Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1973)

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SOURCE: Review of Acts and Monuments, in The Times Literary Supplement, July 27, 1973, p. 864.

[In the following excerpt, the reviewer compares Acts and Monuments to Pearse Hutchinson's Watching the Morning Grow and comments that although Ní Chuilleanáin's poems are skillfully crafted, they at times lack flair.]

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's first collection [Acts and Monuments] is a more obviously unified piece of work than Mr Hutchinson's, the product of a less diffuse, more grave and self-possessed sensibility. A metaphorical fascination with coastlines, sea-voyages and the land threads several of the poems together; and although the book is more restricted in tonal range than Watching the Morning Grow, the vision which inspires its admirably well-sculptured pieces is on the whole more complex and imaginative. Some genuinely original flair seems lacking: there are passages which hover on the brink of real metaphorical sparkle and don't quite make it, never swerving from accomplished craftsmanship but not quite catalysed into really striking effects. But the poems are thoroughly worked and show a deft sense of rhythm, not least in the volume's impressive centrepiece “A Midwinter Prayer”. …

Robert Henigan (review date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Contemporary Women Poets in Ireland,” in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 18, No. 1-2, 1985, pp. 103-13.

[In the following excerpt, Henigan discusses Ní Chuilleanáin's technique and her ability to write about the positive and negative aspects of life.]

Like Líadan and Eileen O'Leary, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin is from Cork. She is the daughter of a professor of Irish and the prolific novelist Eilis Dillon. Although her poems are highly regarded in Ireland, American critics have been, at best, condescending. They complain that her poems are not distinctively Irish, that her syntax is elliptical to the point of obscurity, that her images are extreme or unsupported by rhetoric, or that her talent is buried in cliches.1 But poet James Simmons, who included her work in his 1974 anthology Ten Irish Poets, wrote that “she has a lovely imagination with a sort of hard-boiled magic touch, manifesting on pages the wonder and horror of living.”2

Ní Chuilleanáin's poems are easy to like but not easy to grasp. A poem like “Lucina Schynning in Silence of the Nicht …” evokes from some critics words such as “intercontinental” and “surreal.” The speaker, lacking food and drink, sits among ruins, beneath moon and stars, reading a book by candlelight. The language suggests a lone warrior in a scene of desolation, in the mood of Axel's Castle. He sleeps safely in a room through which bats fly:

Sheep stared at me when I woke.
Behind me the waves of darkness lay, the plague
Of mice, the plague of beetles
Crawling out of the spines of books,
Plague shadowing pale faces with clay
The disease of the moon gone astray.(3)

The poem begins, “Moon shining in silence of the night / The heaven being all full of stars.” Glossing this poem, Anthony Bradley says that though Lucina was the traditional goddess of childbirth, “Spenser also connects her with Diana, goddess of the moon.”4

In fact, the connection of the Roman goddess of birth labor with Diana was made by the Scot William Dunbar in a poem known as “The Antechrist,” which begins, “Lucina schynnyng in silence of the nicht, / The hevin being all ful of sternis bricht.”5 It is a satiric dream vision. After a nightmare in which Dame Fortune torments Dunbar with a vision of the coming of “the Antechrist” and the end of the world, he finds life not so bad after all, though he must be resigned to the fact that he will not prosper so long as two moons shine in the sky, since the natural one is the home of evil and the other is his alchemist enemy flying over the moon.

Ní Chuilleanáin's technique may sometimes mute her womanly concerns, but they are frequently evident: in “Going Back to Oxford” (p. 38):

Something to lose; it came with the equipment
Alongside the suicide pill and the dark blue card:
“I am a Catholic, please send for a priest”
With space below for next of kin.

In “Wash” (p. 52): “Wash man out of the earth. … Wash man out of the woman: / The strange sweat from her skin, the ashes from her hair.” In “Ransom” (p. 34) “The payment always has to be in kind”—the salmon of knowledge, fatal to women; the millet and barley grains she must separate; the bloody enchanted shirt she must wash. “Do not think him unkind, but begin / To search for the stuff he will accept.”

An untitled poem published in 1981 opens with these painful, understated lines:

She is fifty, and missing the breast
That grew in her thirteenth year
And was removed last month.(6)

Age, breast, year, and month emphasize not only the maiming of human flesh and psyche, but also loss of identity. The woman speaker shares our passive and denying euphemism, “was removed.” The illusion of freedom and the reality of chance are implicit when the two women “choose a random bar” at which they eat lunch. As the fifty-year-old woman stares at a man's face reflected and distorted in the curved surface of a metal urn, she tells her companion, “You can't see it from where you are.” This is the kind of “wonder and horror of living” Ní Chuilleanáin can make us see.


  1. See, for example, “Ní Chuilleanáin, Eileán,” in Dictionary of Irish Literature, ed. Robert Hogan et al. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979); and Jay Parini, “The Celtic Center,” rev. of The Second Voyage, by Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, Sewanee Review, 90 (1982), 631-32.

  2. James Simmons, ed. Ten Irish Poets (Cheadle, Cheshire, UK: Carcanet Press, 1974), p. 11.

  3. Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, The Second Voyage (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest Univ. Press, 1977), p. 3. Further references to this book appear in the text.

  4. Anthony, Bradley, ed., Contemporary Irish Poetry: An Anthology (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), p. 395.

  5. James Kinsley, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 159-60.

  6. Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, “She is fifty …,” Concerning Poetry, 14 (Fall, 1981), 115.

Clair Wills (review date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Nearer by Keeping Still,” in The Times Literary Supplement, December 25, 1987, p. 1435.

[In the following review, Wills compliments Ní Chuilleanáin's technique and notes her use of the themes of movement and stillness.]

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry has been well received in her native Ireland, and The Second Voyage, comprising poems from her three volumes published there (it has been edited by Peter Fallon and is published in Dublin by Fallon's Gallery Books), is a welcome selection of her work for English readers. It displays a striking consistency of theme and technique—the dominant motif throughout being the contrast between movement and stasis. For Ní Chuilleanáin everything shifts, alters and progresses if only you will let it. So “The Lady's Tower” depicts a still-life in a fury of activity; walls slice downwards, “cellars plumb / Behind me shifting the oblique veins of the hill”. This mobile topography of the book's opening poem is answered in the last, where “A Gentleman's Bedroom” is built from the perspective of the possessing eye which frames, exploits and kills. While the thatch of the lady's tower “converses with spread sky”, the gentleman attempts not dialogue with but ownership of his surroundings. Inevitably the gables and stacks around him are “All graveyard shapes / Viewed from his high windowpane.”

This male need to fix, measure and control objects is represented as a fear of flux. The book is peopled by travelling men who anxiously resist the shifting landscape. Witness Odysseus' frustration with “the insults of the sea”, which remains oblivious to his efforts to make an impression:

                    If there was a single
Streak of decency in these waves now, they'd be ridged
Pocked and dented with the battering they've had,
And we could name them as Adam named the beasts.

Odysseus decides his second voyage will be on land, where he can plant his oar as a “Tidemark” and measure of his progress. But for Ní Chuilleanáin, “Going anywhere fast is a trap”; staying still is journeying. Only by arrested movement can we avoid killing off the “underside” of things, celebrated in “Barrack Street”:

Missing from the scene
The many flat surfaces,
Undersides of doors, of doormats
Blank backs of wardrobes.

It is precisely this underside which the gentleman's perspective cannot encompass, just as the spiders, mice and beetles go unnoticed by those who, with a direction in mind; think they have understood the secrets of movement.

The book is studded with the dead, with tombs and graveyards which in turn reveal themselves as mazes where the names of the dead are recycled to the accompaniment of “the long rambles of the spider”. The impossibility of endings is evidenced by the fluid circularity of the poems themselves, the best of which avoid epigrammatic conclusions. In “Early Recollections”, Ní Chuilleanáin explains, “if I can never write ‘goodbye’ / On the torn final sheet” it is because completed statements are brought about not by closure but by continual growth. The book thrives on the creepings, rustlings and imperceptible burgeonings of life which are the opposite of sureness and solidity. Solid itself, this book exists as an ironic rebuttal of the travelling man's spurious notions of progress and achievement.

Jonathan Allison (review date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Poetry from the Irish,” in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1991, p. 14.

[In the following excerpt, Allison praises Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry for its grace and simplicity.]

In [Ciaran] Carson's world, language is deceptive and meaning is unstable, but in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry language is serenely confident and comfortable in its relationship to the world and to the fictions it brings into being. The language of The Magdalene Sermon is simple, uncluttered and limpid, and Ní Chuilleanáin's poems are graceful and marvellously unfussy; she seems incapable of writing a superfluous line. She doesn't use figurative language very much, but when she does it is apt and fine: “Our tall pine where cones clung like mussels” (“The Italian Kitchen”). Usually her poems encapsulate a telling scene from a larger untold narrative, and aptly many of the poems have titles like those of paintings: “River, With Boats,” “St Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseilles,” “Fallen Tree in a Churchyard,” In “Looking at the Fall,” a mother and child gaze at a waterfall which is portrayed in almost hypnotic terms, and the poem closes with a bleak moment of visionary intensity, as they see “the bones piled in the mountainside. And the cross wind cutting at the roots, / Whistling in the dry bed of the stream.” Ní Chuilleanáin guides her poems again and again into the most assured and even startling closures, as in “Balloon,” where the balloon floating around the child's room becomes transformed magically as it lands, and “A big strange fish gleams, filling the child's bed,” and in “River, With Boats,” where a woman's idyllic riverside view is spoiled by a ship “Swaying and tugging and flapping like wind. And the faces of the mariners, Crowd at the glass like fishes.”…

Elizabeth Oness (review date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Glittering in the Wilderness,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1994, p. 26-7, 96.

[In the following excerpt Oness commends Ní Chuilleanáin's ability to write flowing poetry and comments on the recurring themes found in The Second Voyage.]

Ní Chuilleanáin's The Magdalene Sermon was shortlisted for the 1990 Irish Times/Aer Lingus Poetry Book Prize Committee. The Second Voyage contains poems from Acts and Monuments (1966) and Site of Ambush (1975). The beauty of Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry does not lie in dramatic revelation, but in the cadence of her sentences, which are both flowing and simple. Throughout her work, there is a wonderful sense of how a line of poetry works. “St. Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseilles” opens:

Now at the end of her life she is all hair—
A cataract flowing and freezing—and a voice
Breaking loose from the loose red hair,
The secret shroud of her skin:
A voice glittering in the wilderness.
She preaches in the city, she wanders
Late in the evening through the shaded squares.

Images of water abound in these books, and Odysseus serves as the subject for several poems in The Second Voyage. The title poem is more than a retelling of myth; it is a demonstration of the smallness of human effort and the intractability of nature. Odysseus, of course, wants to return home: “But the profound / Unfenced valleys of the ocean still held him; / He had only the oar to make them keep their distance; / The sea was still frying under the ship's side.” These poems are marked by a sense of human struggle with the elements and the larger world: “His face grew damp with tears that tasted / Like his own sweat or the insults of the sea.”…

Peter Sirr (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “How Things Begin to Happen: Notes on Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian,” in Southern Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 450-67.

[In the following excerpt, Sirr examines Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry and analyzes her ability to blend different styles of poetry and various images to create imaginative poems.]

Given the full range of what has been possible in verse in our century, Irish poetry is essentially conservative. It tends to avoid formal experiment, jealously hoards its clarities, its logic, its trove of paraphrasable content. Think, for instance, of the effective marginalisation of Thomas Kinsella, who has stoically pushed the modernist legacy to the bemusement (albeit respectful) of a good many fellow-poets and to the relative indifference of critics. A well-established cliché is to regret his departure from the plangent if derivative lyricism of Another September into the muddy modernist waters of the later work; to regret, that is, exactly his departure from the comforting norms of the Irish poem, which are primarily lyric norms. (If we don't have a poetry of open forms and serious experiment, neither do we have the kind of ambitiously philosophising poetry that is such an important part of the discursive tradition; we don't have a Hecht or a Merrill or a Pinsky or a Tomlinson.) For the most part Irish poetry is content to work within a part of one tradition or a strand of the contemporary poetic range. Of the current generation, Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson in his recent work remind us again of the exceptionality of experiment in Irish poetry.

What I'm saying is that one aspect of Irish poetry's conservatism is the primacy it gives to control—all poets are control freaks, of course, but a crucial part of control is knowing when to let go—and the sense it gives of the poet reaching only part-way down into the well. To put it another way: I often feel when reading Irish poetry that the poet is unwilling to cede authority to the process of imagination, to let the poem write the poet rather than to impose his or her governing consciousness on the poem. It's that authority that both Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian reject, and that's what draws me to their poems. Wallace Stevens said that poetry “should resist the intelligence almost successfully,” and I read that as an invitation to the deeper imagination that doesn't release all its secrets, that worries us and disturbs us and sends us in a number of directions at once, that makes us throw away our maps and wander in the dangerous and surprising undergrowth of the poem.

