Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: Selected Poems. A Review

This is an extensive selection of poems, many of which feel like the poetic interpretation of a Chagall painting, full of dream-like, surreal imagery haunted by ghosts and steeped in natural imagery such as ‘The Girl who Married the Reindeer’.

The earlier poems at the beginning of the collection are filled with references to agriculture and the natural world with the phenomenal line: “nights darker than thickest hawthorn-shade” in ‘Celibates’.

Many of the poems are full of surprises, such as “The day will arrive for my last communion/ 

When I plan to swallow the universe like a raw egg.”

 

One of my favourite things about this collection is the way in which she meshes the natural world with more metaphysical observations such as in ‘Early Recollections’: “I became aware of truth/ Like the tide helplessly rising and falling in one place” and the wondrous image of “The ruffled foreheads of the waves”.This is most evident in poems such as ‘Deaths and Engines’

“You will find yourself alone

Accelerating down a blind

Alley, too late to stop

And know how light your death is;

 

You will be scattered like wreckage,

The pieces every one a different shape

Will spin and lodge in the hearts

Of all who love you.”

 

There are many motifs and themes woven through the collection, such as family, architecture and the classical world. Towards the beginning, the references to buildings are agricultural and domestic but move outwards, peppered with references to architectural splendour across Europe. Later in the selection, they develop a more classical feel, with poems that have Odysseus meeting the ghosts of the women in his stories. Despite the classical referencing, these feel much more contemporary and more in tune with later poems such as ‘London’ which explores the story of a woman who’s had a masectomy. These poems are tight, delicate in their phrasing and have a very observational feel – much like ‘The Italian Kitchen’.

 

Religion and womanhood flow through the collected poems, most evident in ‘Our Lady of Youghal’ and ‘St Margaret of Cortona’. This takes a more tragic tone when Ní Chuilleanáin begins to explore the horrors visited on the women of Ireland in poems like the moving ‘Translation’ which points the lens at the reburials of the dead by the Magdalene sisters and the brutal ‘Bessboro’. The second of these is unflinching in its examination, highlighting how the horrors done on these women by the Church have scarred the earth with shame

“the blood that was sown here flowered

And all the seeds blew away”

 

Towards the end of the collection, a sense of nostalgia begins to increase in volume. Evident in the earlier poem ‘The Informant’ with its reference to “a stitch of silence”, some of the later poems bring us back to Cork and her home town, both directly referenced in a number of poems and underscored with some sense of regret

“A hand, a wood, 

I am wearing your shape

Like a light shirt of flame;

My hair is full of shadows.”

 

Language, nature and nostalgia intermingle beautifully in some of my favourite lines in the whole selection:“Water has no memory/ And you drown in it like a kind of absence” which makes the choice for the last poem all the more effective, ending as it does with a scholar searching for a language and how this language can open doors to new worlds and new experiences: “the steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.”

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