‘I love how effortlessly Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin collapses the usual divisions between intellect and imagination.’
— Peter Campion, Poetry
‘I returned to that narrow street
where I used to stand and listen
to the chat from kitchen or parlour, filtered
through rotten tiles. I thought
the rough walls seemed higher than before . . .’
So begins Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s most recent excavation of memory and examination of time (and timelessness on the Skellig islands).
With what Sean O’Brien in The Guardian pinpointed as her poetry’s ‘technical command with its richly cadenced free verse and sly rhyme’ and her ‘arresting authority’ her way of seeing has become a vision. A painterly detail illuminates poem after poem — ‘looking at the map . . . I can see/ how countries are nibbled out of continents.’
Music permeates the collection which also features elegies and poems about language. A beautiful image of her father, ‘a mountain becoming a mountain range’, might describe her own work. Just as she refreshes an Old Irish anonymous poem her own original, commemorative art renews the world.
This is a book to be grateful for.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Boys of Bluehill is a masterly, muscular work that views personal history through the matched lenses of scholarship and imagistic description. Everything described here is dead, or dying. Everything described here is being reborn. In Ní Chuilleanáin’s hands, the skin is peeled back from commonplace life and beneath it is revealed the bloody, beating heart of myth . . .
In dreams the symbols of lives we think we know shift and slip into new bodies. When Ní Chuilleanáin writes about dreams they suddenly acquire new mass and weight, beyond the chemical-flash of fired synapses. In ‘The Sentence’ dreams serve as judge and jailer for a conscience laden with guilt. The convict is required to ‘sleep for ten years’, locked in painful images:
where you will spend hours in odd company,
where the dead are awkwardly present, and the estranged
are close but do not explain their savage letters,
while the child you forgot to fetch from school
goes alone on dark bus journeys along the boulevards.
If, when s/he wakes, she finds the grass grown long, the world moved on, and herself (like briar rose) unchanged in an altered space where ‘no crouching orphan waits by your door’ s/he will be free; released to live.
This is a thorny, difficult book. Reading it requires care, and effort. That is praise. Sweet berries, bright flowers, bloom between the brambles (fed on blood) and it is worth it to pry the boughs apart to pluck them.
— Wales Arts Review
Echoes from the Cistern
What distinguishes The Boys of Bluehill from most other collections is the depth of its texture. There is nothing tentative, or merely suggestive, in this work. Her academic training is outraged by vagueness, so that the poems grab a firm hold of their subject-matter; the work is pre-meditated: it is never a pen shuffling in the hope of inspiration. Again, for all their sensuousness, these are the poems of a scholar and a scholar’s daughter. In their texture and deep lode of references they have more in common with the work of Máire Mhac an tSaoí or Líam ÓMuirthile than with any other Irish poet. Her poetry is directed towards a high point of knowledge where the poem-mountain over time becomes a mountain range. In recalling her father, she reminds us that “he believed that foreign words were real, / their declension revealing even what crawled away”
. . . In poem after poem here, knowledge shows; it enriches what was from the beginning a God-given talent — but knowledge enriches the text, there’s no denying it. Her rendering of “Song of the Woman of Beare” makes my point eloquently; or, should I say, reticently? In very carefully honed quatrains, short lines, few beats, she mirrors the bleak depth of the original Irish. This is not only instinct, it’s learning, respect for how things got made in the first place:
Well for islands at sea,
Their high tide follows low
Water; I do not hope
My tide will turn and flow.
. . . It is her certainty that full knowledge is impossible, that we can only know through metaphors and gestures, that makes The Boys of Bluehill such a consistent, mysterious and satisfying work.
— Thomas McCarthy, Dublin Review of Books
The Boys of Bluehill by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin — distinctive and rewarding
A murmur of nuns, dens, ruins . . . Ireland’s secret histories and the pain of the past
echo through this powerful collection.
. . . 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
Year Published: 2015
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 621 7
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 622 4
ISBN ebook: 978 1 85235 696 5