For me the most interesting tension in poetry is that between what might be termed control—the ordering intellect, the formalising imagination yoked by the mind—and what might be called submission, by which I mean a yielding to the impulse of the imagination in its most fluid state, in the process of creating, when it meets and is not domineered by but drives language. There is an exact if paradoxical relationship between the “yielding imagination” and a preoccupation with form, with the liberating potential of shape and rhythm and space pushed out as far as they will go, and again it is this preparedness to take risks that I find heartening in Ní Chuilleanáin and McGuckian. A poet whose imagination is animated and energised by the formal possibilities of language, tone, pitch, rhythm, and the myriad of relationships with consciousness that determine how experience is mediated and uttered is not a poet without subjects, floundering in the mechanics of the trade. The experience that presents itself is so bound up with the range of possibilities through which it ultimately enters the page, and the poet's imagination so shaped by responsiveness to the way words can constellate themselves, that subject and form cohabit far too intimately to be in any meaningful way separable. Similarly, a poet whose primary impetus comes from a subject is not usually oblivious to form, but the relationship between poet and form is significantly different. McGuckian and Ní Chuilleanáin engage subject and form in different ways—but their strategies have in common a divergence from the prevailing mode in Irish verse. I want to explore something of those relationships.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has been discreetly subverting the norms of Irish poetry since Acts and Monuments appeared in 1972. She writes a poetry whose authority is rooted in intensely local perception and in open-ended imaginative structures: a poetry where isolated moments are held in the poet's ordering gaze, a poetry that depends on the relentless clarity and attentiveness of that gaze and the details it illuminates rather than on the central government of an overt poetic personality. It's not that there's no overall structuring consciousness, because there is a remarkable unity of approach throughout the work; but the poems are constellated within it rather than issuing from a single light source.

The poems often address the reader in highly dramatic ways: the initial lines set up the emotional tenor, but they don't make the reader's task easier by clarifying the dramatic context. Ní Chuilleanáin likes to begin in medias res and have the reader work backwards, pushing gingerly through the details that carry the emotional freight. To illustrate the unsettling immediacy with which she characteristically opens her poems, I've selected initial lines from three books:

When all this is over, said the swineherd,


The payment always has to be in kind;
Easy to forget, travelling in safety,
Until the demand comes in.


Something to lose; it came in the equipment
Alongside the suicide pill and the dark blue card:

(“Going Back to Oxford”)

At some time previous to the destruction of the villages,
We find references to a young man “about eight feet tall”


There are more changes each time I return
Two widows are living together in the attic
Among the encyclopedias
And gold vestments.

(“Night Journeys”)

It was his bag of tricks she wanted, surely not him:

(“The Pig-boy”)

He fell in love with the butcher's daughter


Escaped beyond hope, she climbs now
Back over the ribs of the wrecked ship,


Only one of these is from a dramatic monologue, a favoured Ní Chuilleanáin form and one that can licence an abrupt entrance—the speaker has after all to start somewhere, and time is limited. Some of the poems above are narrated in the third person, also a kind of licence for fore-shortened beginnings. The use of the third person is a feature of Ní Chuilleanáin's work: forswearing the authority of the first person is part of a distancing strategy that, like the drama of the situations or the intensity of the focus, pushes the reader into the self-enclosed world of the poems. Whether these beginnings carefully describe a physical action or evoke or declare an emotional state, the urgency of the tone compels us into the poem, compels us to trust the often strange surroundings in which we find ourselves: we register and relish the incidental details even if their exact purpose or the exact nature of the situation remains obscure (What widows? Why the encyclopedias and gold vestments? What suicide pill? Who exactly is this swineherd or pig-boy?) The poems often withhold as much as they disclose; if they seem coded, it's not in the private, exclusive sense of concealed or coyly distorted confessional, but that codes are part of her approach to rendering the world.

Ní Chuilleanáin's choice of situation is very like her approach to the organisation of the poems. In the same way that she reaches for a resonant situational core, she often blocks the poems in self-contained sections rather than a single, seamless narrative flow. Their force is conveyed by the details and by the reader's sense of the alert consciousness that selects and releases them. Another characteristic, and related, Ní Chuilleanáin strategy is the avoidance of firm closure: her endings rarely tie the lyric knot of the poem neatly; they tend to open the poem outward into an imaginative continuum rather than to enclose it. This is often achieved by the introduction of new imagery or by concentration on a highly focused local moment rather than an attempt to resonate back over the poem globally. Edna Longley has commented on the way Ní Chuilleanáin's poems, specifically those about women in The Magdalene Sermon, are “obliquely rounded off in the last lines.” These oblique closures are a consistent part of her structural approach: the closing sections, like their predecessors, are self-contained. Ní Chuilleanáin also accords unusual independence to the line, which is a more significant unit in her work than in that of other poets. On the other hand she often breaks lines abruptly, carrying over a single word into the next line or section and then closing it off, thus, paradoxically, underscoring her lines' self-containment by offering a slight threat to their integrity.

All these strategies disrupt the kind of authority our reading of other poets might lead us to expect: the authority granted a single, explicit governing consciousness. That these manoeuvres have been there from the start can be seen by looking at a group of related early poems. “Swineherd” is probably the best known of them, and it works by the accumulation of highly specific details, an exactitude the more startling in the context of the poem's mysterious situation:

When all this is over, said the swineherd,
I mean to retire, where
Nobody will have heard about my special skills
And conversation is mainly about the weather.
I intend to learn how to make coffee, at least as well
As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen
And polish the brass fenders every day.
I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.
I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines
And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,
Where it gets dark early in summer
And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.

There's nothing spare here. All the details are evocative and necessary: each leads inexorably to the next in a rising tide of emotional impact. The speaker is a marginal figure, the situation the anticipated aftermath of a life of “special skills,” the focus sensory: good coffee, gleaming brass, and the body tautened to such a pitch of sense perception that it can detect the tiny “crawl” of cream to the top of the jug. All the pleasures anticipated in the first two parts of the poem involve work, the making of the coffee and the polishing of the fenders at least as important as the enjoyment of them. But the poem's success also lies in the declarative strength with which the desires are stated—I mean, I intend to learn, I want to lie awake, I want to see—and in a tone that manages to be both formal and colloquial, direct and quietly ironic (“special” skills, the conversation, the force of “allowed” in the last line).

“Early Recollections” provides a useful vantage-point from which to consider Ní Chuilleanáin's poetics. The poem is an apparent apology for quietness, for “paralysis in verse / Where anger would be more suitable.” The terms of the argument are interesting: paralysis versus anger; but paralysis conceived of as a lyric quietude or temperateness in the face of a world that has yet to intrude its pains directly into the narrator's life, and anger as the inevitable, and more appropriate, response. The argument is conducted along gently ironic lines, opposing death, or the lack of it, to a world of serene details: unbroken and unchanged china, the way stones change colour after rain.

If I produce paralysis in verse
Where anger would be more suitable,
Could it be because my education
Left out the sight of death?
They never waked my aunt Nora in the front parlour;
Our cats hunted mice but never
Showed us what they killed.
I was born in the war but never noticed.
My aunt Nora is still in the best of health
And her best china has not been changed or broken.
Dust has not settled on it; I noticed it first
The same year that I saw
How the colours of stones change as water
Dries off them after rain.
I know how things begin to happen
But never expect an end.

Like Larkin's ironic salute to the life unlived in “I Remember, I Remember,” the poem's satiric effect depends on its detailed evocation of withheld or missed experience and on the implication that what was missed is more valuable than the alternatives supplied by the speaker's life. Yet the real point is to define the trajectory of attentiveness and perception that this poem and the whole of Ní Chuilleanáin's oeuvre enact. By stipulating the year when the observations on which the poem hinges were first made, Ní Chuilleanáin is effectively recording the inception of a consistent aesthetic. This aesthetic is everywhere in the work in “how things begin to happen”: the unanticipated end (in this poem, death) can also be read as any closure that rebuffs the peculiarly intense and local attentiveness of childhood and the open-ended imagination. “My / Childhood gave me hope / And no warnings,” the poem goes on to say, but

I discovered the habits of moss
That secretly freezes the stone,
Rust softly biting the hinges
To keep the door always open.
I became aware of truth
Like the tide helplessly rising and falling in one place.

The discoveries are characteristic: images teased from the far reaches of perception, the borderlands between stasis and motion. The lines are both frozen in time and timeless—each image a bleakly informed commentary on the passage of time as well as a moment of lyric stillness—and in this also they enact a distinctive Ní Chuilleanáin double take on time. None of this is the innocent escapism it pretends to be and slyly mocks. The imaginative door is, after all, kept open by the corrosion of rust, and the truth that dawns on the poet is evoked with nice ambivalence, the “helplessly rising and falling” tide.

A related poem, “Deaths and Engines,” deals with the need to confront death. The poem combines a number of apparently disparate images: a plane torn in two, glimpsed at Orly Field; a hospital where the poet has gone to visit friends injured in a car accident; the cold; and cutlery crossed on a plate.

The cold of metal wings is contagious:
Soon you will need wings of your own,
Cornered in the angle where
Time and life like a knife and fork
Cross, and the lifeline in your palm
Breaks, and the curve of an aeroplane's track
Meets the straight skyline.

The relief at seeing that her friends have survived the crash mingles with the need to confront the fact of death:

You will find yourself alone
Accelerating down a blind
Alley, too late to stop
And you 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.

The images here are stitched together with Metaphysical boldness: one can feel the jarrings, the effort of yoking together the pieces of the poem. It's assembled from the wreckage of its own parts.

Very often these poems are situated at the intersection of past and mediating present, and the blurring of tenses makes them seem both immediate and frozen in a timeless, sculpted clarity. The markers of this shadowy, intermediate domain are domestic details—the poems are full of houses and furniture that hover on the edge of articulation, that are buried voices in themselves—the accoutrements that imply a life. Frequently the poems involve a journey back to a place known since childhood; such poems become both a catalogue of change and a monument to that remembered place:

The house sits silent,
The shiny linoleum
Would creak if you stepped on it.
Outside it is still raining
But the birds have begun to sing.

So ends “A Gentleman's Bedroom,” which has charted its way from a long shot of the valley where the house is situated to the still frame of the mysterious bedroom where “all walls point at once to the bed / Huge red silk in a quarter of the room / Knots drowning in deep mahogany / And uniform blue volumes shelved at hand.”

The lovely, fluid specificity manages also to suggest the curious stasis and uniformity of the life. As in so many poems, the imagery hovers just beneath the senses: just beneath the touch of the hand that might grasp the racked volumes or reach for “a fountain-pen, / A weighty table-lighter in green marble, / A cigar-box, empty but dusted.” Everything is here except the life these things belong to; everything is held in suspense; the scene is as much museum as domestic interior. “The linoleum would creak if you stepped on it.” It's like the windows in “Night Journeys,” sitting like curators “Among the encyclopedias / And gold vestments.” Towards the end of that poem the poet wakes and walks “down a silent corridor / To the kitchen.” The poem ends with the details of the kitchen, from which life is temporarily absent, and it's a typical moment on the border between activity and stillness, between presence and absence, that the poems constantly patrol: “Twilight and a long scrubbed table, / The tap drips in an enamel basin / Containing peeled potatoes. A door half-open and / I can hear somebody snoring.”

The book that most clearly embodies Ní Chuilleanáin's preoccupation with a kind of expansive stillness is The Magdalene Sermon. The tone is set by the opening poem, “Pygmalion's Image,” which deploys the story of Pygmalion as a creation myth and a parable of the way the artistic imagination works: “Not only her stone face, laid back staring in the ferns, / But everything the scoop of the valley contains begins to move / (And beyond the horizon the trucks beat the highway).” The ferns, the valley, and the distant truck are as potently alive as the stone face fashioned by the sculptor, we remember, to make good the faults he detested in actual women. The arrogant self-containment of Pygmalion's art is here deflated and recomposed so that our attention is directed to the movements of the natural world: “A tree inflates gently on the curve of the hill; / An insect crashes on the carved eyelid; / Grass blows westward from the roots, / As the wind knifes under her skin and ruffles it like a book.” The wind that ruffles her skin like a book is also the subtly subverting imagination that reorders this myth. The final image draws us back into the world of the word: “The lines of the face tangle and catch, and / A green leaf of language comes twisting out of her mouth.”

Pygmalion himself is absent—and The Magdalene Sermon is a book haunted by absent men. The poem can be read as a new myth, which, bypassing Pygmalion's exploitative and essentially misogynistic vision, posits instead a vision of creation as a collusion between nature and the created woman (Galatea/Eve), whose “leaf of language” can be turned to reinventing the world it falls on. Another kind of godlike absent creator lurks in the background of “MacMoransbridge,” one of the key poems of this collection. The central character is a dead man whose presence lingers in the lives of his sisters; more precisely, it lingers in their failure to accommodate his wishes: “Although the whole house creaks from their footsteps / The sisters, when he died, / Never hung up his dropped dressing-gown, / Took the ash from the grate, or opened his desk.” Typically, the poet's focus at the outset is on the house, but its creaking is a testament to the presence of the women, whose bustling activity makes their neglect of their brother's room more shocking. The rest of the poem is a catalogue of schemings, resentments, and belated triumph:

                                                                                                                                            His will,
Clearly marked, and left in the top drawer,
Is a litany of objects lost like itself.
The tarnished silver teapot, to be sold
And the money given to a niece for her music-lessons,
Is polished and used on Sundays. The rings and pendants
Devised by name to each dear sister are still
Tucked between silk scarves in his wardrobe, where he found
And hid them again, the day they buried his grandmother.
And his posthumous plan of slights and surprises
Has failed—though his bank account's frozen—to dam up time.

