Heartfelt poems of our planetary home

POETRY: WITH PLAIN-SPOKEN, scrupulous exactitude Patrick Deeley attends on "grounded things"

POETRY:WITH PLAIN-SPOKEN, scrupulous exactitude Patrick Deeley attends on "grounded things". Kin to Kavanagh and Heaney, he's a cartographer of his own known, loved space, his poems gleaming with place names and local knowledge.

A philosopher of the near-at-hand natural world, his work contains touches of Wordsworth, too, in his reckoning of the glamour and grief, the terrors as well as the joys of a nature that "happens/ too hugely for any containment", while a haiku series called Basho on the Doddersignals another informing influence.

For me, his strongest poems (including Keaveney's Well, A Burrishoole Gate, Callows Water Barrel, Capstone, as well as the wonderfully odoriferous Marl Excavations, and the elegiac Foxhall Sunset) are those in which he exercises a sensuously immediate descriptive power allied to some particularly inflected human awareness, carrying all off in rhythmically satisfying free verse lines or stanzas. He does this in the lovely Species, for example - where an innocent immersion in the natural gains a rhythmic velocity that testifies to its unforced truth, a truth that manages to incorporate a memory of a father's childhood presence, and to "lead him by his grainy/ fertilizer hand to stoop with me there,/ over wonders of cuckoo spit,/ spider and cowslip, on a headland". And he does it again in Pieceworkwhere his profound feeling for the natural (mushroom picking) is fused to a warmly sympathetic understanding of a changed Ireland.

Poems like The Owlor Dust, Mistletoeor The Badger on Orwell Bridgeshow Deeley's imagination at full stretch, yet remaining relaxed and attentive to the signs that the natural world (even in the city) offer him. Although occasionally in this (his third) collection he slips into a more brittle and abstract mode that becomes portentous or emotionally muddled, The Bones of Creationis for the most part a well-shaped collection that gives a fine sense of authority, of a consciousness neither brash nor timid, simply speaking its own home and away-from-home truths, knowing that the natural contains "powers beyond/ the powers of reckon and render". He possesses a mature, individual voice, an assured sensibility, and a humane openness to, and eco-understanding of, the world. In one of his poems, a night fisherman on the bank of the Dodder river silently goes on fishing through the darkness - calm, patient, deft and, seemingly indifferent to his own craft - and suddenly "without to do, will land the fish". The best of these poems have just such an attentive, delicately exacting, successful touch.


Where Deeley combines his observations of the natural world with personal memory and a gently emphatic social critique, Mary Montague is more of a visionary, her language tuned to higher frequencies. While this can sometimes slide into overly operatic manners, she more often embodies in her lively, accurate language the vitality of natural fact: the sheer animated being of creatures, the solid yet buoyant energy of the vegetable world.

Informed by her studies in genetics and zoology, Montague's poetry enacts a happy marriage between the scientist's carefully objective eye and the lyricist's celebratory (sometimes elegiac) rapture. Poems that record in a wonderfully detailed way her encounters (in Cape Breton and beyond) with whales, moose, gannets, and caribou, reveal a capacity to look closely, while at the same time composing a clear narrative of human involvement with the world of earth, sky and sea creatures. And if at times her close encounters with birds or animals can lead to an identification with one or other of them that, in expression, seems more forced, more deliberately willed than the involuntary responsiveness of her best work, her concluding poem, Afterwards, in which she imagines herself as a wolf returning to the wilderness, is a rich, convincing evocation.

It is, however, when the narrative enclosure of a poem contains her consciousness of separation from, as well as deep imaginative attachment to, her subjects, that her work, for me, is most successful. Poems such as The Heron, Encounter(with a caribou), Winter Meditation(a splendid conjuring of that shy bird, the dipper), Cape St Mary's(starring rock-dwelling, high soaring gannets), Avalon(in which her narrative takes on an overt eco-political edge that is a subtextual presence in most of these meditations), and a fine series of poems on some paintings by the great English painter George Stubbs, are luminous examples of the poet's patience and skill, her vocation as watcher and seer, her ability to infuse the language with something of the flourishing creativity of the natural world itself. Here is her account of swallows in flight:

In sun, they iridesce

with indigo; in shade, they're

swart as plum.

Blurred with speed, the fused

pellet of head

and torso bisects a sickle of wing;


time slows them enough to catch

the tail's

lovely fork, the studs of white decorating

the membrane of its fan.

While both of these volumes might have been trimmer than they are (there are in each case poems that diverge and distract from the main thematic thrust), both poets - in their different registers of language, image resources, and emotional atmospherics - encounter and struggle successfully in their best work to understand what they find in landscape, in weather, in the fauna and flora that make up the world that is other than us.

From this imaginative expedition they bring back their own well-tempered reports - variously shaped lyrical meditations that will inform, enlarge and deepen a reader's appreciation of the startling variety, gorgeous particularity, and electric energy of the non-human world, whether that world is animate or inanimate, remote or local, wild or tame, as well as increasing an understanding of human interaction with it.

Given the way we imperil our planetary home, poetry such as theirs - heartfelt, craft-conscious, unsentimentally engaged- is timely, and deserving of our attention.

• Eamon Grennan's most recent collection of poems, published by Gallery Press, is Out of Breath

The Bones of Creation. By Patrick Dempsey. Dedalus Press 105pp. €12 pb, €18 hb

Tribe By Mary Montague Dedalus Press, 101pp. €12 pb, €18 hb