Latest Review
from PN Review 214   November 2013

Thomas Dillon Redshaw

“Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill”


This article is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.
A Millennial Decade: John F. Deane's Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill Thomas Dillon Redshaw
In the decade since his first collection from Carcanet, Toccata and Fugue (2000), John F.
Deane has offered up at almost three-year intervals four generous collections: Manhandling  
the Deity (2003), The Instruments of Art (2005), A Little Book of Hours (2008), and Eye of the
Hare (2011). Each volume amplifies and deepens, probes and plays on the themes and
mysteries that Deane's readers recognise as by turns democratic and idiosyncratic, social
yet ultimately individual -  as immediately political and ultimately religious. Irish readers had
the privilege of witnessing Deane come into his characteristic claim on such themes in
Christ, with Urban Fox (1997) six years after the summing-up of his early poems in The
Stylized City (1991). Like The Stylized City and like Toccata and Fugue a decade later, Snow
Falling on Chestnut Hill has a subtitle -  New and Selected Poems. By inviting Deane's
readers to reflect back on a decade of sonnets and sequences, that ordinary subtitle invites
his readers to reflect on the ever more worldly decade of Irish life that the poet has
witnessed and his readers have endured at home. Since 1997, Deane's lyrics and laments
have displayed an ever greater, more discomfiting reach of urgency. The poems that his art
presents to us insist on their real presence in our increasingly virtual, if not virtuous, world.

Decades of cultural production begin and end, of course, several years after our calendars
mark them off. So we should remember that Christ, with Urban Fox marks Deane's hard-
won maturity as a poet and the overture to his most significant and resonant compositions
of feeling and form. Coming after Christ, with Urban Fox, Deane's five Carcanet collections
attain a wholeness of hurt purpose that no reader in Britain or Ireland can fail to hear
between the lines. The accomplishment, but not the rhetoric, of this middle stretch of
Deane's poetry resembles that of Yeats's, beginning with Responsibilities. Back in 1924,
Yeats's renewed claim on his art owed its incitement partly to the Rising, the Great War, and
the Troubles, and partly to Ezra Pound and the English Metaphysicals, particularly Donne.
Deane has earned his share of those Metaphysical resources in the face of both the
'Troubles' in Northern Ireland and the concurrent secularisation of Ireland in the global
economy of the European Union. 'Christ, with Urban Fox' begins two decades of Deane's
poetry by testing the roots of our newly sub-urbane rationalisations: 'He has danced / the
awful dance, the blood-jig, has been strung / up as warning to us all, his snout / nudging still
at the roots of intellect' (SF 12).

This third New and Selected Poems puts The Instruments of Art at the centre of Deane's
selection by way of chronological convenience, of course, but also by way of its centrality in
the recursive dialogue of Deane's biblical sensibility with worldly contemporaneity.
Throughout Deane's poetry of this millennial decade, his titles and allusions pose him as a
devotional poet, but not one prone to settle for the closure of prayer instead of art. On the
contrary, Deane's deployment of word and clause is consequential rather than liturgical. If
Seamus Heaney's contemporaneous bend towards parable has favoured the Sermon on the
Mount, so Deane has favoured the harder stuff of the Sermon on the Plain. Indeed, at key
junctures Deane leans towards the tone -  tender, irritable -  of the old and impolite prophets,
as in 'The Instruments of Art':

                                                                     Is there
a way to understand the chaos of the human heart? Our
slaughters, our carelessness, our unimaginable wars?
Without a God can we win some grace?
                                                                             (SF 58)

Deane's declarations about his art are usually plain and direct, but sometimes artfully so, as
in this exasperated credo: 'Mine the religion of poetry, the poetry of religion…' The
autobiographical risk in this chiasmus is that the stations of the poet's journey, often
signalled by tags from liturgy or remembrances of the Passion, may pose the individual life
as an instrument of art. Lying behind many other poems in Deane's third selected, that
faithful proposition -  'the religion of poetry, the poetry of religion' -  suggests that art may
pose as a theological substitute in some poems, but in other poems it comes with a weary
mistrust, a sense that the will of art is neither grace nor providence. In the poems of
Deane's millennial decade, the contest in Ireland between globalised secularisation and
abstinent piety echoes the prior contest between Tridentine and Reformed Europe. Granted,
his readers discover that such dualities are naïve, but they discover as well that, grown
from biblical soil, Deane's poetry is not. The disquiet in these apparently plain and pastoral
lines from a poem at the start of Deane's millennial decade chimes with phrases in the
Bible, with the hymn tradition, and with Blake:

The ewes were shifting in the darkness
Exhaling sorrow in wooden
Dunts of incomprehension; lightning
Skittered on the horizon…
                                                                            (SF 15)