As the poem develops, the lives of the sisters are evoked as a procession of chores—continuous, repetitive, ritualistic. Their intense busyness, “never / All resting at once,” contrasts sharply with the sense of abandoned life, unfulfilled intentions, and implied emotional inertia of the dead man: the dropped dressing-gown, the ash still in the grate, the hidden rings and pendants, and the unacted-on will, “a litany of objects lost like itself.” As the poem concludes, its focus is the perpetual cycle of work, which, like Pygmalion's image in the opening poem, is offered as a corrective, a creative gesture that rebukes the man who would imprison them in his will. The dead man's place is reduced in the closing section to a parenthesis: “(He used to see from his leafy window / Shoulders bobbing at the pump like pistons.)” The bobbing shoulders, like all the images of the sisters at work, suggest positive female activity and creativity: it's remarkable the extent to which Ní Chuilleanáin's women inhabit this space, one often defined by the actions of men but reshaped as much by the poet's intensity of perception as by the qualities of endurance and creativity we're shown. Often the lives she chooses to focus on are cloistered—there are many poems about nuns and convents—and in a sense Ní Chuilleanáin's own art is cloistered: in its deliberate choice of marginal locations, in its quiet rhetoric, in its discreet presentation of material.

Ní Chuilleanáin is, essentially, a poet of borders. She made this explicit in an article published in a recent anthology when she said: “The options open to Irish women writers … include the absurd, the outspoken, and the crafty use of the borderlands between the two, as also of the borderlands between two languages (Gaelic and English) and between two traditions (male and female) which overlap intriguingly.” One could add a few borders to that list: the tonal border meshing the colloquial and the austere, that between formal and more open structures (often within a single poem), the one between stasis and motion where the poems are situated, and the border between the discursive and the imaginatively suggestive (between statement and presentation). The success of the poetry depends on its refusal to choose one side or another, and to choose instead the blurry, intuitive path. …

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Acts and Monuments of an Unelected Nation: The Cailleach Writes about the Renaissance,” in Southern Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 570-80.

[In the following essay, Ní Chuilleanáin discusses the writers and historical events that have influenced her writing.]

I work in an institution founded by Queen Elizabeth I, though not much about its appearance now suggests that she and her colonial advisers, and not the cool philosophers and raging politicians of the eighteenth century, were the originators. Because my work as teacher and researcher is mostly connected with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it frequently occurs to me to think about the founders and to reflect that I am just the person they meant to keep outside the walls—we still do have high, rather impressive stone walls with dangerous spiked railings on top.

A Gaelic-speaking1 female papist whose direct and indirect ancestors, men and women, on both sides, were committed to detaching Ireland from the British Empire is found holding forth in the capital of an Irish republic about the heroic days of the Reformation and of God's Englishmen. The presence of the small group of women among the Fellows of Trinity College, Dublin, would not have consoled the Virgin Empress very much. When I confront her on my way in to coffee in the common room it is silently; but (like, I suspect, many people who work in older institutions of learning, religion, or law) I am aware of a suppressed dialogue with the icons of the past that is going on in parallel with a code of public allusion, officially conciliatory, while in the meditations of those who daily teach or scrub floors the tenor of our exchanges is perhaps less so.

History has been particularly alive for me as for many Irish people. We are lectured occasionally by benevolent advisers and told this is bad for us. But like others who share my linguistic background, I am aware always of the presence of the past and of the strangeness, the untypical edge on the way I read history. We read with anger, anger forced through the narrow passages created by minority languages and small audiences. For a group of readers numbered in thousands, the English poet Spenser's claim that he was present at the execution of O'Brien in 1579 is not merely the depiction of a strange and barbaric scene:

… as namely at the execution of a notable traitor at Limerick called Murrogh O'Brien, I saw an old woman which was his foster mother took up his head whilst he was quartered and sucked up all the blood running there out, saying that the earth was not worthy to drink it, and therewith also steeped her face and breast, and tore her hair, crying and shrieking out most terribly.

That demented hag speaks for a culture of intimate bonds, of bodily and verbal affections that we know closely with our tongues because we know the language and the poetic shapes, the keening formulae and the bardic idiom of praise, which gave them expression. Never mind for the moment the incompleteness of our knowledge: its exclusiveness prints it sharply. As an undergraduate in Cork I remember trying to capture the closeness of that moment to me, its refusal to recede into the merely past, in a very early poem. Years later a version of it surfaced in my first collection, Acts and Monuments—the title of which book was of course taken from that classic of English Protestant historiography, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. By then the victim's name and the place and date of death had been changed; can I have been thinking that “O'Rourke” was more euphonious than “O'Brien”? And the Irish lord had been joined by another Celtic loser:

My head lies against the bridge
The vibrant coping-stones
Arching the green insistent waterfall;
My cheek feels the cold
Bricks of the cistern where Vercingetorix
Died in Rome, the dark earth of London
Where blood fell from O'Rourke betrayed
1591. …

Two more observations occur to me on the subject of that passage in Spenser. One will have struck the reader, I hope: the sheer strangeness of Spenser's calm assumption that we know the minutiae of a traitor's execution. The routine display of segments of the bodies of the Queen's enemies in the population centres of their own country, over the gates of my native city of Cork for instance—we have really to bend our minds to imagine it, while he takes it for granted that everyone is acquainted with the procedure. The other point is even more obvious, the role of the woman who—unlike others I might name, for example the talented but heroically silent daughter and foster-daughters who at the time of his condemnation and execution supported Sir Thomas More—flashes out into articulate and it would seem poetic speech in defiance of the rhetoric of power surrounding her. If as a woman writer it has always been hard for me to accept the idea that women's lives are inherently duller and less readily articulated than men's, that one's subject-matter must be tethered to the everyday, I might invoke that ancient Fury as inspiration.

Her words reach us via Spenser, impressed as always by energy and extremity—but how did he know what she said? Any reader with Gaelic who takes a look at his View of the Present State of Ireland will quickly recognise that he did not know the language. Anyone who knows the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, composed two centuries later (again by a woman) in commemoration of another enemy of Protestant power, can recognise even in Spenser's account what the lament may have been like. For me as a reader, the chasm between cultures is accompanied by the chasm between languages—that second one a chasm indeed, but one it is essential to negotiate. That gap and that bridge are everywhere in the culture of the sixteenth century, a time when translations and etymologies were flagrant and revolutionary tools for Erasmus and Luther, and the seventeenth, when they became witty enchantments for Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne.

Yet every attempt to cross the gulf of language remains so partial, even illusory, a task always to be recommenced. The reality of language difference to me means so much that I occasionally think I have remained addicted to the English Renaissance so as not to lose sight of that fact. In the early modern period, languages keep their sharp edges, their strangeness to one another, in a way that seems less defined in this century of cribs and instant guides to alien cultures.

If I want the alien to go on keeping its distance, I have always been convinced I must keep mine from that blurred entity known in my hemisphere as “Anglo-Irish” literature. I am quite serious: I have, like an ancient Irish hero, a geas, a taboo that will allow me to continue writing verse only if I do not get sucked into that particular academic black hole. And the reading of history and early literature can offer its own temptations; one might well stop being aware of one's own distance and difference from any comprehension of even the most passionately contemplated past. Even if it is one's own people's past, even if it is a past that has been formally handed to one in trust, as to a member of a diminishing group, it must not become too domestically familiar.

A poem I began fairly recently came from an awareness of foreignness as a sea we are always starting to climb ashore from, a version of the human condition that demands we keep trying to cross over; the speaker sees herself as a language student, like many who frequent the Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland, but I wanted here to avoid any specially Irish reference, to suggest in fact that the language being studied in the poem has a more resounding use of feminine forms than Gaelic has. It is called “Studying the Language”:

On Sundays I watch the hermits coming out of their holes
Into the light. Their cliff is as full as a hive.
They crowd together on warm shoulders of rock
Where the sun has been shining, their joints crackle.
They begin to talk after a while.
I listen to their accents, they are not all
From this island, not all old,
Not even, I think, all masculine.
They are so wise, they do not pretend to see me.
They drink from the scattered pools of melted snow:
I walk right by them and drink when they have done.
I can see the marks of chains around their feet.
I call this my work, these decades and stations—
Because, without these, I would be a stranger here.

The last lines are an allusion to Thomas More's Utopia. In his prefatory letter to Peter Giles, More makes the writer's usual complaint of lack of time and lists, among the distractions that have held his book up, the essential intercourse of family life: “For when I am come home I must commune with my wife, chat with my children, and talk with my servants. All the which things I reckon and account among business forasmuch as they must of necessity be done, and done must they needs be, unless a man will be stranger in his own house.”

Evidence, along with his affectionate letters, that More had at least noticed his family's existence, that he had felt their claims and experienced that essentially modern anxiety of wondering what the loved ones are up to when a parent is far away. More has to count as a feminist, with due allowance being made for the standards of his time: we know not only the names of his wives, daughters, and adopted daughters and some of their women servants; we know their characters, their talents and interests. Theirs do not form part of their age's large body of lost women's lives.

The awareness of women's history, specifically as a history submerged and lost, has changed in the last twenty-five years from a static fact to a bone of contention. At the same time, and more interestingly to me, has come the accurate sense that many women's lives are recoverable, not by the use of outré tricks, but by looking in libraries. Is it the problems the catalogue makers have with women's surnames that make the books evasive? And is there a sillier phrase than the one about a book “mouldering in a library”? As if there existed a place more alive and alert, the books like children coming home on a train jumping up and down to attract attention, then pouring out chatting volubly on unexpected subjects, as it might be religion, or medicine, or heraldry. Of course the surviving Lives and Diaries are all, especially in my period, about the oddest women, geniuses or martyrs or lunatics or women with power; one never stops to ask, as one does with the biography of some boring functionary, How did anyone ever bother to write this person's life? By contrast with the autobiographical females of the Renaissance, most other women—those who surface in biographical writing by men—are erased, described in the most general terms, “modest,” “a shrew,” “a whore.”

The lives of Renaissance women do at least caution one against the notion I find my students all have, that truth about people is contained in the “believable,” in “character,” in typical vices and shallow virtues folded into one another like egg-whites in a soufflé. Witches, viragos, martyrs, hermits—I do admit their humanity and their femininity; I do not think they have dissolved their women's bodies because they may be eight feet tall or dressed in knightly armour. I cling to romance almost as tightly as to history.

An account by an American historian, Jerrold Casway, of a woman with a truly extraordinary history, the seventeenth-century political exile Lady Rosa O'Doherty, impelled me to write a poem called “In Rome.” I wanted to get into it all those things art historians leave out about Rome, all that an Irish reader of history knows about: squalor, refugees from remote places, the small change (literally in my poem) of relationships of patron and client, the peculiar status of a woman like Lady Rosa as a dependent with dependents of her own, the special importance of money:

                    my poor girls are cooking eggs now
Behind the screen. Soon they must wrap
And veil up for the street, for the hours lounging
Nibbling bread in the Cardinal's front hall,
Twisting to keep their heels out of sight. …

I set out in writing that poem to say something too about the architecture of papal Rome, which I have delighted in since my parents lived in the city for several years in the 1960s. It's the scale, the undomestic plan of it, that excites me, the way it strains the neck muscles to take it all in, the cramps they must have felt lodging in the slice of space left over from those majestic arches.

The life of the body surfaces sporadically in history, and yet it lies behind so much of the way we apprehend language or visible beauty. As a child you come to awareness of it gradually; the child is small and is constantly being attended to in sections, so to speak, while the full-grown, sexual body, which can be seen as a whole, belongs to the parent, exists on a heroic scale, exercising the neck muscles again. Then you grow to four or five, get independence, and the lightness and trimness you find in your own body has a value. At about six, I noticed that my parents had a picture of naked ladies on public view in their house as other people's parents had an icon of the Sacred Heart. Our picture was Botticelli's Primavera, not very adventurous it seems now. It had descended from my mother's grandfather, who had written a book on Botticelli at the turn of the century. Joy, music, mystery, freedom.

Images of the body, apart from that one, were in our town kept literally under lock and key, the classic nudes in the cupboard in the librarian's office, the casts of athletes from the antique in a shed beside the materials laboratory in the college where my father worked. I distinctly recall straining to catch a glimpse of a grey buttock and a muscular thigh through the window of that shed, and asking myself was it worth it—could it possibly be that important? After all, the artists I knew—and I knew a few—painted West-of-Ireland scenery or carved great cloaked figures in stone. The local gallery at exhibition time showed dim portraits of men in suits. Why were these incredibly confident people in the nude meant to be the real thing? Then I walked through a gallery in Berlin at the age of twenty and turned a corner out of three rooms of brownish Rembrandts. There before me was Correggio's Leda and the Swan, full of blue and white, narrative space, and perversity. Here was the body at the centre of a story, female and pleased in all its dimensions. I was suddenly back in a world before the upheaval of the Reformation, before the Protestant war on icons of the body, rituals, and material ceremonies. As in that other, very different nude, Titian's Mary Magdalene, the very presence of the body was felt like a rush of Mediterranean heat, strong and undeniable.

When I turn to the writers of the early 1600s, however, I find them haggling about just how much of a bodily gesture, of the body's presence, may be admitted in the new Protestant dispensation. Donne's “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward” is about a body literally turning its back on ritual and thus on the significance of material presence in that central day in the Christian calendar. It's a poem almost entirely of negation:

Yet dare I almost be glad I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me. …
Could I behold those hands which span the poles,
And turn all spheres at once, pierced with those holes? …
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye … ?

