Critical Appraisal 1
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM CONTEMPORARYWRITERS.COM
Though associated more with poetry than with fiction – partly, no doubt, because of his
prolific work as a poetry editor and publisher in his native Ireland – John F. Deane is an
accomplished and wholly original writer of novels and short stories. Consider this
disorienting, grim, shockingly vivid passage from ‘The Photograph’ (The Heather Fields
and other stories, 2007):
‘There was a man in the hallway, on his knees on the rust-flagged floor, his left hand
raised to the wall for support, his right hand clutching his throat. […] He was gasping for
breath, trying to drag himself along towards the end of the hallway, towards the only door
that seemed perfectly intact in the house. He was making strange, half-strangled sounds
and it was very clear that he was in a terminal state, and suffering greatly. I did not know
what to do. The man was vaguely familiar to me and yet I knew an overpowering dread of
him; some ill-defined sense of terror held me fixed to where I stood, useless, helpless.’
No two of Deane’s works of fiction are particularly alike, but many of them share a dream-
like quality, a flirtation with the dark possibilities of magical realism, incisive and
questioning analyses of our ponderous human responses to difficulty, fear, normalcy,
In the poems, Deane shows the same talent for terse, precise explorations of unsettled
emotion. In ‘Winter in Meath’, from the collection also called Winter in Meath (1984), we
‘This is a terrible desolation –
the word "forever" stilling all the air
Those last two words, falling beyond the enjambment and the stanza to which they might
otherwise belong (for these are the last two words of this section of the poem) and not
needed to lend the two lines above any grammatical correctness; they jolt utterly, and with
finality, the emotions of the poem.
Deane has a deeply-felt Christian – or, more accurately, culturally Christian – conscience.
But God is not always a particularly consoling presence. In ‘The Fox-God’ from Christ, with
Urban Fox (1997), He is, if anything, a bitterly-felt absence. A fox has been snared and dies
in its trap:
‘The fox, they will say, is vermin, and its god
a vermin god; it will not know, poor creature,
how it is suffering – it is yourself you grieve for.
While I, being still a lover of angels, demanding
a Jacob’s ladder beyond our fields, breathed
may El Shaddai console you into that darkness.
I know there was no consolation. No fox-god came.’
But there is little between us and the fox, ultimately. Indeed, the fox is blessed, if anything,
because humans certainly understand how they will suffer:
‘The gap out of life, we have learned,
is fenced over with affliction. We, too, some dusk,
will take a stone for pillow, we will lie down, snared,
on the uncaring earth. Poor creatures. Poor creatures.’
In ‘Under the Same Sky’, from Toccata and Fugue (2000), man is shown to be far less
worthy of divine attention – and less comfortable in his life – than the animals. Rats and
fowl variously do their things,
‘… and only the man-shape,
irritable in the tree’s shelter, stands alien,
judgemental, in need of redemption.’
Presumably this man hiding in the undergrowth is a hunter or a fisherman: he is, in one
sense, in control of what he surveys. But he is also an impostor, does not belong there,
and is cursed by his own understanding of what is to come – unlike the animals in front of
There is a pervading sense in Deane’s work of the fragility, and preciousness, of human
life. In ‘Heatherfield’ (Christ, with Urban Fox) ‘the elderly / gather in small surviving groups’
and ‘clap their hands repeatedly / to applaud their living still’, which seems rather pathetic
and futile but what else can they do? In ‘The Child’, from Toccata and Fugue, the child in
question pours salt on one snail so that it ‘slobbering, dissolved into a mess’, and kicks
another into the road where it is subsequently run over:
‘and what was it entered him then? that he, too,
partakes of the essence of matter,
inertia, fragility, impotence,
he, too, attending on the footpath’s edge.’
The use of definite article in the title and the repetition of ‘he, too’ serve to imply that the
child in question stands for all children and therefore for all of us, too.
Deane is one of Ireland’s finest landscape and nature poets, not least because he so
considerately fuses acute observations of the physical world with the hurt and fear of
sentient beings. Consider the mournful alliteration of ‘To Market, To Market’ (A Little Book
of Hours, 2008), their cadenced lines imbued with an almost Anglo-Saxon stateliness and
‘The day was drawky, with a drawling mist
coming chill across the marshlands;
the church of Ireland stood, damp and dumpy,
crows squabbling on its crenulated stump; cattle,
that had summered in a clover field, have been herded
through plosh and muck into a lorry, have dropped
their dung of terror on slat and road.’