In Ireland, the millennial decade starts not with the crest of the Celtic Tiger boom but with
the optimism of the 1998 Good Friday Accord and the welcome winding-down of civil strife in
Northern Ireland. The fading of those urgent social issues from the immediate moral
imagination of the nation had several consequences, of course. Among them, it left Ireland
vulnerable to credit-fed fevers of consumption. Afterwards, what then preoccupied a
secularising culture North and South came to be a pervasive saeva indignatio attendant
upon scandals that quickly debased the institutions of the churches and began to empty out
the pews of Ireland. Ideals faded into abstraction and subjectivity. Credit was literally placed
elsewhere. And in this Ireland was not alone, for one of the great insurers of her ideals, the
United States, reacted combatively to the traumas of 9/11. America was seen to have
become irrationally reactionary, to have inverted the hopeful content of her own political
discourse, to have manipulated the United Nations in order to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq.

In part, countering dismay and disillusion at the polarising tenor of the decade constitutes
the faithful project of Deane's poetry during these years. Deane's poems often suggest how
this might be done, as in 'The Chaplet', a rich sonnet that renews the conventions of the Irish
pastoral. In these lines Deane lets his remembering sweep back from his hill hearth in
Leitrim to a fireside long past in his native Achill. Like the old woman 'visiting her losses' by
telling her beads, Deane visits his losses - as we are invited to visit ours. Remembering also
that the thread of the rosary broke -  betokening the fragility of prayer - Deane applies his art
in an endeavour to

string it all together, to a sentence, making
sense, and I can sit remembering -  
and shaping, the way a sonnet shapes -  
that dusk her rosary burst asunder and beads
spilled skittering all-which-ways on the stone floor…
                                                                            (SF 66)

Doing this requires transmuting the least tractable details of ordinary life and feeling into the
disquieting stuff of poetry. Doing this constitutes the chosen work -  the liturgy -  of the
ruminations that make up Deane's title poem Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill. The labour of
that easy yoke makes the recall of these Selected Poems an urgency for Deane and a deep
pleasure for his readers. Following them, the telling of Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill weaves
threads of autobiographical meditation through familial recollection. Notably, one element -  
a tone, really -  does not find its instrument in the fifty or so pages of Snow Falling on
Chestnut Hill. This is the scorn listeners can find in the most severe Irish satire, the
indignation of the Gaelic cursers, of Swift, and the anger of the severe Old Testament
prophets. Deane's reader will find little of Jeremiah's fury here. But it lies in the background
in Deane's spontaneous commentaries in his fugitive, digitally self-published 'Waxwing'
broadsides. Transmuted into self-abasing anguish, it appears in poems such as the holy
sonnet 'Officium':

Why have you made him contrary to you
that he learn baseness, anger and defeat
swallowing his own saliva in sudden dread?
Can you erase his sins, like chalk marks,
or place your angels as a fence about him?
                                                                            (SF 33)

This tone, stance, or habitus constitutes both the foundation on which Deane has set the
contemplations of Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill and what they, with art and difficulty, must
overcome. Therein lies their modernity.

Deane's loyal readers will recognise that Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill presents, to use
medical parlance, by turns as a sequence and as a long poem. In the twenty-first-century
maturity of Irish poetry, such shape-shifting of genres has attained a distinction that the
contemporary Irish poet must attempt. Among the distant models may be counted Yeats's
'Meditations in Time of Civil War' (1924), Kavanagh's The Great Hunger (1942), and Denis
Devlin's The Heavenly Foreigner (1959). Among the near models may be counted Eoghan Ó
Tuairsc's Aifreann na Marbh (1958), Montague's The Rough Field (1972), and Michael
Coady's All Souls (1997). The alert reader will see and hear in Deane's lines the turns and
flourishes of image and idea descended from details in one or the other of those poems.
Most of all, though, Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill starts with Thomas Kinsella's example -  
with his solo exercises of voice in the middle and late Peppercanister poems, a number of
which Deane printed for Kinsella. Like Kinsella, Deane is after the unvarnished, almost
untutored voice of the heart finding its way through the rough and tender suites of human
feelings. What are told solo are fragments or beads of narrative: the vocation of the child,
the allegory of the traveller or pilgrim, and the recording of music's memorials. And the
slowly discovered purpose of this long poem or sequence is the recovery of spirit from the
exhaustion or accidia of long-held scorn and sometimes coveted angers. So, the lines of
Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill leave some of those anxieties and protests to the Selected
Poems. 'The Red Gate', again from The Instruments of Art, poses the choice in the

                                                   …the first
Truck goes rattling down the wet road and the raw
arguments, the self-betrayed economies of governments

assault you so you may miss the clear-souled drops
and the topmost bar that would whisper you peace.
                                                                             (SF 65)