(Helen Gardner has substituted tune for turn in the fourth line I've quoted here, but I think H. J. C. Grierson was right to emphasise Donne's making Christ on the cross the mover of the universe.)

A poem of mine called “The Absent Girl” attempts to convey the state that negates the body. I wrote it about the experience of going bail, having to go to court to be accepted, for a friend's semi-criminal friend; about the sense one gets of being invisible when encountering an abstract system. With no body one slips out of time, that essential element, along with bodily presence, of courtroom procedure. But I was on the edge of that procedure; they couldn't see me. If I had been an allegory with a sword and a pair of scales, they might at least have bumped into me:

The absent girl is
Conspicuous by her silence
Sitting at the courtroom window
Her cheek against the glass.
They pass her without a sound
And when they look for her face
Can only see the clock behind her skull. …

And now, in the last decade or so, I find that it is that other icon that draws me, of the body turned inside out, the heart exposed and bleeding, the man's flesh feminised—the Sacred Heart, which was so common on the walls of Irish houses when I was a child. Or its august equivalent, Bernini's marble Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, where the saint in a hurricane of cloth is being pierced by a smiling angel. The sexual metaphor was never so clearly exposed as merely metaphor, and yet nonetheless it remains sexualised. We reach out of our bodies with our bodies' eyes and writing hands. The sculptor is following the saint herself in her account of her wounding; he is both literary and a master of hard and heavy stone, which in the Cornaro chapel (I'm back in Rome again) appears to float and flutter, once more testing those muscles in the neck, just out of our reach.

I know that I am out of my brief: as a poet writing about my relationship with the literature I teach, ought I not to be talking about words, tones, and images? Instead I appear drawn all the time to history and pictures. Let me point defensively to the strong belief of Renaissance poets and critics in the power of narrative and description: to Donne's collection of religious pictures, to Herbert's emblematic and architectural metaphors, to Crashaw's meditation on “the book and picture of St Teresa as she is commonly shown.” Yes, I've also stolen the odd word, line, or phrase where I thought I might not be spotted—especially from Crashaw or Spenser. When it comes to language, my main debt is to the Renaissance humanists and their successors, who have insisted that language is not like any other medium; its prime feature, even for the artist, is its meaning, its power to persuade and change, its relation to truth and right. And what I am mainly grateful for is that they do not combine with their sense of the seriousness of language any disapproval of elaboration, amplification, grandeur.

If my talent were equal to describing, say, the splendid technical achievement of Rubens's Last Judgement in Munich (I have tried), I might not keep away, as I do, from pictorial subjects. Ideally, the picture in the poem should give the focal point at which the reader's and the poet's gaze converge, and meaning would be transferred by sharing the image. But since Spenser's imagined tapestries in the House of Busirane, I don't think that has worked. And it works for Spenser because he is talking about narrative and myth, because the picture-frame melts away leaving a scene of wonder with a past and future. For my part, when I found myself compelled to write about Correggio's Assumption of the Virgin, in the dome of the cathedral at Parma, I could not describe the picture itself—I could only concentrate on one aspect, the way it shows bodily effort and the body's weight. Again, when I return to the themes and techniques that have obsessed me, to mythology, narrative, and folklore, in writing about these too I have at least started out from the body's experience.

A poem of mine called “The Water Journey” draws on the theme of the quest, the task. It's a motif that turns up everywhere in folk literature and is also very common in Renaissance romance. Often in Spenser, in Malory, in Shakespeare's All's Well or Pericles, the task may be or seem to be an impossible one. Since I grew up in the sheltering presence of a mother who was an inveterate reader of folk-tales and deviser of stories for children, I knew the rules of this kind of story early; as a mother at forty I have recently been rediscovering them in all their variety. They do not lose interest. After my mother's brain surgery, on the day before the attack that disabled her finally, she was at work on a story about a boy, a flying fox, and an old woman who had lost her cow. Observe that the young adventurer is male, the troubled elder female: a usual feature of my mother's fiction. It is one I diverged from early, perhaps because of what I find to be the evenhandedness of Renaissance mythmaking. Britomart, Florimell, and Marina take on the impossible burdens of their tales as male heroes do, having in fact no choice. And it was that inescapable burden I wanted to stress in my poem, where the speaker is an older woman who sets the girl her challenge: she has only to carry water a short distance in her hands.

She stepped carefully down on the road;
The lads on bicycles cheered when they passed her
And her fingers shook and nearly leaked and lost it.
She took her time for the last fifty yards
Bringing it to the threshold, and there I drank.

The poem ends:

I said to the other sisters, each of you
Will have to do the same when her day comes.
This one has finished her turn,
She can go home with her wages.
She would hardly make it as far
As the well at the world's end.

Thus the speaker makes light of the task she imposed. A companion poem, however, tells that the place where she found the water was full of literally unspeakable horrors. The original title for that second poem was “Praeteritio,” which is the label for a figure of rhetoric, the one that “passes by, passes over in silence” the essential statement that is not made directly but gathered by the reader from context.

So while I may be drawn, in looking at Renaissance fictions and artefacts, to the deep archetypes of myth, I must express my admiration for the polished technique, the wit and deliberation, the courage, the excess of those writers and artists, and certainly of the readers and lookers-on who completed the cultural exchange and made the work of those protagonists possible. Good taste, in the sense of restraint, understatement, sober tone, does not go unappreciated when it achieves a purpose such as intimacy or informality. But it is the ability of the Renaissance reader to be carried and mastered by rhetoric that staggers me—as the male customers in the brothel in Pericles are staggered by Marina's eloquence, as the pander Boult is flayed by her vituperation, as language is shown with teeth and using them.

I fall into imperatives when writing about the writing of verse. Can I, finally, articulate that sense of compulsion, at once so nearly related to one Renaissance view, that classicising personification of the Muse, and so at odds with the other, more attractive one, that of the poet as occasional amateur? I have, it is true, a compulsive or ritualistic, almost magical relationship to what I do when I write poetry. When I consider it, it appears as something I am impelled to do, an unshaped fire demanding to be organised into a sequence of words and images as nearly orderly as I can make them. It leads me astray, I double back, I can almost hear the voice exploding, “Fool!” Later there is the poem, not the one I expected to write when I began. Is all this merely an exaggeration, a slowing down, of the psychological process we go through every time we need a word and look for it and then find it? Not quite, because in that case there is no difficulty in recognising the word when found. Whereas there may be certainty in our recognition of the finished poem, but there is also surprise.

And though it manifests itself to me as a gift from without, as something not quite originating in myself and thus to be treated carefully because I do not entirely understand its workings, I disavow the idea of a Muse, even as metaphor. I feel closer to Ben Jonson than to Milton, but closer still I feel a kinship with some quiet cleric or eccentric lady who wrote when moved to do so and yet never felt that it would be the end of the world if one day the pen was laid down, and, by chance, never picked up again.


  1. I refer to myself in this essay as a Gaelic speaker. I am not claiming either the fluency and correctness of native (or of many non-native but habitual) speakers; neither have I the depth of scholarship of the professionals. Like very many Irish people, I grew up with Gaelic spoken a good deal at home. I was unlucky at my middle-class school, but throughout my life I have been a reader of modern and early modern Gaelic writing. I have also been lucky in sharing the knowledge of Gaelic literature, music, folklore, and history of my parents, my husband and mother-in-law, and of many friends and colleagues.

Paul Scott Stanfield (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Magdalene Sermon, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 69, Summer, 1995, pp. 148-56.

[In the following excerpt, Stanfield examines Ní Chuilleanáin's use of mobility and stasis in her poetry and describes how this inertia makes Ní Chuilleanáin's poems powerful.]

Irish poets stand a good chance to get a fair hearing in the United States, not only when compared to poets of other foreign countries, but even when compared to our own. Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Derek Mahon receive notice in such venues as the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, which are rather miserly in the column inches they accord books of poetry. In the less highly visible but hardly less estimable world of quarterlies and workshops, Thomas Kinsella and John Montague have long been known names. Mention of Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Tom Paulin, or Aidan Matthews is likely to elicit at least an “oh, isn't he an Irish poet?”

All these names are, of course, the names of men. Irish women poets have had a far harder time getting attention, largely for the most painfully predictable of reasons. Even though a distinguished tradition of Irish women's fiction has been forming for two centuries (Maria Edgeworth, Somerville and Ross, Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, Edna O'Brien, Jennifer Johnston), “serious” poetry has long been defined in Ireland as a male activity, almost a male prerogative. Anthony Bradley's Contemporary Irish Poetry (revised edition, 1988), excellent though it is, includes only five women (twenty-seven poems) among its forty-nine poets … and believe it or not, his anthology walks off with the inclusiveness prize. There are six poems by women in Brendan Kennelly's Penguin Book of Irish Verse (1970), four in Derek Mahon's Sphere Book of Modern Irish Poetry (1972) and in John Montague's Book of Irish Verse (1974), one in Thomas Kinsella's New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986), and none at all in Frank Ormsby's Poets from the North of Ireland (1979) or in Maurice Harmon's Irish Poetry After Yeats. There are historical reasons for this, of course. Aren't there always?

Even the ambitious and magisterial Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (three deep-spined volumes, collectively running almost four thousand pages, published 1991), the fruit of considerably advanced thought on text, genre, history, and cultural identity, somehow managed to include only three women among the thirty-eight contemporary poets represented. (Sustained outcry about the absence of women in the anthology as a whole has led to the promise of a fourth volume.)

Eavan Boland, whose work recently received detailed and thoughtful analysis in these pages, has been the most prominent Irish woman poet to point out these inequities (see her “Outside History” in the April 1990 issue of American Poetry Review). To ears attuned to American feminism, her remarks on the difficulties Irish women poets experience in getting published, distributed, and reviewed (to say nothing of grants and appointments) seem painstakingly polite. However, in a country where (as she related in a 1991 interview) a woman in one of her workshops told her, “If I called myself a poet, people would think I didn't wash my windows,” even such obvious truths have lifted hackles. What she says of her involvement in a small Dublin firm interested in publishing women tells us much:

I remember a woman poet who said to me “I can't publish with a women's press. I have to publish with another one so that I have credibility.” To me that was a heartbreaking sentence because it represented all the oppressions women are under in this country. A well disposed male poet said to me, “If Salmon publishes just women (which it doesn't), it will do them harm.” I said, “Why will it do them harm? You have been publishing just men for years!” Tears come into these chaps' eyes because they think: Here's Eavan on a social occasion, saying these hard things to me.

The voices of women poets clearly have some distance to go toward being plainly heard in Ireland; meanwhile, the Wake Forest University Press has helped make some of the more distinguished and intriguing of those voices audible on this side of the water.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (roughly “Nee-Quillenoin”; anglicized “Cuillinane”) is of Heaney's generation, born 1942 in Cork City. Daughter of a professor and a novelist, a professor herself and the author of an Oxford dissertation on Elizabethan poetry, Ní Chuilleanáin's work inclines toward the meditative and intellectual, and prefers the implicit to the explicit. The strongest poems of her first two volumes, Acts and Monuments (1972) and Site of Ambush (1975), are available in the US in The Second Voyage (1977, 1986). What the reader will probably notice first in these poems is a bookish allusiveness that she or he may not be prepared to enjoy, but continued reading makes discernible a dialogue between stasis and fluidity, the fixed and the mobile, that Ní Chuilleanáin continues to explore in her later work.

The poem “Acts and Monuments” shows us trees, in their bending before the weather, trying to approximate the mobility and adaptiveness of weeds; trying and failing, it being in their nature to harden, and in hardening to “freeze the effects of wind and rain.” In the final quatrain, the shapes the tree hardened into in trying to adapt, the immobility it acquired by the wide traveling of its roots, become emblematic of the way stasis and change, permanence and perishability, strangely compound in all under heaven: “And like waterline the sky / Lids and defines an element / Where no unformed capricious cry / Can sound without its monument.”

The ambitious and moving sequence “Site of Ambush,” centered on the death of a deaf girl in a roadway accident with a military transport truck, likewise counterpoints time-bound process (clock time, geologic time, the human lifespan, the rhythms of tides and seasons) with semblances of permanence: “monumental crosses” in the cemetery, the arrested and inalterable youth of the girl, the elegiac stillness of the poem's descriptive passages. The images of tides and seasons let the poem ask—though it does not presume to answer—whether change is best thought of as transformation rather than loss, whether process is in truth a form of persistence.

In “The Second Voyage,” Odysseus speaks of his grumpy (and prototypically male?) dissatisfaction with the fluidity and shapelessness of the ocean: “If there was a single / Streak of decency in these waves now, they'd be ridged / Pocked and dented with the battering they've had, / And we could name them as Adam named the beasts.” This leads to his famous promise to walk, once ashore, however far it takes to find a people so remote from the ocean that they mistake his oar for a winnowing fan. But Ní Chuilleanáin's Odysseus then realizes that water—that is, the fluid, the unshapeable, the unnameable—is inescapably both around him and within him: “He remembered spiders and frogs / Housekeeping at the roadside in brown trickles floored with mud, / Horsetroughs, the black canal, pale swans at dark: / His face grew damp with tears that tasted / Like his own sweat or the insults of the sea.”

