Former Ireland Professor of Poetry, emeritus professor of English at TCD, scion of the nation’s founding families of Dillons and Plunketts, member of Aosdána and founder of Cyphers, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin hardly needs an introduction in any part of Irish society, literary or political. In poetry, she has used her luck and her gifts wisely and well, both as mentor and exemplar. To teach and to advocate poetry is in her bones, as it is in the DNA of Máire Mhac an tSaoí; but, as in Mhac an tSaoí, this tremendously rich, end-of-an-era, haut-bourgeois Catholic life comes with the added gold dust of poetry. Like Mhac an tSaoí, she has been the immensely dutiful daughter of gifted fathers and mothers, and the gold traces left on the page from that inheritance of familial and academic duty form an essential part of the jewelled hoard of her writing career. In every one of her collections of poetry there have been brief resting-points but no hours of idleness. This dutiful, purposeful restlessness is one of the most determining characteristics of The Mother House:
Now that there’s nothing I don’t understand
why do they come to me with their informations?
They come in my dreams with their highlighting pens,
They tell me the roman numerals
On the shelf-end panels in the cathedral library …
Here is a child reared to absorb information; and still, like all good poets, still a child in her mid- seventies. Here, all gold flourishes and leaf script capitals, with a protagonist who makes shrouds of words, the poet’s mind is sacrificed to a world of monsters ornate with grapes. The medieval is never far from the poet’s mind, and that sense of doomed learning is everywhere. Ní Chuilleanáin’s instinct, though, has always been to compose poems with camera angles. From the very beginning of her Cork collaborations with Brian Lalor she has been a word-cinematographer, and her camerawork has always been that of a woman voyaging, capturing the light, the angles and the briefly glimpsed faces of strangers or fellow voyagers. I’ve lost count of the number of boats, seas, exiles, elsewheres and remembered Irelands in this present book:
Sister Clara, Sister Antony, meeting a niece
In the quiet convent garden in Desvres,
Are overheard reminiscing, always in French,
About their first convent on the hill in Cork
And its precious holdings, the Penal Chalice …
“To the Mother House”
Exile, sisterhood, history, are celebrated here, as well as the wine and brandy, the lace and “the little medals blessed and certified / in Rome”. And all of this richness in the poem, this litany of faith chaperoned by educated and consecrated women, is dove-tailed into a chunk of marble beneath an altar, marble that can show the bones inside the skin. This is the delicate hardness of an earned belief, the plenitude of connections inside Irish Catholic faith. With Ní Chuilleanáin it has always been women voyaging, right from the earliest narratives of her Patrick Kavanagh award-winning Acts and Monuments. There have always been women setting out on a journey, often women setting out alone, and often women beginning some kind of tour of duty. The schedules and rhythms of Catholic boarding schools and colleges are in every Ní Chuilleanáin book. It has often occurred to me that these rhythms would hardly be visible to a non-Catholic reader, or to any Catholic under the age of fifty. They are the duties and clock-work of my own generation, and she is one of the last chroniclers of this circumscribed 1950s-1960s world.
But Ní Chuilleanáin is not merely a representative poet, representing just one set of circumstances. Nowadays, because of the increasing politicisation of art and poetry into mere representative fragments, representing specific social experiences such as injustice or marginalisation, we have forgotten how each poet’s work is essentially an affirmation of sovereignty. In the end all poets will declare independence from all the materials that bind him or her to limited or contested themes. However restricted the poet may be socially or politically, the poet will always rush towards freedom inwardly; the gold for the reader is in that inner freedom. Yet for this poet, the poetry is also in the camerawork; and the camerawork, its insights and flashes, is what amazes the Ní Chuilleanáin reader. Certainly, poetry does contain honourable and very important political narratives; and it can be a forceful witness in politics and a vital rhetorical tool against injustice. But wanting everything to represent something can destroy genius and comfort the second-rate who operate so effectively in the current academic and poetic worlds. In a very real sense we should always meet a poet as if for the first time, even in a ninth or tenth book. Reading The Mother House is a sharp reminder of this – Ní Chuilleanáin was a poet of genius long before her work was meant to represent anything. Loneliness has been her great photographer, and this cinematography has been a compelling aspect of her voice. It is all there in “The Blind”:
One broken slat pulled from the blind
shows only a slice: the marbled clouds,
a world of bright sky stretching.
But she can’t look out. The news,
A thread that crawls and winds, drags her
Into the dark well …
And this collection unfolds with such a canny imaginative firmness. Nano Nagle is the subject of “An Imperfect Enclosure”, the first poem; but this serves only as an overture, a tasting, for the great sequence “A Map of Convents” with its Cove Lane girls and boys, piano lessons and Latin grammar, a man hidden in a kitchen chimney, and that extraordinary phrase “those who were absent with permission”. The theme – or trope, really – develops further into the superb “Sister Marina” and “To the Mother House”. And it continues, with several other women who were absent with permission from motherhood and family, including, even, Maria Edgeworth in 1847 who was so moved by the porters who loaded India meal for Irish Famine victims that she knitted a woollen comforter for each workingman:
Like the girl whose brothers were turned into swans,
she does what she knows, the long scarves piling
softly beside her chair, one after the other like the days.
