Paul Scott Stanfield reviews a powerful collection of poetry that rests on the implied, the suggested, and the unspoken.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanaín, Collected Poems (Wake Forest University Press, 2021), 424pp.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanaín published her first collection of poems, Acts and Monuments, in 1972. She has published regularly though not copiously ever since, with a new collection appearing every four to six years; the ninth and most recent, The Mother House, appeared in 2019. None of her collections is lengthy – they are usually sixty-some pages – but all are cherishable.
Her Collected Poems, the North American version of which was published this year in May by Wake Forest University Press, includes all nine of her collections as well as ten new poems. (US readers will be getting an enriched representation of the early work, due to Ní Chuilleanaín’s first US book, The Second Voyage [1977; revised 1986], having drawn poems from both of her first two Irish collections; Collected Poems sorts those poems back into their original collections and restores a dozen poems in the process.) A few deletions have been made from the early books, but beginning with The Magdalene Sermon (1989), arguably the book in which Ní Chuilleanaín came into full possession of her voice, and on through The Brazen Serpent (1995), The Girl Who Married the Reindeer (2001), The Sun-fish (2009), The Boys of Bluehill (2015), and The Mother House (2019), we have the poems as they appeared in their original volumes, their order sometimes slightly changed, followed by the ten new poems and several of Ní Chuilleanaín’s translations.
Collected Poems presents Ní Chuilleanaín’s work with a sparseness approaching austerity. No introduction, no notes, no biographical details of the author, not even any mention of Ní Chuilleanaín being among Ireland’s very greatest living poets, even though she is. That sparseness feels right, though. She is not one of those cases in which the personality of the poet vies for attention with the poems themselves. Her presence in her own poetry is usually a subtle, almost vanishing thing, as though she had elected to follow Flaubert’s advice (endorsed by Stephen Dedalus) that the writer in the work be everywhere present but nowhere visible. Her poetry rests on the implied, the suggested, the alluded to, the unspoken. Anyone given to mistaking indirection for vagueness or self-effacement for weakness, however, will be surprised by the power of her poetry, a power that feels deeper for not announcing itself.
That power of the unsaid often makes itself felt in a characteristic closing gesture of hers. Many poems open in an apparently descriptive mode, but as one reads, the details begin to seem haunted by a story that inhabits the poem without ever being explicitly articulated. (The effect is much like that of certain Elizabeth Bishop poems, such as “At the Fishhouses.”) Then, the poem’s final lines disclose just enough of a history to give us some idea of the scale of the unsaid, some intimation of the iceberg of which the poem is the tip, before the curtain drops.
They hear the hinges of the big door closing,
they know the length of the ceremony, they know
They have just forty minutes.
You find this more strange than the yearly miracleof the loaf turning into a child?Well,that’s natural, she says,I often baked the bread for that myself.(“The Informant”)
when she would give me an hour of her visions,
when she would levitate—she was always deaf—
when thin pipe music resounded beyond the grilles.
… to bring him to the edge, from where, looking back,
he can see the chair, and the red rug, the colored
covers of the magazines, and everything that followed.
What did the “everything that followed” include? What brought about the levitation? Why was there nothing strange about the loaf that annually turned into a child? What had to be accomplished in forty minutes? We are left to wonder. Ní Chuilleanáin’s power lies in letting the poem rest in that mystery (in that wonder or awe or terror, as the case may be), without any pressing to explain or settle accounts.
As the poems sometimes feel like histories from which the narrative articulations have vanished, leaving behind some emotional essence in the poem’s marrow, so Ní Chuilleanaín herself is, in the poems, a kind of absence-as-presence. She rarely turns to the overtly personal (again, somewhat like Bishop). She uses first person singular pronouns sparingly in the first five books, and when she does, the “I” of a poem is less often the poet herself, in some actual circumstance, than it is a persona in a setting compounded of dream, fairy tale, and historical reconstruction. In the later volumes, she writes often of lost friends, of memories of her parents and of a sister who died in early middle age, but even in the elegiac mode, the elegist herself tends to disappear behind the vividness of the memory, as in the musicality of her sister in “Hofstetter’s Serenade.”
the pure line of sound that grows
rising dipping never landing twice in the same spot, then
catching its breath and then flowing along as even
as her own breathing, smooth like a weaver’s thread
back and forth tracing.
or her mother practicing on the cello in “A Capitulary”:
a grumble of thick string, and then climbing
to a high note that lifted
that lifted its head
like a seal—
to a high note that lifted its head like a seal in the water.
