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Critical Review by Tom Halpin
SOURCE: "The Razors of Perception," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1989, p. 20.
In the following review, Halpin provides an overview of Selected Poems, outlining the general characteristics of Deane's poetry.
In the course of an interview several years ago, Thomas Kinsella was challenged to assert the value of the artistic act, conditioned as it is both by the inevitable limitations of the artist as a human being and by the apparently unrestructurable nature of reality itself, its random disorder and dispiriting contingency. Kinsella's reply was clear: "If an artistic response is called into existence, that itself modifies the situation. It's a positive response even if we never solve anything. It colours reality in a way that makes it more acceptable." This is not the only way of understanding poetry and its relation to the material of the writer's experience, but for certain temperaments; particularly when the realities they are challenged by are of an exceptionally heart-rending and intractable nature, it is frequently all that can be envisaged in coping with the brute facts of life. If there is a fruitful way of responding to the poetry of Seamus Deane, it seems to me to be in some such terms as these.
Deane's Selected Poems is garnered from his three published collections of the last seventeen years, Gradual Wars (1972), Rumours (1977), and History Lessons (1983), together with a number of new poems and translations. One implication of a selection like this is that the writer is taking critical stock of the work he has already done, that he feels he has reached a point in his development where he can indicate its main lines, and, however unconsciously, suggest something of the way in which he wishes to be read.
Deane's poetry reflects his life from his childhood in Derry City in the 1940s and 1950s (remembered in "Counting" as "a radio / Childhood, lived in the backwaters of reception"), through marriage, parenthood, a vocation in scholarship and teaching, journeys to the United States and the Soviet Union—a widening front of experience and possibility shadowed, however, by the memory of an inheritance of hurt and depression (recalled in "A World Without a Name" as "always a street / Hissing with rain, a ditch running / Svelte with fifth, mouths crabbed / With rancour and wrong, the smooth Almond of speech burnt"), and then overshadowed by the irruption of the violence which had always simmered never far beneath the surface of his world. The matter of Ulster, both in its more overtly abrasive as well as its more implicit manifestations—"The unemployment in our bones / Erupting on our hands in stones" ("Derry")—has been the inescapable and intensely painful catalyst of Deane's imaginative and critical processes. At the same time, he is nervously aware that what has happened and is happening at home is essentially a manifestation of a more general malaise: traveling across the United States to teach for a time in California (in "Hummingbirds") he is forced to note how "The times work like a virus"—"We have driven from Atlantic to Pacific / Time, through zoned cities where / Local rapists force the Israelis / Off the front page." All around, "crimes / are created afresh in the young": violence is generic and universal, reality is menacing and sinister everywhere. The awareness towards which one is forced by experience is as forbidding as experience itself is ineradicably tainted:
Pollution entered everything and made it
Fierce. Real life was so impure
We savoured its poisons as forbidden
Fruit and, desolate with knowledge,
Grew beyond redemption. Teachers
Washed their hands of us.
Innocent of any specific crime,
We were beaten for a general guilt.
What emerges everywhere in Deane's poetry is the extent to which the natural human aspiration towards alliance with a place or a person is felt to be vitiated from the outset by impending or actual misalliance. Early in the selection, in a poem significantly subtitled "After Derry, 30 January 1972," we read that where one's place had been concern, "The Peace/ Had been a delicately flawed / Honeymoon signalling / The fearful marriage to come." Near the end, one of the new poems, "Homer Nods," begins by broaching more nakedly personal apprehensions: "Were the seas the surge beneath / The marriage-bed? Was this unbelonging / Man escaping over the wine / Of water the fate of having / To belong?" This continuous awareness of apparently foredoomed abrasion is reflected in turn by the persistent struggle, at the level of the actual writing, to find forms and structures adequate to the material: the problem is one of how to integrate, as a poem, and without falsification or evasion, that which is of its very nature subject, apparently, only to disintegration. Insofar as the problem is a formal one, it is also a moral one, for what is the point of artistic performance if disintegration and disorder are ultimately the only meaning of what the imagination engages? The possibility that there might be another, imaginatively healing or enhancing dimension of meaning to be elicited from apparently random disorder through the very exercise of an artistic response, is made all the more difficult when the temperament or outlook in question is Deane's. His faith in the possibility of an even provisionally satisfying artistic response is marked by a deep, almost paralyzing scepticism: "The razors / Of perception are now / So honed they cut / The lying throat of song" ("Fourteen Elegies: Eleven").