Edgeworth’s days were short indeed. Before the woollens reached the men she herself had died, an irony that Ní Chuilleanáin has turned into something of great poetic beauty here. Geraldine Plunkett is another shade reborn, with her young Dillon husband in 1916. As is beloved Leland Bardwell, where the sea, the waves, the suntrap seat in her garden, the ladylike tweed, the little polo ponies in Phoenix park; all of these things are stitched together and left on the page for us, like a black cat on a dry ledge above the foamy ocean. It is no surprise that the Leland Bardwell elegy is saturated with light, Ní Chuilleanáin’s element:
making one shining surface of rising water
where all the reflected lights floating shine together,
they carry the glint of all the colours …
“The Raging Foam”
So I give you, then, yet another perfect book from this poet of sunlight and cloisters. This collection is a joy to read, and a reminder, yet again, that the poets are sent to amaze us, to bring us all nearer to the light.
— Thomas McCarthy, Dublin Review of Books
Thomas McCarthy is a poet, novelist and essayist. Born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and educated at University College Cork. He worked as a Public Librarian for many years.
Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin wins Irish Times Poetry Now award
2020 Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival / Irish Times Poetry Now Award.
Irish Times Poetry Now Award — Judges’ citation
For me and for my fellow judges, Colette Bryce and Jackie Kay, judging this year’s Irish Times Poetry Now Award was both a challenge and a pleasure. The power of poetry and its remarkable and welcome persistence were evident in this year’s entries for the 2020 Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival / Irish Times Poetry Now Award.
From fifty-six entries, Colette Bryce, Jackie Kay and I chose a shortlist of five and at a meeting on 13 February each shortlisted title was discussed in detail. The different shortlisted titles impressed us in different ways but the judges’ deliberations had the happiest of outcomes: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Mother House was our unanimous choice.
Ní Chuilleanáin’s new collection, her tenth, explores those familiar themes of grief, loss, love and the past, a past both personal and historical; she writes of multiple lives, different lives, in richly-textured poems. In the final poem, the bilingual ‘An Crann’/ ‘The Tree’, in this magnificent collection, Ní Chuilleanáin speaks of ‘waiting for the words to come’. She says: ‘I began searching/ in a still deeper seam, just as the root explores/ its road underground, looking for sustenance and a source’.
The words did come and with insight, wisdom and a distinctive music all their own these poems allow us enter worlds, worlds that reveal themselves slowly. We read of public figures: of Nano Nagle, ‘out in all weathers’ and ‘on the move’; of Maria Edgeworth’s response to the famine in 1847. We meet with an image of a woman at the haymaking decades ago, how ‘she worked on with the rake/ thinking of the rolling wave, an eye watching for the car’; there’s a poem of deep feeling called ‘On the Move’ – that phrase again – in which the speaker celebrates beautifully, clear-sightedly, level-headedly, a grandson’s early exploratory steps ‘barefoot on the cool grass’.
In fact, many poems here and elsewhere are on the move. They tell of journeys, actual and metaphorical, sometimes mysterious, as in ‘A Journey’: ‘I looked/ again at the deep wound in my arm;//it was all cleaned up and covered up,/ so as not to frighten the children’; sometimes, as in ‘The Morandi Bridge’, shadowed by disaster: Italian families ‘always on the move’ on a bridge ‘high up over factories and streets’, the reader, like the poet, knowing that ‘the bridge fell down in Genoa’.
In ‘Resemblances’ Ní Chuilleanáin remembers her mother Eilish Dillon, in a poem prompted by Edward McGuire’s portrait of her. ‘I am older now/ than her age when she died’ and Ní Chuilleanáin’s ability to create atmosphere is superb: ‘When I kill the landing light/ the books are still present for a moment/ in the glow of the laptop screen’
As is Ní Chuilleanáin’s handling of time. We see this in ‘Hofstetter’s Serenade’, a moving elegy, in which she imagines her talented violinist sister. ‘[T]he tight bundle of grief has opened out and spread/ wide across those years she knows nothing of’ but by magical imagining, her dead sister, who died aged forty-six, is ‘eleven years old. A thousand years before,/ she could have been married to an emperor’.
‘Love’ is another perfect poem. The setting is ordinary but the poet’s use of ‘eloquent speech’ and ‘plain vernacular’ and what Ní Chuilleanáin calls ‘any of the variations in between’ creates vivid images and a mood suffused with ‘the hum of love’, as parents quietly wait for ‘the noisy gang’ off the train at Clara station.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, in an Ireland Chair of Poetry lecture, says ‘poetry is the supreme art of language’ but that she managed to get the word latchicoes into a poem [The Raging Foam] is another example of her extraordinary talent. At her appointment to the Chair, President Michael D Higgins spoke of how Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems ‘have, at their heart, an instinctive understanding of the importance of indicating the right of each individual mind to reflect on and see the world in its own way’.
She herself says ‘I am an oblique poet’ and that she writes ‘partly because I have to write and partly because the things that give me cause to write are themselves obscure and they have a great emotional resilience which I do not quite understand’. And yet hers is a wonderfully companionable voice. The poems in The Mother House are rich and generous and rewarding. Reading them expands our understanding, they remind us of what poetry can do in terms of words and ideas. They sustain us.
On behalf of Colette Bryce and Jackie Kay, on my own behalf and indeed on behalf of all readers of poetry I say congratulations, comhghairdeachas, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and thank you for The Mother House.
— Niall MacMonagle