Ní Chuilleanáin's most recent American volume, The Magdalene Sermon and Earlier Poems, includes several poems from The Rose Geranium (1981), including the sequence of the same title. Changes of many kinds lie in the background of the sequence—aging, journeys, career vicissitudes—but the individual poems are devoted to eerily lucid moments of stopped time, intervals of perception before the onrush resumes. The final poem, “The Bare Deal Board,” gives us a powerful and elegant figure for the interdependence of stasis and motion when the speaker, her eyes tracing the motionless grain in the wood of her desk, sees in it the ocean she has just crossed.

I feel the muscles tugging.
In the wood, shoals hauling.
I look for that boat
Biting its groove to the south-east,
For that storm, the knot of blindness
That left us thrashing
In steel corridors in the dark.

The dialectic between that which is fixed and hard and that which is mobile and yielding can readily take on the shading of our classical Western dialectic of the male and the female. That thematic possibility, lightly suggested in Ní Chuilleanáin's earlier work, becomes more pronounced in The Magdalene Sermon, as she explores the range of women's religious experience. Although she does so without polemics, and with only the coolest kind of anger, many of the poems have an edge. Often we are shown a woman unrecognized, whose spiritual gifts have gone unregarded, whose vision has gone unheeded. “Quarant' Ore” shows us the women worshippers in an Italian church “packed / Lightly as drifted rubbish in corners” so as not to clog the entrance of “the real congregation / / The knights with medals and gloves.” In “J'ai Mal a nos Dents,” a dying nun, a woman so remote from all selfishness as to have once told her dentist “I have a pain in our teeth,” is at the end of her life given back what never should have been taken from her.

The Holy Father gave her leave
To return to her father's house
At seventy-eight years of age.
They handed her back her body,
Its voices and its death.

In “The Informant” a somewhat obtuse, condescending researcher is brought up short by the matter-of-factness with which a country woman tells of a brush with the supernatural. “History” deals sorrowingly with the sum of these lost spiritual gifts, the “lost art” of “our grandmothers”: “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.”

But there are countervailing moments of affirmation in these poems: Galatea coming to consciousness and becoming her own, not another's creation as “A green leaf of language comes twisting out of her mouth”; sisters who continue living in their accustomed way in their dead brother's house, defeating his hope that his will (which they leave unopened) would “dam up time” and define the household forever. Most tellingly there is “St. Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseilles”:

Now at the end of her life she is all hair—
A cataract flowing and freezing—and a voice
Breaking loose from the loose red hair,
The secret shroud of her skin;
A voice glittering in the wilderness.
She preaches in the city, she wanders
Late in the evening through shaded squares. …

Steven Matthews (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: “One Free Foot Kicking,” in The Times Literary Supplement, July 7, 1995, p. 13.

[In the following excerpt, Matthews favorably reviews The Brazen Serpent, stating that Ní Chuilleanáin's lyrics blend factual history and magical poetry.]

The relations between poetry and history, between the personal space of the lyric and the painful facts of public event, have inevitably formed an exacerbating focus of attention in Irish writing of the past two-and-a-half decades. In these recent books from the Gallery Press, two major poets take up the strains of those relations in striking and suggestive ways which extend the range of possibilities offered within this fraught territory.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's The Brazen Serpent dramatizes moments in which the mystical, the unseen or the unheard press on the known and the mundane. But these are lyrics concerned also with the difficulties, the thinnings and emptyings-out involved with all processes of translation. The highly successful opening poem, “Fireman's Lift”, set the tone of the whole in recognizing the fact that ascension from one reality to another is always juddery and stalled. We watch as a picture of the Virgin is awkwardly raised into place high up in a cathedral: “The Virgin was spiralling to heaven, / Hauled up in stages.” Yet the poet is quick to discover the compensations, however transitory, to be derived from this struggle (“We saw the work entire, and how the light / Melted and faded”) and the human importance of it: “This is what love sees, that angle.”

Other poems in the collection pay similar subtle attention to the necessary hesitations in crediting the marvellous or strange. The very sketchiness of “A Note” makes the sudden awareness of the “dark presence / Of the wild boar” the more compelling; the sudden drift of white feathers which appears in a garden one morning, a blessing “with angeldown”, modulates into a banality again attentive to the unsaid as an old priest “had never been told my aunt's story / About all the trouble over building the party wall” (“The Party Wall”). What is urgent here is Ní Chuilleanáin's concern to link these stories told and untold to processes of history and specifically of women's history. In “The Real Thing”, “Sister Custos / Exposes her major relic”, a fragment of the Brazen Serpent which gives the collection its title. In Numbers 21, the brass serpent is made by Moses at God's suggestion as antidote to the plague of serpents which He has visited on the people of Israel. It is a story, then, which has resonance for the relation which poetry might make to troubled times. The poem's rewriting of this is, however, more hesitant and resistant to analogy. “Sister Custos's” winding, hanging relic is revealed only briefly before being locked up again, proving consonant with the obscurity of her own life: “Her history is a blank sheet” and her relic, although “the real thing”, is “the one free foot kicking / Under the white sheet of history”. …

Kevin Ray With Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (interview date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Interview with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin,” in Eire Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1-2, Spring, 1996, pp. 62-73.

[In the following interview, Ray and Ní Chuilleanáin discuss the themes prevalent in Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry and talk about her other work and current projects.]

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Cork, in 1946, the daughter of Irish scholar Cormac O Cuilleanáin and novelist Eilis Dillon. She was educated at the University of Cork and at Oxford, and has lectured in medieval and Renaissance literature at Trinity College, Dublin, since 1966. She is married to the poet MacDara Woods and has a son, Niall. Together with Woods and Pearse Hutchinson, she founded the literary magazine Cyphers, which she continues to edit.

Critics commonly speak of the “elusiveness” of her poetry, its puzzle and mystery. Ní Chuilleanáin herself refers over and again to the importance of secrecy in her poems, both thematically and in the method of their composition. She writes with an intricate layering, building, in the Renaissance fashion she admires, toward what she has described as “copiousness.”

Her recent collection, The Brazen Serpent (Wake Forest University Press, 1995), offers some of her strongest and most personal work to date. It is a book written out of intimate tragedies, the deaths of her sister and her mother. She speaks about the link between these events and their expression in her poetry.

Kevin Ray:

While The Brazen Serpent is your fifth collection of poems, excluding the book on Cork, it is your third to appear here in America, with the first two books published here condensing two volumes each. Have you found it at all necessary to craft yourself, to present yourself differently for an American audience or an audience not so immediately familiar with your points of reference, with life and poetry in Ireland?

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin:

Well, The Second Voyage was not condensed by me. It was largely Dillon's collection [Dillon Johnston, director of Wake Forest University Press]. Then we went over it—I mean the second collection—and put in things I thought shouldn't have been left out. The Magdalene Sermon was very different, because it contains the whole of the book of The Magdalene Sermon, and then it does condense The Rose Geranium, but in a way in which I felt very strongly that it needed to be condensed. And then I suppose I have never known much about what the American audience wants or wanted. Now, I do remember that a poem we didn't agree about in The Second Voyage was “Death and Engines.” I think there is something different about the way Americans feel about airplanes, you know. And I couldn't think it was a bad poem. And I still don't.

Coming to The Brazen Serpent after reading the earlier books, The Brazen Serpent feels different to me. Does it seem so to you?

Well, it was unified by time. It was written in a somewhat shorter period than The Magdalene Sermon. And the earliest poems in it were written just at the moment when my sister became fatally ill. And the last ones were written just after my mother's death. So it was unified by disasters and by—I felt quite strongly—the way people speak about disasters, about things which are in some ways unspeakable, which are resistant to speech. And also I got the thing about the family—about which I now feel rather differently than when I wrote those poems—about the way that families handle events like that, what they say and what they do. It all happened. It all came to me, the events; the reality was there.

In “Death and Engines,” which you've mentioned, the approach to death, the understanding of death, seems to me very much that of a young woman, the understanding one has at a particular age. Death is a changed presence in your recent poems. It is imagined differently, understood differently. How do you find that your work overall is changing?

I certainly feel I've changed as a person. In fact, the year 1970 was the year of the suicide of a close friend and of my father's death. And then nothing really dreadful happened for nearly twenty years; and what I feel is that worse things happened at the end of the twenty years, and that I was certainly better able to handle it, that I was less frightened, though the things were much more terrible, seemed much more terrible. As a poet, I have a bad conscience, in one sense, writing about such things. You know, they're gone and here am I with a bunch of poems is how I feel. And yet, in particular, in relation to my mother, since she was a writer, and since there was the need to write about the things that had happened, I feel that, in one sense, I am continuing the conversation that I was having with her. I suppose the poem that started this sequence is the one in The Magdalene Sermon, “J'ai Mal à Nos Dents,” because that is about death and language. I fondly hope that this series is now concluded. But I did find that I was being drawn into the question of how does one think about very large and terrible events. In “The Informant” I was actually writing about—which I've never done, and I don't usually identify with—a particular death in the north, the deaths of the soldiers who were dragged out of a car at a funeral and shot—Medbh McGuckian wrote about those, too. It seemed particularly awful. I don't want to put it, as many people say with what has happened in the north of Ireland, that one death was worse than another, but that one did seem particularly tragic. I was writing again about ways of speaking about these things.

You have commented on the importance of secrecy and the idea of the secret to your writing. What connections are there between that presence of the deep secret and that which is beyond speaking?

There's a poem called “Vierge Ouvrante,” which is about being a witness to human wickedness, I suppose. And I was particularly struck by this in a year we spent in Italy. I was, like most Catholic children, growing up in the shadow of the crucifix and not wanting to look at it; and yet as I grew up I felt that that image was worth having, that it was there as a reminder of what people can do to each other. We didn't actually have one at home, I hasten to add. My mother wouldn't stand for it. Then in Italy, the year we were in Italy, they have a very wonderful Good Friday ceremony where they take the figure down off the cross, and they have a funeral procession for it by torchlight. Everybody went—and, you know, the way here somebody might be remembered by candlelight. It was a very communal expression of going through darkness to resurrection. And we had a friend staying with us, and she immediately got out her camera and started taking photographs; and it seemed to me that that was the wrong thing to do, you know, with the candlelight and the darkness, and everything that was happening. I started thinking very much about photography, the thing about light—too much light killing the image. So that's also about destruction, the question of the unthinkable, and the things which cannot be said. I've actually put in a couple of photographs I have seen of murder victims. But there's also the knowledge that the pictures that shock the public are not the truly shocking ones, the ones the police photographers take and that are shown to juries. I don't know how far they actually surface, but they're real, they are the real thing, again.

Your poems frequently address, especially in The Brazen Serpent, but certainly elsewhere as well, questions of borders, of crossing lines and borders, for that matter, that are themselves unreliable. They shift. How is this important for you?

There are all kinds of feelings—of relief, of excitement, of apprehension—that people feel at borders; I mean political borders. But I think I'm also interested in the sort of liminal thing about sacred space, things you do on the threshold, things you do on the threshold of a house. There's a lot in folklore about laying the tongs across the door if you don't want an evil spirit to come in. So I have a strong sense of those architectural and political borders. They're there. One of my aunts was in a convent near the Belgian-French border, and that's the border which has shifted so often historically, and was much further south at one time, as far south as the Somme. The French wanted to have their border at the Rhine, at one stage. Perhaps that also has something to do with it. It's a very dull border nowadays.

Where in this structure does language fall? Frequently in your poems there's something that is perhaps accomplishable only by the occasion that language gives.

I'm aware of boundaries between languages in the sense that there's definitely a boundary between English as spoken in Ireland, English as spoken in England, and English as spoken in the British Isles and the United States. And then, there was a time when I would never use words that I hadn't heard my mother using—when I was creating or using a vocabulary which would be based on certain voices. And I remember actually breaking out of that at a certain point by using the word “arse,” which she wouldn't have used. I have a sense too of overlapping vocabularies. With The Brazen Serpent, I mean, I had this image. I think I had the image of the foot kicking under the sheet, and then began to realize that I was talking about relics. I got the phrase about the brazen serpent, and it goes on from there. And I think there's macaronics in that poem because of Sister Custos; her name means “guardian”—it's not a saint's name. Still, yes, there are points where languages touch. Is that what you mean?

And also something broader, a sense in which language is a place where thought and the body, thought and the world, touch—one shaping the other.

I find that's so when I have the idea for a poem; when I'm working on it, it's hearing them, hearing rhythms, sometimes hearing words that came in before I knew I was going to use them, almost as if that part of my mind was working faster than the listening part.

What is your approach to prosody? You seldom use end-rhyme, for instance. And tight traditional forms don't seem to come naturally to you, at least they're not your preferred method.

I wrote in quite traditional forms in my teens and early twenties. There's one poem in Acts and Monuments—well, “Acts and Monuments” itself—I found that I didn't want to go on doing that. There are various prosodic things that I do—like counting syllables in parts of the poem. Because that's a conspicuous but inconspicuous and secretive thing one can do. I also use, sometimes, rhythms from one language, like the Italian eleven-syllable line or the Alexandrine, or even something that might be a bit like a later hexameter, because I like to use long lines. And I have found recently that they have been getting a bit tighter, and I've been using these three-line forms. But I'm very interested in the idea that every poem should have a shape of its own, and that the ideas would have precedence over words, but that the rhythm of the words would be important too—that they should have a rhythm, that they should have a weight and shift of their own, a movement of their own. And it would be sort of natural, like a person walking—rather than using. I feel that rhyme, unless it is very subtly done, has a tendency to dominate, and I haven't found myself able to do that.

