Full Disclosure: First encounter with Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, though a couple of esteemed colleagues have recommended her previously. Most statements below should be read with a silent ‘I think? Maybe?’ Review copy kindly provided by the Forward Prize folks.
Review: Of all the poets to approach with little prior familiarity, Ní Chuilleanáin might at first seem a daunting prospect: all available reports online speak to her tendency towards the oblique, the riddling or parabolic, poems that seem impossible to locate in time or place with anything approaching confidence; certainly I read with the awareness that I was very likely missing a lot of resonances with her earlier work. I think there’s something much more important to these poems, however, than a distillable autobiographical self or self-figure. Ní Chuilleanáin perhaps avoids these blurbifiable factors to allow the book’s philosophical concerns to take centre stage, and poems set somewhere Ireland-ish at some time in the recent-ish past ramify into nuanced, topical and at times radical discussions about bearing witness to trauma, and how power is wielded against such witnessing, from the intimately personal to the governmentally mandated. As Aingeal Clare puts it, her poems ‘are exercises in historical memory, providing invaluable points of entry into the larger forces that shape our lives today’; even if food banks and austerity measures do not literally appear, the kind of mentality that occasioned them does.
On the other hand, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems are, if not exactly hermetically sealed, then at least uncommonly tightly bound (sometimes literally – the second poem is a weird riddle about a disused printing press and, yep, bindery; the poem’s implications are not necessarily warm to the world of publishing. Maybe). The collection’s closing poem, ‘The Words Collide’, seems in part a little parable for the reader who has, perhaps, just finished an unusually demanding book of poems, a provision of tools for a second reading. The poem features ‘a tough small woman forty years old’ trying to convince a scribe to write a dream to an unspecified compatriot, ‘the only one / who will get the drift’. The richness of the dream –
‘Among those beloved exiles
one sighed happy, as a curtain
lightened and the grammar changed, and the wall
showed pure white in the shape of a bird’s wing’
– is countered by the brute unimaginativeness of the scribe, who in the poem is the only one capable of accurately conveying her obviously urgent message. His refusals become ever more ludicrous and contrived:
‘It will weigh too heavy, it will cost too much,
it will break the strap of the postman’s bag,
it will crack his collarbone.’
Of all the book’s parables, ‘The Words Collide’ is perhaps the most straightforwardly decipherable, or reducible to its component parts (although a parabolist once noted that such poems can never be wholly distilled without residue, and that residue is where the poem lives). The woman’s esoteric, ostensibly harmless message (her toughness and persistence hint otherwise) is still regarded as suspect; those with the power to relate it to its sole capable interpreter are desperate to supress it by any means necessary. The poem acts (maybe) as a kind of translator’s footnote: read me again, but carefully this time.
As is hopefully clear from the above passages, The Boys of Bluehill also manages to convey a real sense of humour, a warmth and understated sharpness unapologetic for its subtlety. The poems’ dramatic and ironic movements come in small fluctuations in tone that underpin the poem’s central concerns. A poem with the unassuming title ‘Juliette Ryan and the Cement Mixer’ begins, tongue-in-cheekly, ‘The world is beauty and order, / beauty that springs from order’, and tries to render understandable the self-destructive impulse to touch cement mixer blades like ‘velvet […] or the skin of a muscular chest’. ‘Somewhere Called Goose Bay’ is set (maybe) in a small town in Labrador, on the rural west coast of Canada. The poem’s laconic observations of the locals and philosophical concerns about the divvying up of land into political spheres gives the lyric a distinctly, beautifully, Bishopy undertone:
‘I am stranded
in the pilgrim hostel where the only advice
I have been given is not to comment
on the goat’s hair in the butter, if indeed
it is fair to call it butter. Presently
a spruce old woman – I have seen her photograph –
is to come and inform me about the last four
Something in the poem’s vocabulary redoubles its air of mid-century leisure, while pressing on – however archly – with the poem’s (and the book’s) preoccupations about the possibility of knowing or understanding the past and how it unsettles the present:
‘there is nobody here except me
and the man who stands by the door. I’ve asked him
why it should be goose, he said what is a goose?
He says, Eat it up. You’ve surely paid for it.’
The twisting of tenses here makes the man’s gnomic response even more confusing, given the presumably straightforward ‘real’ answer. But the human impact on the landscape, the colonial act of naming (Labrador is just north of Newfoundland, the prototype British colony in the Americas) and its erasure of the past connects to concerns about truth-telling that are at the heart of the collection.
