(from Song of the Woman of Breare, translated by Ní Chuilleanáin), 9th Century Old Irish)
The cover describes Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s “most recent excavation of memory and examination of time (and timelessness […]) fittingly, in this, the distinguished poet and scholar’s seventh collection. Eamonn O’Docherty’s jacket image, of a fecund, reclining figure, embedded in her landscape, is apt. From the opening “An Information”, all these poems investigate the provenance of recollection, and its role in and adhesion to place, absence, understanding and hope, addressing their many perspectives and thresholds, during, into and beyond life. Memory as a piercing awareness of the past, fathomed in the present and echoing current settings, is traced in ways which are paradoxically both rigorous and subtle:
to count the questions I couldn’t ask now
(Did you sit apart? Had you washed your hands [?]
Consider the cleverly-titled “The Binding”, which in lesser hands might simply be lyrical description; Ní Chuilleanáin instead weaves several truths –
[…] All that is still going on,
and as long as they stay there nothing will change.
You can see the big press for flattening the books in the shed.
Or at least I can, because I know it is there.
In her poem sequence to The Skelligs – uninhabited Irish islands – she sifts that quasi-mythical timelessness, the thinned and imagined memories of place, perhaps present in the evocation of St Kilda in Scots’ consciousness, or by Patagonia further afield. A place of pilgrimage and othernesswhere the landscape is active, and the populace absent –
until the morning when the mist rises at six,
the shadows lie flat, a thrush on the branch speaks his mind[.]
Could these ideas be explored prosaically with equal success? Ní Chuilleanáin is skilled and deceptively economical in delivering many realities in few words. Watch her deft enjambment, her assured employment of both shape and form. In “Passing Palmers Green Station”, her investigation into a sonnet delights with a volta, just as the train goes underground. Facing that, “The Percussion Version” offers another sonnet, appropriately glorying in sound – “a chair scraping into silence”, one of the many poems revelling in her love of music and performance. This Scot particularly enjoyed that image of
bagpipes awkward as bulging animals
kicking to escape the clamped elbows.
The poet’s appreciation of other art forms is evident throughout. The very fine sequencing has “Stabat Mater” situated opposite the sharply drawn messages of “The Burden of Cloth” –
The one playing the Cardinal is attended
by troops of acolytes to carry the loaded train.
Shades of Paul Durcan perhaps? Indeed, perhaps that is a problem. Ní Chuilleanáin’s deceptively easy lyricism is hallmarked with what casual readers may dismiss as Hibernian romance. To read The Boys of Bluehill with its traditional hornpipe-inflected title, tales of Queen Méabh and gently decaying rural life as a simple Irish song is to underestimate the messages of a wounded contemporary Ireland in Ní Chuilleanáin’s layering. Beware. Though the words slip like charmed knitting, it would be unwise to halt at what Christy Moore terms Ireland’s “Mystic lipstick”.
My review opened on the collection’s coda, a translation of a 9th Century Old Irish poem by an unknown poet, which manages to be deeply personal, fit for the present day, and also able to circle the poems as well as complete them. “Cailleach” translated as “nun” resonates in one word. Early in the book, in a Latin-titled poem (“Incipit Hodie”), the poet looks forward from the threshold of a new child’s arrival, contemplating his acquisition of language –
When you reach for words they will be hard like pebbles
in your hand.
Ní Chuilleanáin is no declamatory poet. Her words raised, as an Irishwoman today, are no less effective, significant and revolutionary for all that. The patient will find their pebbles.
Read “Dream Shine” from The Boys of Bluehill.