Gerard Smyth reviews Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems.
In an early profile of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin when she was only twenty-six, the poet Hayden Murphy noted the “individualistic tone that marks her down not merely as a verbal practitioner but as a practical and polished poet”. Now, fifty years later, the accumulated work of nine collections, conjoined in one volume, offers a retrospective overview of just how individualistic her work is, not only in tone, but also her poetic content and how she handles it.
From the beginning Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin established her own terrain and style, a wholly original fusion of sensibility and diction. Her sure-footed debut, Acts and Monuments, revealed an imagination that was both adventurous and profuse in how it perceived and accommodated the world. Her metamorphic way of seeing things had terrific results:
Odysseus rested on his oar and saw
The ruffled foreheads of the waves
Crocodiling and mincing past; he rammed
The oars between their jaws and looked down
In the simmering sea where scribbles of weed defined
“The Second Voyage”
What was also evident from this poem, and others, was how she saw no limits to the possibilities of the narrative lyric, which she used to considerable effect in poems such as “Survivors”, “A Midwinter Prayer”, “Dead Fly”, “Deaths and Engines” and “Manuscript Found in a Bottle”. She would subsequently use narrative form even more strikingly in the intricate Site of Ambush sequence, “The Girl who Married the Reindeer and other poems”. She was inclined towards the small parable as well as variants of mythic and folkloric themes, and these would continue as devices through which to channel her voice.
As an example of her “practicality” (mentioned in the quote from Murphy), it is worth recalling a remark she once made: “a question I ask myself constantly is ‘is this real’? Do I really believe this, do I feel this? But that is a question I cannot answer except by trying again in a poem.” An echo there of Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, when he says: “I go after reality with language.”
The thinking behind this approach to working practice – the testing of experience and the quotidian, memory and knowledge, through poetic process – is perhaps crucial to understanding Ní Chuilleanáin’s work and the philosophical rigour behind each poem, a rigour that resulted in the poet finding her authentic and distinctive lyrical self at the outset. In the early “Letter to Pearse Hutchinson”, she tells us
Going anywhere fast is a trap:
this water music ransacked my mind
and started it growing again in a new perspective …
Seeking but also patiently holding on for “new perspectives” is of course one of the tasks facing every poet. In searching for answers to what, in one poem, she calls “the redundant questions of childhood”, Ní Chuilleanáin lays out perspectives that are not only new, but she plays with and twists them in ways that give them shades of meaning that bring to mind Eliot’s belief that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”.
The disclosure (in Early Recollections) that her “education left out the sight of death”, and her childhood gave “hope and no warnings” might explain the sense she gives of seeming always to be on the lookout for whatever is “missing from the map”. It is evident that recollection is the engine of many of her finest poems.
In seeking the answer to her self-directed questions – her modes of inquiry through the medium of a poem – we get a sense, from the forensic language, that each poem is an act of excavation and recovery, the peeling away of layers to reveal certain facts, whether out of memory, encounter, observance or actual lived experience.
Her poems have the quality of revelatory dreams, the language of the speaker as closely-textured as a fabric of tight stitching, so much so that they can at times seem private or secretive. But her lines, even the more elusive ones, carry the power to rise into the reader’s imagination and lodge there; their mystery is often enough.
An early poem, “Going Back to Oxford”, is an example of her ability to surprise and dislocate the reader, taking us neither here nor there but somewhere between. As the title suggests, the Oxford poem has a specific idea and setting behind it, but she builds something quite mysterious and captivating out of local particularities, knowing that a poem does not have to be a rational structure:
Notice how she repeats her effects:
the Victorian towers after the mediaeval slum,
as a yawn turns into a shiver and the air
bites like a mould pulling me north
to the evacuated roads.
The poem closes on a brief, stark statement of fact: “ … here I am, walking / through old streets to a familiar bed”; such matter-of-factness, as if needed to break the intensity of thought and feeling, quite often concludes a poem: “I’ve bought blankets and firewood; we live here now.” (“The Italian Kitchen”).
In the kitchen yesterday’s milk
sours quietly, a poisoned fly
falls in to an early death.
“The House of Time”
It is through the making of a journey, a voyage, an odyssey that she often seeks to orient herself (the sea and its islands were a significant presence in her first two books). In the poem “More Islands” the child who is “afraid of islands”
… grows up to detest airports
but feels the sea in the waves of her hair
and icebergs in a storm of lemonade.