This in mind, the opening poem, ‘An Information’, is an almost supernaturally well-wrought piece that aggregates many of the book’s recurring motifs and images: hidden places, wedding music, moving water, open or closed hands. The opening line is a perfect tonal encapsulation of the whole book: ‘I returned to that narrow street’, its intonations of an unwelcoming and uncertain home, a painful memory. The poem’s narrative seems straightforward: the speaker asks an unnamed ‘you’:
‘what did you say when you went out
so the crowds that danced at the wedding
would not know your whole story? […]
did they guess, in the shop where you got the duck eggs,
that you had a guest?’
The poem’s title seems to destabilise the apparently straightforward narrative about hidden pregnancy, or even raise questions about whether the episode should be read literally at all; given the undeliverable message of the book’s last poem, does the unusually singular ‘information’ here also carry symbolic weight? In any case, the poem’s closing passage also makes a shape to be repeated later in the book:
‘Open your hand,
let it fall down, whatever you were holding, […]
do not look back to see whose hand
finds it, or where it is hidden again when found.’
The poem’s ultimate gesture, its offer of some manner of closure or healing, I think, is the promise of a network of solidarity, a promise that others will – like the letter-writer’s friend – find, understand and pass on what is necessary to keep the truth in currency. Such is the care with which this promise is made, however, that I cannot be entirely sure of it.
Though I mentioned the book’s wit and warmth, it would be disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t also carry a throughgoing preoccupation with death and the erasing effects of time. As Patrick Crotty notes in Poetry Review, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems ‘resist particularity of time and location, as if distrustful of that same world’s claim to substantiality’; what is absolutely substantial is the feeling of lateness, of irretrievable time, that colours much of the book, particularly in the book’s elegies. In ‘For Eamonn O’Doherty, 1939-2011’:
‘even his shadow is hairy, has teeth and warmth. […]
an apple falls and rolls, fetches up at the root of the tree.
The shadow’s vast hand reaches, there’s the sound of a bite:
they still belong to him, they still have the taste of apples.’
The figure retains a disturbing amount of agency and sensual life; death seems only to have turned this vitality into something at once homely and unheimlich. In ‘Two Poems for Pearse Hutchinson’, the poet and translator’s death provides an occasion to think on the ‘small languages’, ‘Welsh, Galician, Platt-Deutsch’ and their threatened survival:
‘I could see the small languages clustering
like swallows on wires but then caught like the birds
beating their wings madly against the mad cage
of the imperial tongue.’
Galician has deep connections with Portuguese, but also contains a great many loan-words from northern Celtic languages; Platt-Deutsch is spoken in northern Germany and the eastern Netherlands and is descended from Old Saxon. Ní Chuilleanáin’s point is, I think, that small languages contain an inherent fluidity, a potential for subversive indeterminacy and flexibility that crosses arbitrary political borders and refutes imperialist narratives of purity. As the first of these two poems explains,
‘there was only one reader, and this time
he has not waited to explain
the rules of the game, which will not be played again.’
These lines might be among the book’s most affecting, bringing a sense of joy and confusion and playfulness into the elegiac frame, while implying that, despite everything, the game will go on. In The Boys of Bluehill, loss is very much an active, even vitalising force that raises questions about the passage of time, whether it really has the ability to fix pain or sadness in the past at all; in ‘Stabat Mater’, suffering ‘shivers because it feels your touch, / it’s alive’; in ‘Direction’ the speaker’s father ‘in the time / since last I saw him he has moved and changed more than in all of his life’; in ‘Teaching Daily in the Temple’:
‘the phrase I missed
still there in the coded
labyrinth I must infiltrate again,
the language of the scroll construe, hunt down
between those hedges an escaping prey
before night falls on the phrase, on the lips
that move in the grave.’
Though undoubtedly a difficult and often puzzling book, The Boys of Bluehill is also tender, hilarious and often dizzyingly open-hearted, keenly aware of its contemporary contexts and the histories that inform them. There is a hell of a lot more to talk about here, like Ní Chuilleanáin’s preoccupations with monasticism, with folk music (the title is shared with a traditional Irish hornpipe), the ecocentrism and geological scale of some of her poems that seem to connect her to Kathleen Jamie’s work, her thoroughly weird metaphysical conceptions of time. But as I have a far more mundane understanding of the latter, I’ll wrap up here.
Tl;dr: The Boys of Bluehill is a stellar work, a book that promises to open up and open up. Read it several times. Take notes.
In my humble opinion Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin is the best Irish poet since Seamus Heaney himself.
Best wishes from Simon