Ní Chuilleanáin is the daughter of two writer-scholars well known in Ireland, Eilís Dillon and Cormac Ó Chuilleanaín, and lightly borne learning contributes to her work from the outset. Allusions to Greek mythology and the culture of early modern Europe recur throughout her career, always put to innovative use (see “The Second Voyage” from the first volume, “Pygmalion’s Image,” from The Magdalene Sermon, and “Nessus” from the book’s new poems). She also inherited the matter of Ireland; her father fought in the Black and Tan War for Irish independence, and a grand-uncle, Joseph Mary Plunkett, signed the Easter 1916 proclamation of an Irish republic and was a few weeks later executed by the English. An early sequence, “Site of Ambush,” bears comparison to Yeats’s “Meditations in Time of Civil War” (although Yeats’s characteristic self-mythologizing note is absent). Her most recent volume, The Mother House, includes a poem on James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 rising, and another on Kilmainham, the prison where many Irish nationalists were held and where Connolly, Plunkett, and twelve other leaders of the rising were executed by the English.
More than to the classic nationalist themes, though, Ní Chuilleanáin’s imagination gravitates to the circumstances of Ireland’s women, particularly nuns. The interest evident in the title poem of The Mother House and in that book’s poems devoted to Nano Nagle, founder of the Presentation Sisters and pioneer in education for Irish girls, we can trace back to “The Sister,” “Anchoress,” “St. Margaret of Cortona,” “The Real Thing,” and “J’ai mal à nos dents” in earlier volumes.
Ní Chuilleanáin’s interest in nuns is the profoundest of the ways her poetry engages with the paradoxical interactions of power and self-effacement – with strength that renders itself invisible, accomplishments that escape notice. Seen from one direction, becoming a nun is almost a way of disappearing, insofar as one removes oneself from the world into a life of service defined by a relentlessly patriarchal institution. Seen from another direction, though, becoming a nun is making a deliberate choice about one’s life, forgoing husband and children to dedicate oneself to a mission of one’s own, to teaching, to nursing, to God. It is a form of submission that holds its secret spaces of autonomy and agency – the levitations of the anchoress, the small recurring victories, “The real thing, the one free foot kicking / under the white sheet of history” (“The Real Thing”).
Women who are not nuns but who have similarly found alternatives to, or have reconstructed, classic domesticity occur frequently in Collected Poems. We meet Mary Magdalene, evangel to France, in “St. Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseille.” We meet the practitioner of traditional ways speaking to a probably uncomprehending anthropologist in “The Informant.” We meet the young woman of “The Girl Who Married the Reindeer.” We meet artists, musicians, scholars. Ní Chuilleanáin does not minimize the difficulty these women faced in electing to do their work within and around the stone fact of patriarchy, and she also writes of trauma, as in “Passing Over in Silence,” “Bessboro,” and the unnerving final lines of “History”:
Our history is a mountain of salt
a leaking stain under the evening cliff
it will be gone in time
grass will grow there–
not in our time.
Although nothing about this path has been easy, and it is not going to get any easier, there remains the power of endurance. Only some of Ní Chuilleanáin’s translations appear in Collected Poems, but she includes “The Old Woman of Beara,” a ninth-century Irish poem. Her interest in the many possibilities of the wise-woman figure may have prompted Ní Chuilleanaín to translate the speaker’s self-description as “I am the nun of Beara” rather than “hag of Beara,” the choice of earlier (male) translators.
I have had my high tide,
I have held to my trust,
Jesus Mary’s son
Saved me from low-tide grief.
That the Old Woman of Beara likens her life to the tides of the ocean suits Ní Chuilleanáin’s career-long attraction to the imagery of water. It appears in her poems not only in rivers and seas and oceans, but also in wells, waves, clouds, floods, and even (in “The Water Journey”) in cupped hands. And water is a well-chosen image, for the lives of the nuns and wise women that Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry asks us to see, with their outward submission and renunciation and secret interior of liberation and empowerment, find analogues in the properties of water. Water, too, is both yielding and firm. It is so ubiquitous that we often take it for granted, yet life is unsustainable for long without it. It can be as ephemeral as dew, as irresistible as a flood. It is unremarkable and miraculous. Given enough time, the water that splashes off a child’s hand can carve the Grand Canyon. With that same long-gathering effect, Ní Chuilleanáin’s subtlety and indirection have grown into a monument in Collected Poems.
Paul Scott Stanfield was educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, and has been a member of the English Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 1989. He is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s and of articles on Yeats, other Irish poets, and Wyndham Lewis.