There is an inevitability about all of this, a sense in which its gruesomeness is too normal
to register as gruesome, the cadenced and measured prosody and complex sentence
structure giving the scene an inexorable feel – and all of this is achieved with the use of
such lush, beautiful language.
Deane remains one of our finest writers when it comes to exploring the unresolvable
existential flux of the human condition, the role of religion in modern life, and what can
happen when the two do not seem compatible. His recent novel, Where No Storms Come
(Blackstaff, 2010), is perhaps his most searching exploration of these themes to date,
following as it does the friendship between a man and a woman, respectively destined for
life in the priesthood and the convent. In this work Deane continues to ask hard moral and
philosophical questions with the skill and insight to deal competently and movingly with a
dearth of solid answers.
Rory Waterman, 2010
2. Where No Storms Come: Blackstaff Press
|TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT February 18, 2011
"John F. Deane's demanding yet lyrically soothing novel, is full of echoes and repetitions
which create an uneasy tension between ideas of right and wrong". . . "Deane depicts the
reach of God's love, but also the power of human love". . . "It might seem unlikely that 'love'
and 'magic' can be convincingly rendered in a novel which sets about challenging
institutionalized theology, but they are".
3. Where No Storms Come
Books Ireland April 2011
"John F. Deane has written a love story folded into prose of such intensity that it just
takes your breath away... Deane writes here with an easy intimate knowledge and his
descriptive skills brought me to tears on several occasions. . . The clarity of Deane's
writing voice is deeply enjoyable, even as the nature of the story itself remains often
ambiguous. Not a single word or phrase is wasted"
4. The Works of Love
Books Ireland May 2011
"As something of a collapsed Catholic I approached this work with a little trepidation. I
was concerned that Deane's avowedly and overt expression of Christian belief might
outweigh the pure pleasure of his writing. I wanted the writing, instead, to outweigh the
belief, feeling belief so tainted by such things as the Ryan report that it would be
impossible to see even great writing except through that prism. Oh dear, pardon the
laboured pun, but I really should have had more faith.
John F. Deane is a warm, learned, marvellous writer and that alone is enough to give
simple pleasure. As he himself writes here, "belief or unbelief ought not to undermine our
attitude to good poetry".
The book is an exploration and treatment of poetry and a range of poets, interspersed
with memory and reflection. It does not tie itself down with a strictness of format and in
that it has echoes of none other than John Moriarty. Yes, the admirable Moriarty is here all
right but Deane steers clear of some of the exhausting excesses of Moriarty's learning.
What Deane is more likely to leave you with is an unshakeable image. Take this, for
example: a memory of going out fishing with his father on their beloved Achill Island:
Sometimes father called out in excitement, when the shoals of mackerel broke Or he will nudge your mind open until you realise that the mind that may have come to this
into the shallows near him, famished, frenzied through the living mercury of sprat.
Then he could almost reach down with his hand and fling one onto the rocks
behind him. I would stand, picturing them, out there, the shoals, streaming through
the cold, inhuman forests of the underworld, aghast, and wraithlike.
work weighed down with reactionary suspicions was your own. "Formal religions have no
monopoly on religious experience," says the writer of the Christian poetry book and all of
your misgivings begin to seep away.
In between the memoir and the reflection are hidden small essays on a number of poets,
the fascinating Robert Southwell, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, John Clare, Gerard
Manley Hopkins, Patrick Kavanagh, Wendell Berry, even one on the painter Edvard Munch.
These are small gems or learning and reflection and outside of the book are worth
In many ways Deane has written something of a biography, something of a brave book,
stepping out of joint with the times as a real artist can, he has written a book of true
radicalism. It is also something of a call to action, to reawaken. "We need to respect
people more than economics: honesty and integrity in a politics that promotes governance
for the people, not for the government". I have reviewed a slew of books about our
economic crisis in these pages and found some more impressive than others, some more
sensational and blaring. John F. Deane's book on incarnation, ecology and poetry might
just turn out to be the real book of these troubles times of ours, the one to tell us really
how we got here and really how we might get out of it.
Now I didn't expect that when I picked it up but this is the work of a true artist and I salute
it. -- Joe Horgan