of three main branches. He hardly hesitated, “Take out the middle one.” Was it the tree he was considering or was it symbolic of something else?
Writing ‘about’ something (how many poets continue to introduce their work, ‘This poem is about’?) renders it culpable of being a descriptive exercise, whereas writing ‘through’ something opens levels of greater interest and realization.
the middle of March I’m
in the tropics suddenly
inside the arctic circle not
dizzy but waiting to bloom…. ‘ABC’
Maurice Scully’s expansive consideration in ‘things that happen’ moves through such realisations and discoveries.
heavy chestnut blossom by a shed wall by a river.
Mud & buried bicycles & reflections in the channel.
Fifty-seven seagulls on a parti-coloured roof.
Your move. Maytime.
To swink in this railway station buying time
to think, static, in kenetic railway context by the rails.
‘A Record of Emotions: Side A’
The word ‘swink’, meaning to work under difficult conditions for long hours is key to much of what unfolds in this collection of writing – it is a huge testament to application, curiosity and the poets unfurling poetic oeuvre since 1987 and places Maurice Scully in the forefront of the Irish Modernist canon.
The word ‘swink’, so playful, indulging as it does in the act of pushing ‘ink’ forming words from that act; those words, in recognition of each other, dropping a ‘wink’ – and without stretching the point too far, the unmistakable ‘swin(g)’ of language, Gaeilge, Italian, French, English and a smattering of Sesotho, at this poets disposal. (There are helpful notes at the end of the book.)
Small turns and light twists in fleeting moments belong to the realm of these poems as much as longer sweeps of time so the reader becomes sensitive to seconds as much as decades.
the pillar vine
hacks this pliant
to the rocky
of the pillar
& in a rain
cut across &
shock – curl –
the vine the
white the pillar
the soft the
vine then just
the. ‘The Pillar & The Vine’
Time is held in this meditation – the deliberation lonely, yet filled with succour for both its author and for any reader. So often Maurice Scully’s movement of thought and consideration is through biological fascination.
There is a tacit agreement from the outset that a reader must indulge him/herself in these poems as much as Maurice Scully has done in writing them although there still remains a considerable amount of work to be done by the reader. That said, enjoyment arrives quickly when immersing oneself because of the freedom arrived at in their writing – as if the articulation of the poet’s will is subordinate
or given over to the ‘experience in itself’ as Paul Perry says.
driving in a red dustcloud
for hours years wandering
wondering how to
this stone to that hut with
precision tact two hands one
gift wait listen right
left shimmering elastic
(not any other barrier
But a breeze over it)
welcoming. conduit. ‘Steps’
Winks and nods arrive with great fun too, as in the Jacques Prévertesque,
‘To make a table / you need wood / to make the wood / you need a tree / to make the tree / you need a seed / to make the seed / you need a fruit / to make the fruit / you need a flower / to make a table / you need a flower.’
‘A Record of Emotion, Side B’
Elsewhere the wonderfully surreal/absurdist,
One day a bankman came to the tree with his money
and sat under it balancing a book. But he soon fell
asleep and began to dream. And in his dream he saw
a bankman falling asleep under a tree with his money
and a book and beginning to dream of a man dreaming
he was making money out of a book (in which he
featured quite prominently) under a tree beside a
windowsill upon which were two young caterpillars,
laughing, white and green, Fat Caterpillar and Fatter
Caterpillar, that dreamed they lived on a windowsill
under a tree. ‘Two Caterpillars’
Reading things that happen can be like flicking from station to station on a radio or channel to channel on TV. After a few minutes the senses become absorbed in the continuity of disruption itself.
There is humanity, adventure, enjoyment and skill in the 609 pages of this book.
By the way, the laburnum tree is thriving and in flower as I write.
Ric Hool 3rd June 2021
simmering of a declarative void by Robert Kiely (The 87 Press)
We poetry fans are well-accustomed to techniques for maximizing indeterminacy: cut-ups; parataxis; minuscules; lacunae; absent or unmatched punctuation; exiguous titling; wide leading to disassociate each line from the next; words used deictically but without their situation-of-utterance; and severely occluded references. To take an example:
my mooring is mist and zoos
and with no sunset i roll on
the sky bends buildings
an asteroid is no clarity
Some readers think such poems don’t like them. Others that they are just shy. This poet, after all, used to self-identify as ‘RK’. Others still will mark the contemporary ambience of disparate and disjointed information. What we are no longer subject to, however, is the elitism of old High Modernism, which once presumed a reader with a lifetime’s ticket to the leisured classes, but nowadays one with fifteen minutes to spare, a search-engine and a love of puzzles. So, the quatrain above – thanks, Internet – is a reworking of an eighth-century Chinese poem by Meng Haoran. And its first line’s unaccountable reference to ‘zoos’, for instance, is a pun on the characters zhŭ (islet) and zhōu (boat). Boom, boom! Besides the genial waggishness, the repeated point is that there’s nothing hermetic at the rainbow’s end; the pleasure is in the process whereby, among other things, you discover some Tang poetry that you’d’ve never gotten around to otherwise.
So far so standard. What makes this stand out, though, among the interesting groups of poets associated with vitrines like Streetcake, Spam, Crater and The 87, whose linguistic innovations encompass cut-ups, parataxis, minuscules, lacunae…? Mostly, in this case, the level of wit. Like judicious gifts, there are moments of scintillating clarity among the riddles. The exhortation to ‘trust nothing especially your own/ implants’. The artwork that becomes sentient and applies for its own funding. The fantasy that turns Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into a ‘pyramidal rubix cube’. The line saying ‘in the beginning were the minutes of the previous meeting’. And a terrific capriccio – too long to quote, unfortunately – that takes the locution ‘burning your bridges’ and explodes it into the realms of hilarity. The poet shows that they could out-entertain the mainstream if they chose. But like those bands that smother cute melodies in feedback, this book’s anxiety about how to write, read and live in the face of terminal crisis to either the planet or the economic system, and its simmering emotions about the current choice being made, means it has a wider objective in view. The approach looks understandable enough. Go undercover. Use a low-capitalised, low barrier-to-entry artform that’s a virtually non-saleable craft product. Ward off the hobgoblins of popularity with deliberate catachresis, recondite vocab and terrible puns, despite your unconcealable talent. And quietly create the new world within the old. I think this book is what revolutionary avant-garde poetics looks like right now, and it’s surely a small sign of hope. This tipster doesn’t recommend a ‘buy’. Certainly not. But definitely – and as the book itself is suggesting – a ‘participate’.
Guy Russell 31st January 2021