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This review is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Cover of Collected Poems
Aoife LyallGoings and Comings
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Collected Poems (Gallery Press)
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems is nothing less than a fifty-year dialectic on the purpose and possibility of poetry. Spanning nine collections, a near-dozen new poems and a coda of works in English and as Gaeilge, it stands as Ní Chuilleanáin’s masterpiece, exhibiting her journey from confident apprentice to assured master of her craft.

Her first three collections, represented rather than republished in full, engage with notions of time. In Acts and Monuments time is expansive: poems stretch from pre-conception to the afterlife; from myth to modernity; from the ‘Antediluvian’ to the ‘Forseeable Future’, all in the turn of a page. In Site of Ambush, time is a more singular force to which the body must capitulate, be it unknowingly, as in ‘The Absent Girl’, or defiantly, as in ‘The Persians’; unromantically, as in ‘Site of Ambush’ or with an eye to reincarnation, as in ‘House of the Dead’. In The Rose Geranium we find a balance between the two. The poems engage with time in a smaller, more intimate way: the ‘Cork’ sequence with its familiar streets, the well-known walls and rooms of ‘A Gentleman’s Bedroom’, the light and shadows of a snug.

The three collections which follow reveal a poet who is increasingly concerned with how time is kept: the legacy of records and the burden of secrets, particularly as they pertain to women. The Magdalene Sermon is full of narratives of habit, desire and devotion, with many of its poems concerned with the liminal space that exists between a performance and what it seeks to obscure. The mythical strain of earlier collections, for which Ní Chuilleanáin is renowned, plays a key role in masking many of the personal, political and historical narratives here, and throughout Collected Poems.

Acts of leaving and returning are frequent in The Brazen Serpent, which explores family, local history and the quiet, often weighty histories of women – histories Ní Chuilleanáin acknowledges, while characteristically refusing to become the spokesperson for either her sex or her generation: ‘Can I be the only one alive / able to remember those? / What keeps them from asking the others?’ (‘A Witness’). Significantly, The Girl Who Married a Reindeer opens with a crossroads, and the poems that follow pull between the desire to control our own lives, and the desires of others to control us. While Ní Chuilleanáin does not present her collections as linear narratives, the juxtaposition of ‘The Girl Who Married the Reindeer’ before ‘Translation’ and ‘Bessboro’ speaks to an unmistakable contrast between the freedoms experienced by the former, and denied to the latter.

The final three collections focus not so much on the interrogation as the generation of records. The Sun-fish is filled with people and places: its poems are those of memory, memories and memorials; poems of separation and reunion; poems that encounter the past and wonder at how it has, or has refused to, become clearer in hindsight; poems that yoke together moments, separated by decades or lifetimes, into a natural rhythm.

Music adroitly underpins the The Boys of Bluehill, a collection absorbed in how we search for answers in our own past, how we represent uncertain things, how we honour the mysteries we cannot solve. As music conveys wordless understanding, so many of these poems reveal tenderness and intimacy without explanation, such as in ‘Anne Street’, and in ‘Teaching Daily in the Temple’. ‘The Words Collide’ concludes this collection. A significant and prominent poem, not just here, but in Ní Chuilleanáin’s canon, it addresses the weight and responsibility of record-keeping, of marking time, of making things known:

        He said,
You can’t put all those words in your letter.
It will weigh too heavy, it will cost too much,
it will break the strap of the postman’s bag

The Mother House, Ní Chuilleanáin’s most recent full collection, is a carefully curated album of time, space and place. It is full of the nuns and convents, houses and journeys, trains, bridges, memories and music of the previous collections, and it makes for a generous homecoming here. It looks to the past as ‘An Imperfect Enclosure’, recognises the need to rediscover lost histories in ‘A Roomful of Seicento Frames’, and in ‘The Blind’ reminds us that a small gap, a small opportunity, can garner a magnificent vista if only you get close enough.

When Ní Chuilleanáin writes about the world, her observations are delivered with the ease of a local giving directions to that road, the one that ‘stretches like the soul’s posthumous journey’ as in ‘A Midwinter Prayer’; or telling you that you only need to follow ‘The coastline, a swimmer’s polished shoulder heaving / on the edge of sky’ as in ‘The Last Glimpse of Erin’.

She revels in the symbiosis that exists between the natural world and the one we make for ourselves: in ‘In the year of the hurricane’ she tells us ‘the sea rose as high as the church, / the waves were hollow, like a crypt’; and in ‘After Leopardi’s Storm’ captures the relief of those watching the sunlight in the puddles as ‘an ordinary festival that cannot be foreseen’.

Her defining poetic characteristic is that she lets the poems speak for themselves, and allows their myth and mystery to stand radiant and undiminished:

I washed in cold water; it was orange, channelled down bogs / dipped between creases. / The bats flew through my room where I slept safely. / Sheep stared at me when I woke.

(‘Lucina Schynning in
Silence of the Nicht’)

The known unknown is a key component of Collected Poems, and time and time again, it precludes the disembodiment of content from form in search of some independent or objective meaning. This is a consistent aesthetic, from ‘The House of Time’, in which

The eight-day clock in the bedroom survives without water, / would like to close its eyes, compelled to keep account— / the phoenix combs his memories like sand.

through ‘The Signorelli Moment’:

She’s dead too, she thinks. A smooth nude / salutes a skeleton and gestures to introduce / while another levers / a strong thigh bone out of white clinging clay. / Flesh has fallen away.

and into ‘The Relic’, one of the New Poems:

The last of our conversation ended suddenly. He said ‘I will not see you again’. A quick fidget, and he unshackled his left hand in its shining glove. The hand itself. He passed it over to me. It quivered…

Collected Poems reads as the workings of a great artist. But Ní Chuilleanáin’s success lies not only in her ability to maintain, develop and refine a distinct and steady poetic voice through five decades of seismic social, political and literary upheaval. It is in the joy of her poems: their insistent invocation of some internal conjecture we cannot fully resolve. And so, like the poems themselves, we become the splendid repositories of certain uncertainties, our own thoughts gilded in metaphor and allusion, and set before us as something spectacular. 

This review is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
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