Admittedly, these lines—registering the extent to which the forms of understanding forced upon us by historical experience make the consolations traditionally associated with art seem anachronistic and hollow—come from early in Deane's first collection, Gradual Wars, which is painfully scored by the shock and terror of newly-awakened violence. But the same can be said, in some degree or other, of Rumours ("History is your wall of pain. / Garrison, the planter's warp / In the rebel climate's grain") and History Lessons ("History is personal; the age, courage."). The present selection ends, significantly, with the fine recent "Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster, 1984," a powerful but desolate cry in the face of what seems predestined and irreparable in his inheritance ("ah, whence arose / This dark damnation, this hot unrainbowed rain?"). And yet what remains as an undeniable aftertaste from reading this volume is a sense of the increasing triumph of the poetry itself, even if it never solves anything, and perhaps most of all when it accepts this limitation as inseparable from the mysterious ambiguities and satisfactions of the poetic enterprise and thereby releases other energies to play.
Probably the most insistent characteristic of a poem by Deane is its unremitting intensity of concentration upon the subject, a quality often inseparable from an embattled sense of the difficulty of clarification. There is a recurring impression, particularly in his earliest work, of something close to anguish as the dominant emotion informing, indeed determining, the taut, nervous, sharply-cut movement of the lines. Equally often, though, even miraculously, the subject seems to arrange itself in such a way as to most clearly disclose its inner meaning, as if in answer to the desperate insistence of the imagination in the face of equally powerful knots and tangles of resistance. Memorable explosions of imagery signal the imagination's triumphant, if provisional, penetration and containment of the intractable matter in question—"And the red startled sopranos / Of the sirens settle / To a blue yap. Whatever you call it / Night after night we consume / The noise as an alcoholic / Drinks glass after glass until his voice / Is hurled like a flaw / Into his numbed palate." A moment like that, from the beginning of Gradual Wars, is representative, as is this focal passage from the collection's title poem: "Darkness / Is pierced by it, it / Has the blind focus / Of a nail shuddering / In the quiet wood / Which is going to / Split as pipes / Choked in ice do." The matter shows itself capable of yielding to a language and a music, however tense and spikey, which is now part of our understanding of the matter itself. By disclosing its accessibility to transmission in terms of significant verbal from, the hard facts of brutality and horror have been permanently colored by Deane's artistic response. But it has been a close-run and hard-won performance: the pressures of the reality upon which the art has encroached are evidenced in the recurring intensities of image and rhythm.
