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Bernard O'Donoghue reviews
"Give Dust a Tongue: A Faith & Poetry Memoir"
Columba Press, Dublin €19.99
Carcanet, Mancheester, £9.99
The English poet David Constantine, declaring his requirements for poetry in the Carcanet
‘Oxford Poets’ series which he edited, said he wanted ‘poetry that matters’. Few writers have
honoured this requirement as consistently throughout a long poetry-writing life as John F.
Deane, and the story is now told in his magical memoir Give Dust a Tongue. The title comes
from George Herbert’s poem ‘Deniall’ which is included as an epigraph here:
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To crie to thee.
Herbert is the great poet of conversation with God, which is why he is so crucial for Deane
whose life has featured such conversations in a way that is unusual in our time. A strange
section towards the end of the book shares its overall title and recounts a visit to Herbert and
his wife at the parsonage of Bemerton near Bath in the 1630s where the poet parks his Toyota
Prius hybrid after travelling on the ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard. Rather like Heaney’s
crewman in the ‘Clonmacnoise’ poem, the two poets are marvels to each other.
Deane is a great traveller between worlds in his own right, from his upbringing on Achill
Island, through a novitiate with the Holy Ghost Fathers to two blessed marriages. And of
course there are poetry and Nature and music, all crucial to his life and vision. It is hard to
think of a single term that encapsulates all these interests and compulsions: to call him a kind
of Christian Pantheist would make him sound more withdrawn from the world than he is.
Deane has strong views about worldly justice with which he is actively involved. When he visits
in California his dying elder Jesuit brother Declan (Semibreve is dedicated in memory of him:
the connexion between the two brothers is lifelong and profound), he mentions twice prayer-
services organised by the protestors and prisoners on death row in the notorious San Quentin
prison. If Deane is a kind of mystic, his mysticism is deeply involved with the world.
Give Dust a Tongue is organized in six sections: the first is more than a third of the book,
describing his childhood and his family, most memorably his grandmother, Nanna, who is
introduced with a very memorable sentence: ‘Nora Connors was the great love of my young
life and remains so for me still, as a person of warmth and sorrow, kindliness and fear,
thoughtfulness and loneliness’. It would be hard to imagine a better summary of the life and
qualities of Irish countrypeople - women especially - in past generations.
His teacher-mother, Jo-Jo Connors has great prominence too and sets the scene for the whole
agonistic drama of Deane’s life: she was a ‘strict Roman Catholic, with whom I fought, whom
I loved deeply in my own way’. Section Two describes his schooling, leading to his life as a
novice priest and his leaving the novitiate in Section Three. There is none of the Joycean fire
and brimstone here; his spiritual director sends him to see a psychiatrist - a priest lecturer in
UCD - who simply springs the question on him: ‘Do you want to stay in the Holy Ghost
Fathers?’ and the immediate answer is ‘No’. The short Section Four is called ‘Winter in
Meath’ and is dominated by his development as a poet, touching too on the death of his young
wife, Barbara Sheridan, something which we get the impression was too painful to be dwelt on
at length in a book which is insistently positive in the face of life’s tribulations.
The substantial Section Five deals with Deane’s life in poetry: not only the writing of it but his
founding of Poetry Ireland and the Poetry Ireland Review. Deane is too modest to make much
of this, but of course it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this activity. This
section also includes the narrative of the visit to the Herberts, and an appreciation of Hopkins
after a visit to St Beuno’s in North Wales, the seminary where Hopkins had been so happy and
productive. Finally, as a kind of coda, there is a sequence of twenty sonnets called ‘According
to Lydia’, his own response to the question ‘Name and Nature: Who do you say that I am?’
which Deane had set for a special issue of Poetry Ireland Review on Jesus. These beautiful
poems are mostly a response to a visit to the Holy Land which provides a perfect conclusion to
this book of positive questioning in the face of mortality:
I work to keep the heart open, to hold to the blessing
that made me aware, then, that I was blessed; glory
song, the damson flowers blossoming when they will.
The organization of the book is its greatest success. Deane’s poems, some new and some
already familiar, are woven into the prose fabric, rather in the way that medieval poets (often
religious poets like Dante) created prose settings by way of explication of the poetry. Other
welcome, previously encountered items here are the series of five ‘Miscellanies’ - mostly from
the earlier life and recollections - drawn from Deane’s much loved contributions to RTE’s
The occurrence of poems familiar from the memoir continues in Semibreve, the seventh
volume of poems by Deane published by Carcanet. For example the wonderful poem
‘Blueberries’, written to his wife from California appears early in the book and in its
chronological place in the memoir; ‘Viola d’Amore’, beginning with the poet playing ‘Bach on
the great organ’, appears near the start of Semibreve and in the seminary section of the
memoir. Semibreve is also divided into six sections, from the music-dominated first to the
substantial final section which is where Deane’s grounded, spiritual pantheism is most in
evidence. That is where we find the wonderful pair of elegies for his brother Declan (as in the
memoir), where the poet watches the ‘dizzying flight of a humming-bird’ in the Californian
cemetery. It all ends in the Holy Land again where the ‘void that is Yeshua' is filled in the
book’s exultant last line: ‘I know enough/ has been given, enough given, and more than
In the aftermath of the wonderful Irish vote for same-sex marriage hard things have been
said about the Church. But it is salutary to be reminded by these poems and memoirs of the
virtues and importance of the spiritual perspectives too. They matter.
Bernard O'Donoghue's sixth collection, Farmers Cross, (Faber) was shortlisted for the Irish Times
Poetry Now Award and the TS Eliot Prize