Two modern poets explore mysteries of faith

Two modern poets explore mysteries of faith
Darkness Between Stars
by John F. Deane and James Harpur (Irish Pages Press, Belfast, €24.99/£22.00)
Thomas Macarthy

This book is an entirely unexpected project. Two poets of seniority and assured reputation have come together to publish the poetic faith essence of their many-volumed careers.

Deane is a Catholic poet who once studied for the priesthood and Harpur is a highly educated Classicist from the Anglican and Quaker traditions. Deane has been Teilhard de Chardin Fellow in Christian Studies at Loyola University in Chicago while Harpur has translated Boethius and written brilliantly upon Iona, Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells. This charge-sheet of Christian endeavours surely condemns them in our age of humanist literature. But they have endured spectacularly; and this new book comes to us as one more of their flaring assertions of the value of belief.

The book is not only important as a joint quest of faith, but for the marvellous selection of the best poems by both poets; it demonstrates how questions of tradition and belief are crucial scaffoldings in the infrastructure of their own best poems – so we have published, here, Deane’s ‘Francis of Assisi 1182-1982’ and ‘Christ, With Urban Fox’ :

“this is not praise, it is obedience,

the way the moon suffers its existence,

the sky its seasons. Man-God, God-man, Christ,

suburban scavenger….”


As companion-pieces Harper has re-published here his masterpiece ‘The White Silhouette,’ his poem of The Book of Kells; as well as the superb ‘Magna Karistia,’ a poem written as a kind of continuation of the words of Friar John Clyn of Kilkenny in 1349, the good friar who left the gift of untouched parchment to posterity so that others could complete the praises of God in a time beyond the Plague:

“Lord, for years I have been dying

Leeched white by sterile days,

Lacklustre nights; instead of trying

To exorcise the haze

Of tepid piety – instead of crying

Out for grace, I mouthed your praise”

The collection is full of such marvels and it is moving to see just how well these poets wrote over such already-long careers; and not only that, but how they leave behind the evidence of a parallel yet inexorable journey towards that curious, unmodern light of Christ.

Deane’s marvellous ‘Snow Falling On Chestnut Hill,’ a meditation on Brahms, Boston snow and the Christmas rose or helleborus, has withstood the test of time and will be a familiar anthology piece in the future, as will fragments of his superb ‘According to Lydia’ with its ghosts of Kfar Nahum, snow-topped Hermon and the stones of Samaria.

Company of faith

James Harpur has always kept the widest possible company of faith near at hand on his writing-desk, from Joseph of Arimathea to St Symeon Stylites, from St Aidan to Richard Rolle. His Anglican faith-quest has been no less complex than the Thomist Deane and his Irish sense of faithful belonging is palpable:

“I pass through the Romanesque arch

of Killeshin and gaze from its hilltop ruins

at the fields of Laois and Timahoe’s tower

and the church where my grandad Thomas

is lighting red candles on the altar

rehearsing his sermon for Evensong.”

Darkness Between Stars concludes with an important and penetrating prose dialogue of 26 pages between the poets. Both poets outline that yearning for the transcendent in a society that has been overwhelmed by what is immediate and corporeal.

The dialogue goes some way towards explaining the awkward persistence of their faith-quest. Persons of faith often create resentment among the unfaithful who feel excluded from the charisms of believing. An effort is sometimes made to hide faith from the resentful or mocking humanist gaze.

But poets can’t hide, they are too dramatically self-aware. These two poets have heard the clamour of something Christ-like in the distance, and they can’t help themselves from wanting to slouch towards the light. This book is the evidence of that journey.