The occasion of Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill repeats that of Derek Mahon's The Hudson
Letter (1995): an academic residency in the gilded castles of America. Mahon spent his in
New York at Queen's College, Brooklyn, and Deane his briefer tenure in Massachusetts at
Boston College, Brookline. The contrast of the two poems helps characterise both. Mahon's
direct and practised fealty to the epistolary convention helps him juggle wittily the jarring
details of metropolitan life and, like the flâneur, pretend to stand aside from them. Like
Mahon, Deane owns a well furnished mind. Like Mahon, Deane plays free with leading
epigraphs and allusions - many, for example, to his late-style audition of early Church music
and works from the German repertoire. Before epigraphs or titles interrupt, Deane suggests
musical consequence by opening poem into poem with colons. Indeed, Deane might have
alluded to Bach's suites for solo violoncello by way of illustrating the concourse of playing
and listening, composing and listening. While listening - or remembering listening while solo
-  Deane almost reluctantly lets the ten contemplations (plus an overture and a coda) of
Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill discover that he is, in effect, 'writing home' out of a sense of
distance, of apartness, of sudden yet sought singularity. As much as they work against it,
Deane's lines work through the perennially relevant Irish genre of emigrant's letter. But the
incitement to 'take pen in hand', or so naïve letter-writers used to begin, comes in the
moment of 'The Poem of the Goldfinch': in its Franciscan moment of Dante - '…so I set
myself down to the task' -  and the like Metaphysical moment of George Herbert:

        …Write your dream, said Love, of the total
Abolition of war. Vivaldi, I wrote, the four
Seasons. Silence, a while, save for the goldfinch
Swittering in the higher branches, sweet, …
                                                                            (SF 74)

That saving, distracting note reminds us that the associative, reflecting drama of Snow
Falling on Chestnut Hill does not gather its structure solely from memory. Here, music cues
memory. Nor does it do so from intellection or feeling, for here music again prompts the
mindful poet: 'I have been listening now, for decades…' What touch Deane's lines by allusion
or quotation are particular, sung moments in the Western Classical tradition - Renaissance,
Romantic, and mostly German -  from Palestrina and Byrd to Górecki and Britten (but not
Mahler, or Stravinsky). Recollections and impulses of worldly protest and hope come bidden
by Beethoven's 'Hymn to Joy', quoted without clockwork irony. Isaiah comes as quoted by
Brahms in his Deutsches Requiem. Polish folk poems come as heard in Górecki's
'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'. And at each recollection of the sung word there surface
images and episodes from the poet's childhood on Achill and his youth in the Irish church. In
this respect, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes cues associations that suggest why the
sequence's last movement, also titled 'Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill', becomes, as the
reader overhears its lines, a coda rehearsing the themes and torsions that play through the
figure and voice of the 'outsider' in more than a decade of Deane's poetry. To a
contemporary of Britten, Michael Tippett, and to his heterogeneous oratorio A Child of Our
Time may be traced three of Deane's leading phrases that take the reader direct into the
enquiry of the poem and the yearning towards overture rather than coda: 'novice to the
time', 'Child of that time', and 'Child of the times'. Others spoke of that child as 'this Jesus of
yours' in 'Words of the Unknown Soldier':

                      …and we buried him in the underearth.
Where, it is said, he took to walking once again,
singing his larksong to the startled, to the stumped, dead.
                                                                             (SF 106)

The child in familial guise reappears from Deane's earlier collections in the well-
remembered setting of Achill Island in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The mysteries and
hurts of adult life register obliquely but resonantly on the child that Deane conjures for the
reader. Here the privations of marginal Irish life wind up being poised as vessels of frail
virtue in contrast to the recent amplitude of Irish living. Here the call to voyage in the world
yields, if not wealth, then emotional valour. As novice, or ephebe, the child comes to heed
the social call into the formation that Irish Catholicism then offered, and which Deane has
long personally and persistently reconstrued in prose essays and homilies in 'In Dogged
Loyalty' (2006) and From the Marrow-bone (2008), paired up according to his convertible
formula: 'The religion of poetry: the poetry of religion'. This may seem too familiar to the
rapid reader aching for novelty, but for the slow reader Deane's ability to renew for
contemporary poetry the long and steady line of religious or 'metaphysical' writing in grants
him access to an ever-renewing font of story and imagery.