Yours is a tremendously allusive poetry, and it seems to me that in your use of allusion, structure and meaning balance or combine. Could you comment on your allusiveness?

I think this might be one of the ways in which living in the Renaissance and thinking a lot about rhetoric may come in, the idea that every way of saying something has an alternative, that there's a kind of virtue in copiousness. And being able to choose from a variety of ways of saying things. I find that when I write something—when I write a line—I sometimes look at it and say what could I change about that? What could be different? So that sometimes the line is already alluding to itself. I don't like to be too literary, and then, on the other hand, I find that because a lot of the references may be more comprehensible to Irish people, that's a way of almost putting a boundary around my audience. I do write primarily for an Irish audience, which might have certain points of reference and a certain kind of education. So allusion has that effect also.

As you've indicated, your imagination lives fairly comfortably, and seems to incorporate comfortably, medieval and Renaissance literature, architecture, art. I'm not certain to what degree this extends into what might be called a Renaissance world view. How do you see this occurring?

What attracts me to the medieval and the Renaissance background is excess, the absence of restraint, the absence of understatement. I find that exhilarating. I also find, I suppose, that a lot of the structural side of the world view, I mean the hierarchical approach, is still about and is still there to be challenged. And it's in language; the bishop and the nun and the relic are there, and I believe that history happens very slowly, and that therefore those things can be made visible. They exist in our society as well.

Your book in progress—which is not poetry, but prose, a scholarly study—treats this matter directly, doesn't it? It's a book that incorporates painting and iconology of the early modern period, isn't it?

It's not so much about painting. It's about—it's really about body language in poetry in the Renaissance in relationship to sainthood and things like—well, that fabric, for example. You know, “So I did sit and eat”—and what that meant in theological and political terms at the time. And how far it can be seen as metaphorical and how far it can be seen as literal. Because there was a great deal of controversy in the English church at the time about manners, matters of demeanor, about how people marked off their behaviors in a sacred context from their behaviors in a secular context. “Good Friday, Riding Westward” is a riding away from the sacred. So that's something which I have been thinking about. The other thing, of course, is that Mary Magdalene comes into it because she's the meeting place of the sacred and the profane; she's the femininity and the body, the presence of the body—all this copious weeping. And the issue of blood—menstruation—comes into that as well. There's plenty there. I don't know if I can write it satisfactorily, but that is what it's about. I have found a position; I can start and end with Mary Magdalene. She'll give it a nice shape.

There's a big Mary Magdalene controversy in 1515, and then there's Crashaw's Mary Magdalene—and the whole of Crashaw and St. Teresa and the sort of masculine/feminine jokes that he plays. You end with the woman writer, with St. Teresa as a writer of herself, which is a nice way to finish. And of course there's the extreme distaste of most English critics for Crashaw, which is very telling, I think, in that context.

Ted Hughes has suggested something allied to this, I think, in his book on Shakespeare, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

I haven't read that book, I'm ashamed to say. The whole business of suppressed religion—obviously there's Southwell, and there's Alabastor, who changes religions many times. His autobiography is still unpublished, but I read it in the English College. I think, too, that coming from a country where there has been the same suppression, where the church of most people would not be the established church, where you actually see ruins and secularized sacred buildings about the place—that's part of my interest in all that, certainly. And I think the sense of place in England and Ireland and Europe generally is connected with the sacred. I don't think it is so here. Well, I know there are parishes and there are—there may well be—people who have a sacred sense of place, but it's the idea of centers, of there being a center to the world and a center to your sole world, that doesn't seem to wash quite so well in America.

We move too much, the mobile society.

Some people move their houses, after all. They—the wooden houses—can be shifted. Tom Lynch's wife was telling me that she and Tom bought the house next door, and they thought they might move it because they own another lot which they could use, and that it would give them parking space that they couldn't see from the house. This rearrangeableness.

This concern for place is visible in your poems. Frequently the place has an afterlife. It resides a bit. What was once one thing is now another, yet its past continues on, in traces.

Yes. I mean—I think—from a long time back, dreams about houses which you have lived in, in which you particularly find there's an extra room or something has changed, something remarkable has happened to it. And I think I was interested in those before I ever read Freud on the interpretation of dreams. That's one of the things he's right about. I think the house and the body both come into that. But also, I'm an example of remarkable stability in the sense that I'm living in a house that was bought by my great-grandmother, even though none of the family ever lived in it before me. And I have a great objection to the idea of moving a house. On the other hand, the house I live in has changed enormously since I moved into it, so there is a shifting of the meaning of place in my immediate vicinity.

Which finds a kind of corollary in your concern for family continuities—things passed down, sometimes anomalously, as in “Hair”; characteristics that play out through forms of heredity; though a heredity that is not, or not primarily, biological. The biology of heritability is there, somewhere in the background, but that doesn't seem to me to be your interest.


Rather, your interest lies in the historical and familial, continuities of meaning and affection.

Yes. And I suppose not necessarily a biological family, in the sense that my son is adopted and we actually don't know where he gets his red hair from. It is something we genuinely don't know, though we may find out someday. I suppose I'm interested, too, in non-biological families, like religious communities, which comes into “J'ai Mal à Nos Dents.”

You have an extended family, of sorts, in the group of writers who founded and still run the literary magazine Cyphers. Could you talk about the founding of the magazine? How and why did this group come together?

In the early, the very early seventies/late sixties, we were running poetry readings in a pub, and we were putting an enormous amount of work into it, and then there was nothing to show at the end. And a friend who was rather a begrudger and a very underproduced publisher said: “You could be giving your time to this.” At the same time a number of quite long-lived magazines disappeared around 1970. Pearse Hutchinson had been very active in the running of the poetry readings—in fact, they were largely posited on the fact that he would sit in a pub all day and if anybody came in, you know, Peter Redgrove, whatever, or Ted Hughes, as it might be, he would sort of reach out and say, “Would you read on Thursday?” You know, none of the rest of us was prepared to put in quite as much time as that. He went off to be poet-in-residence at Leeds, and the rest of us realized that we needed him; we needed his languages and his contacts; and we thought that when he came back what we would all do is start a magazine. And we started one with the idea of giving a certain evidence to translations, bilingualism, and publishing ourselves and our friends, which is what magazines largely exist for. And, you know, it had an impetus which was partly financial; we couldn't stop, because if we stopped, we'd finally have to pay off the printer. And then when we got over that, there seemed to be other ways in which it was a good idea to go on with it. We have found it very interesting and stimulating, and a way of creating contacts with writers who were also somewhat subversive. They weren't necessarily contacts with the people in the anthologies. We wanted to get a grip—get our own fix on what was going on in Irish writing, world writing. And we had our own sort of literary moral principles, in the sense that we wouldn't publish nasty poems that people wrote about their wives. We decided that quite early.

The pub in this seems to play much the same role as the café did for some writers in the twenties, and then again in the fifties.

Kavanagh sat in pubs, particularly because there was nowhere else that was warm, and other people sat in pubs to look at him. And Flann O'Brien sat down at the other end of the pub, and Tony Cronin would be sending messages from one to the other.

Is there much overlap with your coming to Dublin and Kavanagh being there?

Almost none. I became very friendly with Katherine after his death. I was in his company once. I mean, he died in '67. I came to Dublin in '66, and it took me a little while—not very long, but some time—to find my way. Which was a pub.

How have the circumstances and the need for literary magazines changed?

Well, in one sense they haven't changed at all. Because people want somewhere where they can publish. The unpublished people want someplace where they can make a start. We were talking about this; there was a writer's conference in Perugia this year, and some people who ran the Italian literary reviews were there, talking about how the business of the literary review is to go ahead of the publisher, to sort of soften up the public for thinking this person ought to have a book. On the other hand, there's also the fact that people go out of fashion, and I think it's important that magazines should be there to keep faith with people whose reputations have been obscured by changes in literary fashion. We published, for example, some work of an elderly poet of rather mixed quality, but he was extraordinarily grateful that we were publishing him. And again, I once met Sorley MacLean, who is a most revered Gaelic—Scots Gaelic—poet, at a reading, and he said to me: “Oh, you're married to MacDara Woods. I owe him so much,” because he had written a review. And it had never occurred to me that somebody of his reputation—well, admittedly within the Gaelic world, which is small—but yet somebody who was so looked up to would value so much a review in our publication. The other thing, of course, is that reviewing is a problem because you either review everything, or you do very few reviews, and you're selective. And the latter is less trouble, so we do it because of that. Finding people to do reviews—finding people with not too much of an axe to grind—has been quite a business.

I'd asked last night about the importance of translating from Irish to English. You've done translations from ancient and contemporary work. Could you comment on the comparative importance of these in Ireland?

I don't know. I mean, on the one hand, I think translation is a wonderful activity. On the other hand, it's always a failure. You're always aware of what you didn't manage to convey. My major failure, probably, is the Italian poet Sandro Penna, who is really difficult to translate, and there is something about the exact weighting of syllables in his work that I cannot—and of meaning—it's very, very difficult to convey. And I've felt a lot happier translating Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill because in one sense she and I are writing the same language, because the fact that the words are different doesn't come into it that much. I used to feel that the business of the translator was to write a new poem, and I now feel that the business of the translator is to be as close as possible to the original poem; I think it gives important access for people who don't have the original language. It is nice to see the two languages swimming along in tandem; it's even better to think that you're actually making a lot of people understand something they wouldn't normally.

I recently did translations from Romanian, which is part of a big project that a man in Belfast set up, PEN Irish Poets Foundation—PEN Romanian Poets. The problem, you see, is I was asked to do it while I was staying in Italy, and Perugia is a very international town, and there were three or four Romanians who were willing to help me. But by the time I actually got the text I was back in Ireland, and I felt rather. … But I went and sat for a whole day with a poet called Heather Brett, whose husband is Romanian. He is a poet, too. And we talked about the meanings, the intensity of particular words, and I came away—I mean, for a time I knew what those words meant. And I find now—I'm going to go back and look at them—I find it difficult to recover that exact sense I had of them.

In your essay on Gaelic love poetry, you point out—particularly in a Frank O'Connor translation—lines that are essentially untranslatable, and yet the translator must find some approximation, some way of accomplishing the act. What can you do with that problem?

Live with it. The thing with Gaelic, of course, is the sense of recovery, the difficulty of recovery, the fact that the language community is so small, the community for poetry is smaller, the community for old poetry is smaller still. And still there's this need to recover—even if you look at difficult languages, like Hungarian or Turkish. At this stage, I think I never will be able to learn those languages and read them in the original. It all depends so much on translators. Whereas, I do feel I can nearly read Cavafy's Greek, and someday I will do better and be able to read it. So—you need the translator so much. It must be done.

So in translating you are translating for those who need the translation, yet you are also translating for other translators, engaging in an art of translation, such that there appears a series of translations resulting in a dialogue over the poem.

Yes. I think it's very hard to disentangle these two activities. They're both there. And translations seem to age more than the original poetry. It's easier to read Blake or Keats than it is to read Cary's Dante. It seems to be more itself. All translations seem to age, I think; maybe some of Tomás MacDonagh's are so pure that they don't seem to age, or some of Lady Gregory's. But there are others that really do have cobwebs hanging off them.

To what extent, then, is your concern with the past an act of translation? So often what I see you doing is placing the past in conjunction with the present—and meaning that the import of the poem seems to be in the holding together of those two moments.

Yes. Well, the past is there. It is there in the present. In one sense, it is the only thing that we actually do know. I mean, Ireland is, of course, a very historically addicted society. I heard a fine conversation between John Hume and a Unionist spokesman the other day in which Hume said, “It is time to forget the past and move forward,” and the Unionist made some grouse. And Hume said, “We could not mention, of course, who shot Constable X.” It's a perfect praeteritio. I mean, his definition of forgetting the past was an Irish one.

Dillon Johnston (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “‘Our Bodies' Eyes and Writing Hands:’ Secrecy and Sensuality in Ní Chuilleanáin's Baroque Art,” in Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997, pp. 187-211.

[In the following essay, Johnston examines Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry in comparison to Eavan Bolard's poetry, in view of religious overtones and in a study of sexuality.]

In her autobiographical treatise, “The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time,” Eavan Boland remarks that “Irish women poets had gone from being the objects of the Irish poem to being its authors in a relatively short space of time.”1 That final spatializing locution offers a clue as to why the most respected women poets in Ireland represent this shift they have undergone—from aesthetic object to poetic subject—in terms of painting. Boland herself, Medbh McGuckian, Paula Meehan, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin vocalize the once-mute objects of male artists, raise questions about fixed perspective and aesthetic distance, and undertake complex questions about the erotic in ekphrastic poems, poems that “read” well-known paintings or invent what John Hollander calls “notional” paintings.2 Although Meehan's “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” and “Zugswang” offer witty forums for two otherwise silent objects of art, ekphrastic poems are not a central part of her work. While McGuckian refers directly to Vermeer and evokes other painters, she employs color so pervasively that she becomes more nearly a painter than a mirrorer of painting.3 Boland, on the other hand, must receive further attention in this paper because her difference from Ní Chuilleanáin can help us situate Ní Chuilleanáin's rich, complex, and relatively neglected poetry.


