What Jesus wrote in the dust: the life and poetry of John F. Deane

Give Dust a Tongue: A Faith & Poetry Memoir

by John F. Deane

(The Columba Press, €19.99)

What is the role of a religious poet in what is all too often called “a secular age”? This is a question which the new book by John F. Deane may go some way to answering for readers.

John F. Deane is one of the few recent Irish poets who engage with religious themes in a whole hearted way. This has earned him many admirers, and a few enemies: the small world of Irish literature often goes that way. In this book he sets out to explore through an account of his life, his engagement with poetry and religion, and what he not so much believes in, as hopes for.

Deane was born and reared on Achill Island, a place which saw much raw religious conflict in the Victorian era, an island admired by painters and poets, not only because of its actual landscape, but because it was easier of access than say, Inishkea. But in these places the truly cruel life of the West of Ireland was lived out in those winter months when city folk had gone away.

It was here, as the first part of the books recounts, that he grew up with a feeling for not only the natural world, but also the exigencies of Irish society.

He moved from this natural world into a novitiate in Tipperary, not as he once intended in the White Fathers, but in the Holy Ghost Fathers (now the Spiritans). He found, after much study that the priesthood was not for him. He closed the door on what had seemed his vocation and returned to the world, wearing a new suit from Clerys.

Tragic death

Central to his life, however, was the tragic death of his first wife. She was devoured by lupus: this changed his perspective again. His salvation lay in his true vocation as a poet.

He goes on to describe how he survived by readings and was able to found and to develop Poetry Ireland as the premier poetry journal in Ireland, while rearing his two daughters.

Important to this in recent times has been the work of the late Tomas Tranströmer (Nobel Laureate 2011). But the key to his emergence as a poet – having resisted poetry for years – was Gerard Manley Hopkins. And from one Jesuit it was a step to another, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

It is not exact to describe Teilhard as an anthologist; more exactly he was a palaeontologist – it was this work that took him to Asia. But the depths of time that the rocks revealed to him gave him a perspective closed off to many of his critics. The cosmos Teilhard saw was 13 billion years old.

What are those aeons of time to the known culture of man, or indeed to the history of the Church?

We cannot today think of Christ without seeing that if the cosmos leads to the emergence of man and mind, the actual course of time moves on towards what Teilhard saw as “the Omega point”, the destined encounter of creation with its creator.

Deane was much affected by Teilhard’s La Messe sur la Monde (now part of the Hymn of the Universe). In a sense it informs all his work still. But this perspective on faith required human fortitude.

He has that too, as the memoir makes clear. And through his poetry – much of which is on display in these pages – attempts to reconcile all these elements.

Set as the epigraph of this book to provide its deep underlying theme is the passage from St John, where Jesus is described teaching in the Temple. The Scribes and the Pharisees (whom we might see as the media critics of their day perhaps) asked about the woman taken in adultery.

His enigmatic answer was let those without sin throw the first stone “and once again he bent down and wrote in the dust of the earth”. 

We do not know from the apostle what was written in the dust; but a poet such as John F. Deane may allow us a glimpse of what God as written in the dust of the Cosmos.