By the time we reach the poems culled from History Lessons, there is a markedly deeper trust revealed in the form of the poem itself as the measure of its authenticity and completion. Without any slackening in concentration or in characteristic verbal brilliance—passages and images that impact upon the ear "as though / A small shrapnel of birds scattered"—there is less overt reliance upon the single arresting image as the focus of a poem's meaning, and more confidence in the sustained singing quality of the voice in tune with the more elaborately organizing imagination. Poems which dramatize the tensions between the poignancies of personal feeling and the more implacable determinants of history and politics, like "Osip Mandelstam" (with its lovely singing lines on the self-delighting poetic act: "the gold light / The goldfinch carries into the air / Like a tang of crushed almonds"). "History Lessons," "Send War in Our Time, O Lord," "Hummingbirds," as well as poems which are more exclusively private and self-communing, like "Daystar," "The Party Givers," "Breaking Wood," reveal a voice which is more at home with itself over longer stretches, relishing its capacity to stay with its subjects until they have, as it were, told themselves. A more varied blend of lyrical possibilities is also explored within these poems—the tone of the voice speaking is more confidently flexible and supple, by turns passionate, reflective, sensuous, muscular, plangent—and this development in turn signals an exploration of his characteristic concern with vulnerability and contingency in terms that are different in degree from those connected with the attrition of the individual reality by the terrorizing force of contemporary historical experience. The latter element, of course, is still pervasive: "Send War in Our Time, O Lord," a moving enactment of the fall from innocence to experience, sets the individual finally in the context of a maelstrom in which his own reality is marginal, where "The history boys are on the rampage, / The famous noise in the street / Where a jaguar camouflage / Ripples on armoured cars / In a skin of symbols." But experience in History Lessons is felt more frequently now in other, more interior ways than heretofore, as in "The Party Givers," for example, at the end of which the couple, having played the perfect hosts throughout a long evening and seen the last guests on their way, find themselves standing momentarily stunned at the edge of an unwonted and chilling self-recognition as "Morning knifes in":
The window wanes
Into rainlight, you cup your
Face in your hands, and drink
Abandon. Is such weariness the price
For being so wonderfully at home
To others? Or is the party simply over
And we familiars in a foreign life?
Experience in this sense, something painful but potentially at least the condition of emotional clarification and renewal, is the theme of the exquisitely delicate "Daystar" ("I sensed / The sheer transparency of spring / In which the kitchen shines. / The night fever convalesces.") and the strong and moving "Breaking Wood" ("Soon / the fume of wood upon the air / Will take my feeling to the night").
That poems such as these may, in some measure, represent Deane's truest, most authentic voice coming into its own is reinforced by the fact that, for me at least, some of the best things in the book are his presumably recent translations from the Italians Zanzotto and Luzi, and the German Rilke. I am not qualified to say to what degree they are actually "translations," but they have a remarkably first-hand feel about them and read as work in which Deane's imaginative temperament has found memorable release. The results fuse a haunting sensuousness and delicacy of detail ("Like a vowel / In the valley's mouth, the hours / Of moonlight speak my strange / Life with the connivance / Of the hedgerow's leaves") with a challenging richness and density of implication.
One can quibble, of course, with this or that in the volume as a whole. The omission of the short sequence "Scholar" (from Rumours) is a loss. The elaborate legal conceit at the heart of "Summer Letter" (from the same collection) seems to me to have been overdone; the poem suffers rather badly when compared to the freer flow of a later poem like "Daystar." The Kafkaesque and/or early Auden echoes in "Directions" are distracting. That the volume is brought to an end with "Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster, 1984" (immediately preceded by "The Churchyard at Creggan," Deane's translation of "Úr-Chill a' Chreagáin" by Art MacCumhaigh) could be interpreted as betraying a needlessly programmatic impulse; frankly. I can't make up my mind whether it does or not. But these are quibbles. What we have here, overwhelmingly, is a body of work which compels recognition as a memorable, muscular, courageous testament to the imagination's resistance and resilience in the face of circumstances that threaten to usurp and immure its essentially self-delighting energies. Again and again, and with an increasing sense of the inward satisfactions to be derived from the exercise of the artistic response. "The kerosene flash of his music / Leaps from the black earth" ("Osip Mandelstam"). Deane, in the process of facing unflinchingly into the storm of contemporary disruption and breakage that is his inheritance, has made his poems earn their keep in what has frequently been the hardest way possible. In the thinnest and most fragile of margins between desolation and hope, paralysis and possibility, the poems have, somehow, come into being. Yet their very existence represents the supervention of something positive, though never equivocally hopeful, upon the situation; they constitute a strengthening and a clarification of the thin margin in which they have come into being, and their incapacity to resolve anything other than the question of their own right to exist is both a definition and a guarantee of their artistic integrity and authenticity. Poetry, in Auden's famous phrase, may "make nothing happen," but the imagination that has made these poems happen is one without which our consciousness would be even more incomplete than it is.
This section contains 2,413 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)