Boland's and Ní Chuilleanáin's approaches to perspective in poetry, which have received some critical attention, could hardly be more different. Boland favors not only the authoritative point of view, which she calls “the difficult ‘I’ of perception,”4 but also the visual over the tactile or the auditory. In contrast to this conventional viewpoint, in art and poetry, Ní Chuilleanáin renders the angle of vision, the integrity of the viewer, and even the viewer's gender problematic and shifting, often with direct reference to painting. For example, in a poem with a painterly title “River, with Boats,”5 we enjoy two stanzas of tactile, auditory, and visual imagery from the secure perspective of a room looking out on a river. In the final stanza, the tidal river raises a boat to the level of the room's window, and the perspective reverses—“The window is blocked / By the one framed eye / Of a tethered coaster / … / And the faces of the mariners / Crowd at the glass …”—and then flips again: “… like fishes,” the viewer becoming the viewed becoming the viewer.

In several cases, Ní Chuilleanáin's poems form a commentary, whether intentional or accidental, on Boland's, whereby Ní Chuilleanáin clarifies certain of her ideas concerning perspective, the artist's relation to—and distance from—the world she portrays, and the relation between the iconic and the sacred. For example, Boland's objection to “the sexual perspective of the poet” distancing and controlling “the erotic object, as an image”6 applies to painting the popular feminist extension of Freud's concept of the gaze.7 Boland herself makes this extension in “Degas's Laundresses,”8 where, as the possessive title suggests, we are concerned less with the projection of the painter's desire than with the appropriation of the woman as object.

The poem addresses two women who appear in a series of drawings and paintings, the most finished of which depicts one laundress bearing down stiff-armed on an iron while the other, holding a bottle of water for sprinkling the cloth, stretches and yawns. The poem is composed of six stanzas of six lines each, the final thirty-sixth line standing alone. In its complex formal qualities, the poem complements Degas's art. The stanzas cohere less by terminal rhyme, for which occasional consonantal, assonantal, or alliterative chimings serve as proxies, than by extensive internal—often to words as well as lines—rhyme: pit … stitches / … fitted; seam dreams; chat's sabbatical; pleasure … leisured; neat heaps; ease / … easel; sharpening charcoal; blind designs. Less restricted than end rhyme, internal rhyme matches verbs to their appropriate objects by sound as well as syntax and otherwise interweaves aspects of work by sound. More unusual, what might be the names for their mistresses' decorative possessions—dawn, silk, seam, basket—designate for these women working verbs or participles: “you dawn,” “silking the fitted sheets,” and so on. Strangely but appropriately, the laundresses' employers—“leisured women”—are characterized by a participle that has no active infinitive.

The first three stanzas, addressed to the laundresses in second person, describe the women's work, with frequent references to class distinctions. In the fourth stanza, the poem erupts into alarmed imperatives: “Wait. There. Behind you. / A man. There behind you. / Whatever you do don't turn. / Why is he watching you? / Whatever you do don't turn. / Whatever you do don't turn.” The appearance of the painter himself occasions this anxiety, but for the actual cause we must look elsewhere. From Degas's “ease” with his “easel” we might infer some sort of class condescension, but the poet has already offered parole to the “leisured” mistresses of the workers. Because the second-person address erases questions of the painter's perspective as the basis for exploitation, to comprehend why the painter's mind might be, as the last line says, the laundresses' “winding sheet,” we have to assume some unspoken argument about the necessity of exploitation or appropriation between male artist and female subject.

In this same relationship between male artist and female subject, Ní Chuilleanáin seems to accept both a separation between artist and subject and need and desire as the motivation for art. In The Brazen Serpent we arrive at the sinister-sounding “Man Watching a Woman”9 with some trepidation after the sexual violence of “Passing Over in Silence” and “Vierge Ouvrante.” With no initial clue to the man's identity, we are told: “A sense of being nowhere at all, / Set him on his way …,” as we follow him through dark yards to arrive under “windows / Lit softly above the privet hedge. / He stops and watches. He needs to see this.” The man's voyeuristic need and the violation of the woman's privacy, “above the privet hedge,” only heighten our suspicion. In the second stanza, we see what he “needs to see …”:

A woman working late in the refectory,
Sewing a curtain, the lines of her face
Dropping into fatigue, severity, age,
The hair falling out of its clasp at her poll.
The hands are raised to thread the needle,
The tongue moves behind her lips.
He cannot see the feet or shoes, they are trapped
In toils of cloth. He is comforted.

The seamstress remains inaudible to this man, but he observes sympathetically her rhythms of labor and decline—working, sewing, dropping, falling. Although she is “trapped / In toils of cloth,” a pun on toile, the appropriately French word for cloth or linen or even a painter's canvas, he brings her no winding sheet. We are told that “he is comforted” although by tomorrow night, her finished curtains may deprive him of comfort.10 For this night, however, “He can move on” to “the wide cafés,” not for the “Trombone music over polished tables” but to observe the barmaids' labor and fatigue with a sympathy and sense of rhythm tuned at the refectory window: “He will watch the faces behind the bar, tired girls, / Their muscles bracing under breakers of music / And the weight of their balancing trays, drinks, ice and change.” Because of her second-person address in “Degas's Laundresses,” Boland relinquishes some of her position as a fixed and foregrounded observer. Consequently, in this one case her observer approaches Ní Chuilleanáin's watcher in fulfilling Norman Bryson's prescription for a more humane relation between artist and subject:

To dissolve the Gaze … we must willingly enter into … the Glance … [,] dispense with the conception of form as con-sideration, as Arrest, and try to conceive of form instead in dynamic terms, as matter in process, … in the mobility and vibrancy of its somatic rhythms; the body of labour, of material practice.11

However, as if these two poems were set in dialogue with each other, Boland's poem extends this humanizing perspective to her speaker but not to Degas, whereas Ní Chuilleanáin's watcher exercises enough sympathy to conceive of Edouard Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergère (1881-82) or, for that matter, Degas's laundresses, painted in the same year as Manet's famous painting.

Boland's poetry and prose address more directly political and social aspects of feminism whereas Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry taps deeply into philosophical aspects such as the body or, as she says elsewhere, “our bodies' eyes,”12 the relation of the sexual to the sacred, and the sacred to the secret. These concerns grow out of, and relate to, two traditions with which Boland is not concerned: the Counter Reformation and the Gaelic language. Ní Chuilleanáin recalls an early encounter with proto-Baroque art, that reaction against classical art which will become an expression of the Counter Reformation. In her twentieth year, she was viewing the paintings in Berlin's Dahlem Gemäldegalerie when she stepped through a door out of the darkness of Lowlands art into the dazzle of Correggio's Leda, “full of blue and white, narrative space, and perversity.”13 Even reproductions convey the charm of Correggio's painting, perhaps surprising for any viewer who associates the subject with the “sudden blow” and subsequent violence of Yeats's treatment.14 In a discussion of Leda and three other paintings that depict the Loves of Jupiter, a Correggio scholar accounts for their charm in this manner: “The fact that all four remain great art and not pornography is partly due to the extreme skill and delicacy of the painter, and partly also to the fact that none of them includes the form of a man. …”15 As a consequence of this omission, the painter can focus on Leda's body, on her curiosity and pleasure in the initial stages of coition, while still representing the difference between herself and the diminutive lover. Ní Chuilleanáin sharpens the contrast between what she calls “Brownish Rembrandts” from the Calvinist Netherlands and this Mediterranean nude:

Here was the body at the centre of a story, female and pleased in all its dimensions. I was suddenly back in a world before the upheaval of the Reformation, before the Protestant war on icons of the body, rituals, and material ceremonies.

So that we not mistakenly assume that Ní Chuilleanáin is indulging an atavism and merely raising those ancient tribal issues that are alleged to divide Ireland, we can recall Ted Hughes's broader and more radical generalization that

the fundamental guiding ideas of our Western Civilization … are … that the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use … The subtly apotheosized misogyny of Reformed Christianity is proportionate to the fanatic rejection of Nature, and the result has been to exile man from Mother Nature—from both inner and outer nature.16


Correggio's painting helped Ní Chuilleanáin discover the importance of what she calls “the life of the body,” not only to history but also to “the way we apprehend language or visible beauty.” It also must have drawn her, soon after, to Correggio's great ceiling mural in the Duomo of Parma, which becomes the subject of “Fireman's Lift,” the opening poem in The Brazen Serpent (1995). Recently, Ní Chuilleanáin said of this poem, “When I found myself compelled to write about Correggio's Assumption of the Virgin, … I could only concentrate on one aspect, the way it shows bodily effort and the body's weight.”17

In this massive mural on the cupola of the Duomo in Parma, which Cecil Gould praises as “perhaps the greatest tour de force in Italian art,”18 saints and angels are depicted merging into a vortex of torsos and faces, legs and arms, lifting the Virgin toward heaven and a waiting Christ. In the mass of her body, the angels' efforts, and the colposcopic view of the cervical cupola, the painting could be said to reflect and celebrate the feminine body. Of course at the height of the camera/cervix, Christ waits, as if he were Irigaray's kore—a diminished man or the gynecological philosopher's reflected pupil—preoccupying Mary's space.19 On the other hand, the figure of Christ, diminished, slightly off-center, and embryonic, seems more swaddler than savior, an about-to-be-reborn Christ, still a resident of his mother's assumed body.

In “Fireman's Lift,”20 the dome added to a Romanesque church in Parma participates gymnastically in the Assumption of the Virgin. The spiraling, ascending interaction of art and architecture, characteristic of baroque buildings, was first suggested by the work of Michelangelo, according to art critics Bearden and Holty:

In the passionate and often unfinished volumes of his last sculptures, in the restless and flamelike action of his frescoes (especially such works as The Brazen Serpent …) were born the mannerisms of the baroque style.21

By widespread consensus, however, the true protobaroque painter was Correggio: “the most precocious of the great masters of the High Renaissance, who seems to us today to have been in reality a Baroque painter born a hundred years too soon … ; … More than any other painter, Correggio prefigures the Baroque.”22 Ní Chuilleanáin's enjambed lines, alliterative pauses, and internal rhyme or assonantal chimes project the sound incrementally and thereby imitate this energetic collective heaving up of Mary's carnality, which becomes a “fireman's lift” of “teams of angelic arms,” a baroque collusion of paint, plaster, parapet and squinch, arch and architrave:

The back making itself a roof
The legs a bridge, the hands
A crane and a cradle.
Their heads bowed over to reflect on her
Fair face and hair so like their own
As she passed through their hands. We saw them
Lifting her, the pillars of their arms
(Her face a capital leaning into an arch)
As the muscles clung and shifted
For a final purchase together
Under her weight as she came to the edge of the cloud.

When we recognize that this depiction of a joyful boosterism by which Mary reaches heaven complements as it contrasts with contemporary paintings of the rescue-squad deposition of Christ's body, then we see how the poem elevates the feminine side of Catholicism as well as woman's body. This recognition becomes enforced by the point of view. As has been noted, frequently Ní Chuilleanáin's poems maintain their secrets of plot by dispersing point of view. In this poem, the poet follows Correggio: “The whole of the zone of the Duomo cupola containing the angels is tilted in the direction of the spectator advancing east from the nave, and this introduces a new and dynamic principle. … The idea of forceful communion between the spectator and the figures in the painting … is now applied to murals.”23 Similarly, Ní Chuilleanáin invites the reader immediately into the poem: “I was standing beside you looking up / Through the big tree of the cupola.” Later, when “we stepped / Back, as the painter longed to / … / We saw the work entire …,” the point of view shifts out of an authorial perspective fixed in space and time. We enter, in fact, the perspective of memory (“This is what love sees, that angle”) as the dates—1962, when the student poet visited Parma with her mother, and 1994, when her mother died and she wrote this poem to her—indicate to us. Now we can recognize that the opening you must be primarily her mother for whom, amid an uncertainty that the title and joking tone suggest, the poet hopes, desires, and composes an equally loving assumption. In the words purchase and weight, in the adhesive u syllables—usc, ung, urch, und, oud—and in the drawn-out closing hectasyllabic, the closing lines emphasize that body goes with soul in this final hoist toward the terminal bourn: “As the muscles clung and shifted / For a final purchase together / Under her weight as she came to the edge of the cloud.”

In a manner analogous to Correggio's, and later Bernini's, “conflation of painting and stucco with real and simulated architecture” where “the eye was meant to be deceived and to accept the illusionist convention that the architecture merged into the painted or half-painted heaven of the ceiling,”24 Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry resists containment, within the literal or physical or domestic, as she wanders beyond borders and margins and walls of structures. She often represents such traversing of thresholds and boundaries in relation to architecture. In “The Architectural Metaphor,”25 we tour a convent which was founded “Here, a good mile on the safe side of the border / Before the border was changed.” This feminine space contains secret recesses that deliver not births so much as qualified rebirths. Speaking of such spaces, Ní Chuilleanáin has described her “dreams about houses … in which you particularly find there's an extra room. … I was interested in those before I ever read Freud on the interpretation of dreams … the house and the body both come into that.”26 In this region of shifting boundaries, we follow a sort of psychopomp, a Mercurial “guide in the flashing cap” who leads us through the convent into the still-functioning but secularized laundry:

Now light scatters, a door opens, laughter breaks in,
A young girl barefoot, a man pushing her
Backwards against the hatch—

And here we recognize that the architectural metaphor is actually a pun, enriched by “nested” and the foraging hatchling in subsequent lines.