In making those journeys and crossing frontiers and borders into history, works of art or back to the places and people of familial and communal memory she is keenly aware that “somebody was born in every room”. In “Night Journey” she arrives to find “there are more changes each time I return” and in the sequence titled “Cork”, a return to the city of her birth, she tells us “we could be in any city”, though some of her droll observations suggest otherwise:
On the hilltop railed and gated
the collapsing monuments
the Indomitable Repealer,
the butter merchant and his wives, the nettles.
Her poems give the impression she could be at home anywhere, Ireland, Italy, Russia – or as she announces in “Curtain”: “I laid myself down and slept on the map of Europe, / it creaked and pulled all night … ” Perhaps the strongest sense of rootedness is to be found in her “Cork poems”. In “Youth”, she suggests that she “might go back to the place / where I was young”: thankfully she does, and frequently, because in these poems we find her closest to where place, time and memory combine, sparking a moment or occasion of reckoning.
Nobody who knows me knows where I am now.
I have a pocketful of gravel to wake my aunt sleeping
behind the third dark window counting left over the bakery.
But she is a also poet who seems ever on the move, whether Going Back to Oxford, Crossing the Loire, Crossing a Bridge Between Two Counties, at Fastnet “waiting for the storm to change its keys”, or revisiting the lanes of Cork and the Dublin lanes of
Raglan Heytesbury Wellington Waterloo
where the metalworkers thrive …
Few contemporary poets have so credibly given the religious life a role to play in their poetry. A Catholic imagination pervades the vocabulary and atmosphere of many of these poems, their titles alone unifying into a litany: “St Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseille”, “St Margaret of Cortona”, “Our Lady of Youghal”, “Brother Felix Fabri”, “Sister Marina”. Whether seeking to know about “the fate of the mission ship” (“An Informant”) or recalling that “The day of the eclipse / Fell on the Feast of St Rita.” (“La Corona”), she has cultivated her own, very distinctive, kind of religious poem.
We enter convent, friary and cloister, encounter apparitions and relics; hermits and saints, popes and cardinals populate the pages, but it is the lives of nuns that she depicts with unusual insight and understanding, and often with a measure of implied compassion: a nun returning in old age from France to Cork to care for a sibling sister is “handed back her body, / Its voices and its death.” Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Order, is depicted in another poem:
… out in all weathers.
She was tired, someone gave her
a chair in a shop. Rested
and then away, in the street, on the move.
“An Imperfect Enclosure”
Among her poems on religious themes, “Teaching Daily in the Temple” is one of the finest, a deftly choreographed re-imagining of that familiar Bible scene which for Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin holds its own enigma, “the coded labyrinth I must infiltrate again …” It comes as no surprise that a Renaissance scholar should be attracted to Italy, its landscape, culture and religious art. The opening contemplative poem of The Brazen Serpent is a dazzling simulation of a work of art in words and images:
I was standing beside you looking up
Through the big tree of the cupola
When the church splits wide open to admit
Celestial choirs, the fall-out of brightness.
In that same 1994 collection, one in which her “individualistic tone” functions brilliantly, another work of art is rendered in extraordinary visual detail:
Under the flourishing canopy
where trios of angels mime the last trombone,
behind the silver commas of the shrine
in the mine of the altar her teeth listen and smile.
“St Margaret of Cortona”
The poems of her three most recent books (The Sun-fish, The Boys of Bluehill, and particularly The Mother House) seem to give more immediate access to the shifts between the worldly and otherworldly. There is an escalation of her brilliance with the thrilling image. In these poems a screen “takes dictation from satellites”, a newborn grandchild falls “ into our language / like a fish into water”, light is “clear as a day in Galway when the rain stops …”, “early risers drink up the air of dawn”; silk scarves come “ flying at her face like a car wash”. In “On Lacking the Killer Instinct”, she makes a brilliantly conceived comparison between her father in his youth on the run from British soldiers and a hare running from the hounds. Memory and retrospection yield up some of the most radiant of these poems: “An Information”, “The Polio Epidemic”, and “The Tree”, an eloquent and intimate retrieval of the past and its lessons, not least that we each must face our different paths. Her last book, The Mother House, contains poems (“She was at the Haymaking”, “Love”, “On the Move”, “For James Connolly”, “Hofstetter’s Serenade”) that must stand at the peak of her achievement.
The American poet James Tate once said he wanted to “use the image as a kind of drill to penetrate the veils of illusion we complacently call the Real World”. Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetic mission has been to do much the same – a mission that has been accomplished with some of the finest poetry of the past fifty years.
— Gerard Smyth, Dublin Review of Books