A review of Magisterium by Joel Deane

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Joel Deane
Australian Scholarly Publishing
ISBN:978 1 74097 179 9 | RRP: $19.95, 73pp, paperback

It’s hard to pinpoint the power in Joel Deane’s MagisteriumPerhaps it’s the duality between the intuitive, interiority and the strong authoritative, apocalyptic voices that guide these poems. They are at once powerful and booming, yet muted at the same time. The tension created by this conflict is effective, bringing the reader closer, even as it warns us to keep distance. He isn’t afraid to deal with the most painful subject matter, whether it’s personal loss like miscarriage or the death of loved ones, national disgrace like the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or migrant children thrown overboard, or global issues like pollution and global warming. For Deane, the personal and the political are intrinsically interlinked. The big stuff is all personal. The personal impacts on the public and political choices we make en masse.

The book is divided into two parts: “Ex Cathedra” and “Sede vacante” both a nod to the title, which refers to the teaching authority of the Church, interpreting the word of God. “Ex Cathedra” is from the infallible chair from which the “truth” is spoken. Throughout the book there is a Sibyl-like reverence for the truth. It’s a truth though that isn’t always obvious; nor does it tend to come from those in power. The Sybil in this case isn’t a priest, but rather the poet. And truth isn’t to be found in proclamation, but rather in the questions:

In which beast’s belly do I lie?
Does my maker fetch and heel?
Does it walk or crawl or fly?
Is mercy found in its cold eye? (“Modus Vivendi”)

These questions aren’t always simple ones, nor are they always as clear as they are in “Modus Vivendi”. The questions come from how we cope with our own guilt; how we keep going on while processing the loss and pain that characterise our lives. “The first terrorist” and “The river” remind us that there is always a larger truth than the purely human one. These poems call to mind great natural tragedies like the Boxing Day Tsunami. It’s nature here that is ‘speaking’ “ex-cathedra”:

Driving us to the mouth of a sea
that foamed and hissed—
taking us by surprise.
Taking us by surprise
In fearing only ourselves,
We had forgotten
The first terrorist was nature,
And we the infidels in its Jerusalem. (“The first terrorist”)

If there was any doubt about our role as infidels ‘in nature’s Jerusalem,’ Deane hits the reader with a series of poems that make our crimes clear. There’s “Guantanamo” which hits hard against the abuses at the US detention camp in Cuba, showing how easy it is to rationalise torture as we go about our daily lives. “The plague” moves closer, giving us the voice of the participant: the gun toting boys who don’t understand until they are already guilty. Both of these poems are intense enough on their own, but coupled with the final one in the series, “Rhetorica”, which provides an overview of war and polarity, the impact is almost shocking:

The rhetoric of the age is not written in words,
but spelled out in the disarray of deconstructed,
disembodied bodies.

I had to take a break from reading after the icy finality of “Unholy Trinity”, with its “hope, hope, hopeless” trinity. Fortunately Deane provides a great deal of warmth as he moves into the next poems, which are more personal and family oriented. There is still pain and grief, but it is shared, and human. The loss of a child is dealt with beautifully, with longing but no self-pity in “Man to Woman,” a poem which takes it cadence and rhythm from Judith Wright’s famous “Woman to Man”:

Who shines the light? Who wields the blade?
You hold me, and I am afraid.

The poems remain personal, addressing love and loss in a range of innovative ways, including one that places the loss of a child against a de Kooning painting. The voice in this one is almost detached – an abstract impressionistic perspective on stillbirth: “Gave; took. Existed; did not exist.” with only the tiniest italicised voice in the corners of this poem to hint at the personal pain.

The book then moves back outward – into the grand scale of “Creation Myth” which charts the short and deleterious history of mankind, comparing us to worker bees. All of the poems in this collection are tightly and powerfully crafted, using rhythm, and carefully chosen rhyme to drive their meaning. Deane’s use of language is often breathtaking and precise, charting the decline of a life against the decline of a race:

erroneous in our belief that this strait is more than a short walk

from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen to the grave;

a concentric perambulation that contracts year by month by week by day

The second section “Sede vacante” refers to the vacancy of the papal seat. As the section title suggests, there’s a little more irony in this section than the first section. In the first poem “Duyken, 1606” refers to the arrival of the first Europeans on Australian soil. Duyfken or Duyken was the name of the Dutch East India Company ship which had its 400th anniversary in 2006. In this poem, the voice belongs to the earth – “Terra Incognita” and to the Aboriginal people who inhabited it before the Europeans arrived. The irony of the formal, polite address that starts the poem, and the apocalyptic warning of its prophesy works brilliantly, throwing the reader into a confusion of guilt, fear, and self-aggrandisement. The reader is simultaneously placed in the role of aggressor and victim in a way that is both pleasurable and horrible. Again after taking the reader as far as it is possible, Deane pulls back into the intimacy of personal loss that characterises “Driving my mother’s car”. Loss and the missing subject pervade this piece, which is full of the tender bravado of a bereaved son.

Many of the other poems in this section are critical of the government; twisting against the lies and hypocrisy inherent in politics. There is the experimental speechifying of “Hansard”, the rhythmic criticisms of “Ship of fools” (which refers to a speech written by playwright David Williamson), “Meeting the Minister,” or the delicate spittle of the “State Parliament” haiku. But the best poems in this section to my mind are those which go deep into the heart of spirituality, self-reflection and a coming to terms with death. These are big poems like “Dear reader” which call to mind the wrought tension of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

One long wait for morning: for the second coming:
for a rebate: the bingo number never called.
This dream never begins to end.

Poems like “Museum of Words,” “Said Darkness to the Boy,” or “Indelible Attraction” bring together the themes in this book towards a determination of purpose in our brief lives. Deane creates his own spirituality: one freed from the might of a papal Magisterium no longer there. There is a kind of immortality here in the sad love which endures: from the bleeding of red hair into the sky to the remembered pain that the mind keeps, even after the body forgets.

This is a sure-footed and powerful collection which not only points a finger at governmental posturing, and the tragedies that humans create, but also provides a kind of solution and mythology to replace those that have failed us. It isn’t always easy to read, and best read slowly, so the impact of each poem can be allowed to unfold. This is poetry written at the limits of what our language can do; without sacrificing accessibility. It speaks to everyman; as conspirator; perpetrator; and fellow seeker.