The Boys of Bluehill by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin review — distinctive and rewarding
A murmur of nuns, dens, ruins … Ireland’s secret histories and the pain of the past echo through this powerful collection
The late Peter Porter had a peculiar blind spot where modern Irish poetry was concerned. Irish poets, he suggested in 1992, write as though “marooned outside time”, “playing up to some committee preparing a Pantheon” rather than deigning to enter the 20th-century. On a casual reading, there is little in the work of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin that might have shaken Porter out of his prejudice. Where are the poems about austerity Ireland, its failed banks and ghost estates? The speaker of “Somewhere Called Goose Bay” appears too preoccupied with the past to address these concerns, “since to my own mind / I appear to have been born in 1870 / and schooled in 1689”. Other poems explore nuns’ veils, the “card-playing codes” of a long-ago prisoner in an internment camp, and the mythical Queen Méabh surveying the plains of Louth. The opening words of “Witness” are “Why doesn’t she speak when they ask her / what has happened?” Why doesn’t Ní Chuilleanáin speak more directly about contemporary Ireland?
The short answer is that these poems’ rootings around in the past do not come at the expense of an engagement with the modern world. On the contrary, they are exercises in historical memory, providing invaluable points of entry into the larger forces that shape our lives today. The opening poem of The Boys of Bluehill, “An Information”, recalls MacNeice’s “Soap Suds”, experiencing the return of the past as an immediate physical sensation. The past is a lost object, dropped from a child’s hand, but Ní Chuilleanáin counsels a relaxed attitude towards its recovery: “do not look back to see whose hand / finds it, or where it is hidden again when found.”
The collective noun for nuns is a “murmur”, which captures wonderfully the secret histories that echo through Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, not to mention the ubiquity of nuns in her poems. In recent decades, the hegemony of the Irish Catholic Church has come under severe strain, a development Ní Chuilleanáin has marked with her poem “Translation”, written for the reburial of the Magdalene Laundry inmates. Where another poet might have gone straight for savage indignation, Ní Chuilleanáin responds to historical trauma with understatement and something like nonchalance: “Let the bunched keys I bore slacken and fall / I rise and forget a cloud over my time.”
Among the attractions of nuns for Ní Chuilleanáin is the cloistered social space they occupy, and John Kerrigan has noted that her poetry “gives hiddenness a location beyond the specificity of place”. The small canvas on which Ní Chuilleanáin prefers to work is another anti-attention-seeking gesture. She has always favoured the short lyric, but in an elegy for Pearse Hutchinson remembers that poet’s tender use of the word “small”. By way of illustration, she then describes a Russian woman soldier helping a “small old grandmother” on to a train beneath Stalin’s “huge high arches at Mayakovskaya”.
As the mention of Russia suggests, Ní Chuilleanáin’s focus is far from exclusively Irish. Much of the time, in fact, the locations of her work are studiously undefined. While Medbh McGuckian and Eavan Boland form frequent reference points for her critics, Ní Chuilleanáin might just as easily be compared to Beckett, with her love of dens, hiding-places, ruins, and language itself as an in-between space. The real drama takes place in shadowy, marginal zones, as when “Even Then” ends with a grandmother sitting “in shadow, / very slowly shelling peas.” There is a gothic dimension to her cloistered spaces, too. In “Teaching Daily in the Temple”, the speaker senses a missing piece of wisdom is “still there in the coded / labyrinth I must infiltrate again”, before finding the phrase on “lips / that move in the grave”.
The book ends with “Song of the Woman of Beare”, a version of an Old Irish poem spoken by an archetypal cailleach or hag figure. “Age grabs and likes its meal”, as she says of her withered condition. Ní Chuilleanáin translates cailleach as “nun”, which is not unwarranted, but allows her to splice the Christian tradition on to what is also a celebration of older Celtic goddess figures. When a cailleach figure appears as a milk woman in the opening chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, she represents victimized Irish womanhood, addressed by the young Englishman Haines in Irish, a language she does not understand. The identification between the old woman and mute powerlessness is strongly drawn. In Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem, by contrast, the Gaelic voice remains intact and available. The pain of history is not glossed over, but powerfully given its say:
Well for islands at sea,
Their high tide follows low
Water; I do not hope
My tide will turn and flow.
Hardly a harbour now
Seems familiar to me;
All that the high tide saw
Low water drags away.
Ní Chuilleanáin is the Vermeer of contemporary poetry. Her luminous interiors achieve great visual beauty, but should not be mistaken for exercises in escapism. They are sites where history and the individual brush against each other, force fields of action and radiant understanding. The Boys of Bluehill creditably extends what was already one of the most distinctive and rewarding bodies of work in contemporary poetry.
— Aingeal Clare, The Guardian