                                           I am relearning
ignorance so I may write foolishly again and say
it will be all right, it will be all…
                                                                            (SF 137)

Again in familial guise, but in the third generation, the child appears as the poet's great-
grand-daughter -  as the infant bearing the world as overture, rather than coda. In this there
is daring, for at various turns in Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill Deane sets at risk the usual
inventions and refinements of poetic expression by resting easy with the prosaic, or with
the ordinary terms of felt expression. In the open or relaxed mode of these contemplations,
plain style has a role to play. That is not to say that Deane's eschewing of elevated burnish
betrays a puritan impulse or evades difficulty. Rather, it is to say that first-off simplicity
helps throw thematic complexity and compositional challenge into relief. At the very end of
Snow Falling in Chestnut Hill, Deane answers the momentary solitude of his life in wintry
Massachusetts by seeing - it is a trompe l'oeil fiction that radiates into the posing of both a
symbol and parable - a revenant come to his open door in an eddy of snow swept up in the
Yankee wind of a 'Nor'east' blizzard. Snowflakes create the beloved image of his long
departed first wife. Her voice sounds in the cold wind, and her open arms bear gifts difficult
to accept.

…darkness active out there, snow
swirling, a shape that
formed and faded out of the skirl of white and grey…
And she came, breathless…
                                                                            (SF 159)

Few evidences of these three gifts remain, except in the poem itself. Both marking and
promising rebirth, the 'bright Christmas rose', the frail hellebore, dropped at the threshold,
epitomises the child, grandchild, and great-grandchild as well as the adored infant of
Christian custom. In her swept-up bodiless form of snow, the visitor herself makes a
promise witnessed in the flower she bears: the possibility of purity renewed: '"Soul / and
body, body and soul. No longer flawed."' Her reply to the fleeting, but long-remembered
paradox of human suffering and disease comes as another gift: '"I bring," she answered,
"gifts. Wolves, too, wolves" / she whispered, "wolves are the lambs of God."' The third gift
comes not when the poet recognises his visitor, but when, with the word 'traveller', she
salutes her living husband as the outsider in Ireland, the emigrant out of Ireland, the voyager
into white martyrdom, and the pilgrim through our world.

Traveller, I have come again to sit by the sea,
its many-coloured inks

writing over and over the names and origins and destinations
of its heart-stuffs, its periwinkles, sea-wolves, squid;
all of the dead and living out there
ghost floating in a world…
                                                                            (SF 126)

Because each is a contemplation commingling memory and prayer, each of the eleven
movements of Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill constitutes a durable moment of isolation for
Deane and for his reader. In that singular interval between the call of the world and the call
of the page, we may engage the charity of listening to ourselves and chance to hear the sine
wave of mindfulness, the cuisle of the heart, the beat of the body. The poem's reiterated
claim on our best attentions has little grandiosity and hardly any presumption, but it does
possess moment of the sort that Brahms evokes for us in Ein Deutsches Requiem in the
crescendo of pulse that underscores the choir in 'Denn alles Fleisch est wie Gras'. Deane
recalls that Old Testament observation several times in the movements of his sequence. It
seems almost a truism, except that the sudden and singular hearing of it deep in ourselves
startles, abashes, and promises that 'sorrow and sighing shall flee away'. That covenant
embodies in a few words the supreme fiction of Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill.
Since 1977 and Stalking after Time, John F. Deane has kept his word with and before his fit
but not few readers. And, almost four decades on, they may hear in the turns of meditation
and returns of reflection of Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill a valedictory note or two. It is worth
keeping mindful that not only has Deane proved a profuse writer on poetry and of fiction, he
has also helped share Ireland's late twentieth-century poetry with Europe through
translations of his own work into Italian, French, Bulgarian, and through his own translations
of Koltz, Leckius, and Tranströmer. Deane reconceived Poetry Ireland and established that
journal's parent organisation - both now staples in Ireland's cultural diet. After the demise of
Liam Miller's Dolmen Press in 1987, Deane and his Dedalus Press helped carry on
publishing Irish poetry for Irish readers. Amid four decades of painful transformation of the
common culture in Ireland, Deane's accomplishments display his steadfast insistence upon
the real presence of the poetic word.

In that perspective, Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill constitutes Deane's adventure into what
his readers in Ireland, in Britain, in America may rightly sense will be his late style. Deane
lets the ravelling drama of the twelve movements of the poem appeal to his reader's
yearning for 'closure', but in the ending vision, the revenant snow angel -  'snow /swirling, a
shape that / formed and faded out of the skirl of white and grey… / And she came,
breathless, / …'
(SF 159) - offers an opening, a gift, 'our child'. The risk here lies in refusing to explicate every
autobiographical detail, in swerving away from the confessional gambit, in leaving a
blessing unanswered. Taking such a negative risk entails trusting the modesty of felt
experience about which the fashion now is to be mistrustful in either an ironic or a
hyperbolic manner. It entails Naïf repose in the face of experience remembered in, if not
tranquillity, then in lone charity.

                                                      --The University of St. Thomas