It flies up suddenly—
There lies the foundress, pale
In her funeral sheets, her face turned west

Representing the Virgin, the opaque rose-window is meant to nurture meditation:

Searching for the rose-window. It shows her
What she never saw from any angle but this:
Weeds nested in the churchyard, catching the late sun,
Herself at fourteen stumbling downhill
And landing, and crouching to watch
The sly limbering of the bantam hen
Foraging between gravestones—
Help is at hand
Though out of reach:
The world not dead after all.

In these last four lines the antistrophic structure and wry qualifications may owe something to Kinsella, as in Out of Ireland, but this deft reversal is distinctly Ní Chuilleanáin's own.

Buildings such as this convent and the Duomo are also “brazen serpents” after all, both iconic and functional, aesthetic and practical. In Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry, structures receive and sustain us, often appropriately as feminine spaces, institutions that have paid tribute to women, such as the Duomo of Parma, or even offered women a degree of independence or autonomy. “I'm interested … in non-biological families, like religious communities …,” Ní Chuilleanáin said recently.27

In acknowledging that architecture offers Ní Chuilleanáin more than themes, Eamon Grennan guides us toward an understanding of her use of such structures in her poetry:

In some sense the narrative voice, narration itself, is not unlike architecture, in that it can be a means of establishing the secure ground of the experience which is the poem's subject. It can also create difficulty, however, since it may not be given a visible or comprehensible context: it may simply be there—a story or a picture existing (for us, though presumably not for the speaker) in its own terms only. … Confronted by such conditions of ignorance, a reader simply has to hang on to what's given and enter (with a small act of faith) the moment of mystery and exhilaration.28

In “simply being there,” architecture represents the traditions we are born into, structures we enter and inhabit long before any understanding arrives. Architecture even participates in these births: in “The Architectural Metaphor,” the hatch colludes in a rebirth of the world if not finally of the foundress; in “Home Town,” alleyways get “ready to arch and push” as the speaker approaches her house of birth; in “Daniel Grose” “The breach widens at every push,” although preparing for ruin this time; and in “Fireman's Lift” the cupola and the Church both assume the mother and Mary and participate in their rebirths while the poet is both midwife and source. “All for You”29 begins with a trochaic foot just stepping into a domain with enough allusions to Advent to be Christ's first home: “Once beyond the gate of the strange stableyard, we dismount. / The donkey walks on, straight in at a wide door / And sticks his head in a manger.” With plenty of room in this inn, however, the manor actively, even corporally, receives the speaker's company, a we who soon defers to you, the reader and inheritor: “The great staircase of the hall slouches back, / Sprawling between warm wings. It is for you. / As the steps wind and warp / … the breath of ovens / Flows out …” The poem concludes with details of a thoroughly provident household economy that we can only accept as we do bodies and lives into which we are born:

It is for you, the dry fragrance of tea-chests
The tins shining in ranks, the ten-pound jars
Rich with shrivelled fruit. Where better to lie down
And sleep, along the labelled shelves,
With the key still in your pocket?


Like the brass serpent approved by God in the twenty-first chapter of Numbers, which serves as Ní Chuilleanáin's epigraph, “the works of man's hand” icons, art, architecture—can recall one to God or serve as prophylactics against the misery God sends. More generously, one might infer that God allows us to use icons, constructions, or fictions in an intercessory role. The later Old Testament chapter of 2 Kings 18 “reforms” this concession, however, interdicting such icons—or any visual representation—because they had been confused with “the real thing.” One might see much of the adversity of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation springing from these two contradictory passages. This struggle, central to Ireland today as it was in the seventeenth century, lies behind much of The Brazen Serpent and, less deliberately, of Ní Chuilleanáin's earlier volumes. Insofar as baroque art emerged from and represented the Counter Reformation, the baroque tradition may help define, at least metaphorically, Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry. In the succinct summary of one art historian:

The Baroque represents Catholic supremacy at its height—after the shattering doubts resulting from the Protestant Reformation … but before the scepticism of the Age of Reason. It is between these polarities that Baroque art lies, growing out of the Mannerism of the sixteenth century and merging, perhaps less perceptibly, into the Rococo of the eighteenth.30

The sack of Rome and scattering of painters to new centers in 1527, just after Correggio's completion of his Duomo mural, ended the High Renaissance. The Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563—initiating reform within the Catholic Church and a counterattack on the Reformation—was a precondition for baroque art, which did not flourish, however, until the seventeenth century. As part of this renewal, Loyola's Spiritual Exercise inculcated an important dimension of the baroque aesthetic, the practice of re-imagining Christian abstraction in terms of the body and its suffering.31 Martin Jay's terse characterization of philosophical manifestations of the baroque may be usefully related to Ní Chuilleanáin's shifting perspectives and her sudden, strange exposures of the sacred:

In philosophical terms, although no one system can be seen as its correlate, Leibniz's pluralism of monadic viewpoints, Pascal's meditations on paradox, and the Counter Reformation mystics' submission to vertiginous experiences of rapture might all be seen as related to baroque vision. Moreover, the philosophy it favored self-consciously eschewed the model of intellectual clarity expressed in a literal language purified of ambiguity. Instead, it recognized the inextricability of rhetoric and vision, which meant that images were signs and that concepts always contained an irreducibly imagistic component.

Citing the contemporary French writer Christine Buci-Glucksman, Jay further argues that “the baroque self-consciously revels in the contradictions between surface and depth, disparaging as a result any attempt to reduce the multiplicity of visual spaces into any one coherent essence” and thereby opposes “the absolute ocularcentrism of its Cartesian perspectivalist rival.”32

Jay cites Buci-Glucksman because he supports her argument that baroque perspective and classical Albertian perspectives continue to the present as antithetical aesthetics: “It is precisely the explosive power of baroque vision that is seen as the most significant alternative to the hegemonic visual style we have called Cartesian perspectivalism.”33


To the extent that these perspectives persist as alternatives, we might clarify Ní Chuilleanáin's baroque perspective by contrasting it with the fixed and foregrounded first-person of Eavan Boland's poetry. Boland's insistence on speaking in the first person and on filtering all experience through an autobiographical speaker corresponds, at least analogically, to the classic perspective as first defined in Alberti's De Pictura (1435). According to Bryson, Alberti intended that

the eye of the viewer is to take up a position in relation to the scene that is identical to the position originally occupied by the painter, as though both painter and viewer looked through the same viewfinder on to a world unified spatially around the centric ray, the line running from viewpoint to vanishing point (it is probable that Alberti had in mind the model of the camera obscura); unified spatially, but also informationally, since all the data presented by the image are to cohere around a core narrative structure.34

Boland's preference in painters signals her differences from Ní Chuilleanáin's baroque perspective and point of view. In her autobiographical treatise on poetry, Object Lessons, Boland tells of searching for a model for celebrating women's ordinary life but one free of feminist anger in response to that life's restrictions:

In the genre painters of the French eighteenth century—in Jean Baptiste Chardin in particular—I saw what I was looking for. Chardin's paintings were ordinary in the accepted sense of the word. They were unglamorous, workaday, authentic. Yet in his work these objects were not merely described; they were revealed.35

A Chardin scholar praises this reactionary against French academic painting for his “single-minded, uncompromising and passionate commitment to the thing seen.”36 Although Chardin's interiors limit spacious prospects, he conforms to a conventional Renaissance or Albertian perspective which situates our point of view securely with the artist's. As an analogue to the perspectivist tradition in which Chardin participated where the paired orthogonal lines fade to an intersection, Boland's poems conventionally employ an imperial first-person speaker, and frequently open with the pronoun “I,” identified with the poet. The superb “Oral Tradition”37 with its fixed first-person and its Chardinesque palette begins, “I was standing there,” there being with her more than with the occasion, which is “a reading / or a workshop or whatever.” From this position she overhears two women in muted conversation, scraps of one's story about her great-grandmother's birth of her grandfather in an open field. Conveyed by women's memory down several generations to lodge in a present moment, this story's summer setting contrasts sharply with the setting of its retelling: a bitter winter's night and this temporary refuge: “a firelit room / in which the color scheme / crouched well down— / golds, a sort of dun / a distressed ocher— / and the sole richness was / in the suggestion of a texture / like the low flax gleam / that comes off polished leather.” A little later, the settling firelog inserts a flickering parenthesis in the woman's story: “(Wood … / … / broke apart in sparks, / a windfall of light / in the room's darkness),” an interruption that emphasizes the fragile momentariness of the woman's retelling. The seasonally enforced contrast between the original event and this retelling extends into a contrast between the pellucid language and the textured objects it describes and between the story's relative sparseness of detail—“and she had on a skirt / of cross-woven linen”—and its resonance of elaborated details in the poet's mind: “the bruised summer light, / the musical subtext /

of mauve eaves on lilac
and the laburnum past
and shadows where the lime
tree dropped its bracts
in frills of contrast
where she lay down
in vetch and linen
and lifted up her son
to the archive
they would shelter in:

This sheltering “archive” (“a public office” from the Greek root “to command,” not to be confused with the plural, meaning “a body of records”) becomes ostensibly “the oral song,” but in its poetic elaboration—the apparently happenstance but actually highly opportunistic rhyme, the short pulsing lines—the woman's story enters the archive of the poem, through the strict governance of the poet. Although we receive directly scraps of talk, we perceive through the poet who begins by standing, then journeying, then reaching her epode, “a sense / suddenly of truth, / its resonance.” This last phrase could characterize a typical Boland poem which conveys quotidian accident through the channel of the poet toward, if not truth, a sense of truth, poetically delineated and elaborated through images presumed to be from a shared world.38

We might presume that Ní Chuilleanáin's poem entitled “The Real Thing”39 underwrites such Bolandesque assumptions by seeming to nominate “Sister Custos,” (L. guard or custodian), as the passive butt of irony. In this convent bricked off from modern life, she “Exposes her major relic, the longest / Known fragment of the Brazen Serpent.” On the basis of this irony, we might suppose that the poem supports Eavan Boland's appeal to poets in “The Journey” to turn from mythic artifice to subjects such as antibiotics or “the protein treasures of the sea bed”: “Depend upon it, somewhere a poet is wasting / his sweet uncluttered meters on the obvious / emblem instead of the real thing.”40

Another reading of the last stanza of Ní Chuilleanáin's poem, however, can support a different interpretation, one more consistent with other poems in the volume.

Her history is a blank sheet,
Her vows a folded paper locked like a well.
The torn end of the serpent
Tilts the lace edge of the veil.
The real thing, the one free foot kicking
Under the white sheet of history.

Here, the force of displaced or latent action—choices of faith folded and locked; rejected icons torn and kicking—and the image of blankness suggest that the acting out and writing of history depend on such emblems of faith or such “unreasonable” fictions freely chosen, which therefore are “the real thing,” as Sister Custos says.

Ní Chuilleanáin's poem “Daniel Grose”41 addresses more directly the relation of geometric, scientifically endorsed perspectives to the history they repress, reminding us that, as W. J. T. Mitchell writes, “Perspective is a figure for what we would call ideology—a historical, cultural formation that masquerades as a universal, natural code.”42 Early in the poem, the poet steps aside from the artist's line of sight, which is aimed like a weapon: “Now the military draughtsman / Is training his eye / On the upright of the tower, / Noting the doors that open on treetops.” The draughtsman, Daniel Grose, assumed the authorship of Antiquities of Ireland (1792) at the death of his more famous uncle the Englishman Francis Grose, and provided most of the etchings of picturesque ruins that filled this book.43 His actual drawings, which include such famous ruins as Kells Church and Tower, Mellifont Abbey, and Boyle Abbey, are parodied here in the “Abbey of the Five Wounds,” his vanishing point. Nowhere explicit in Grose's text, Christ's woundings echo in the words—shatter, falls, pierced, spasm, the first wounding—associated with the destruction of these buildings and their societies, which began during the Reformation's confiscation of church properties: “Then silence for three centuries / While a taste for ruins develops.” In this picturesque panorama, history is omitted: “No crowds engaged in rape or killing, / No marshalling of boy soldiers, / No cutting the hair of novices.”44

Responding to one of the strongest eckphrastic attractions, the poet then temporalizes space, opening this picturesque effect to its historical causes:

Where is the human figure
He needs to show the scale
And all the time that's passed
And how different things are now?

The response is startling, even uncanny:

The old woman by the oak tree
Can be pressed into service
To occupy the foreground.
Her feet are warmed by drifting leaves.

This final line recalls the association of autumnal life and a repressed past in Shakespeare's indirect reference—“bare ruined choirs”—to ruins of the “Old Church” (Sonnet 73). The aged woman, standing druidically beside the oak, is the cailleach, that mysterious abandoned figure of Irish society and legend, a persona assumed sometimes by Eithne Strong and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in their poetries and by Ní Chuilleanáin herself in a recent essay subtitled “The Cailleach Writes about the Renaissance.” She also suggests the spéirbhean, the sky-woman appearing here in her third emanation as the hag,45 and therefore a figure of colonial repression, employed to enforce the Anglo-Irish draughtsman's perspective but otherwise ignored:

He stands too far away
To hear what she is saying,
How she routinely measures
The verse called the midwife's curse
On all that catches her eye, naming
The scholar's index finger, the piper's hunch,
The squint, the rub, the itch of every trade.

The cailleach represents the poet herself as the return of the repressed, a baroque extravagance, who, literally, “takes us beyond” the framed or bound space of the engraving, aside from the geometric perspective, beyond spatial into poetic measure and, thereby, into unrepresentable time.


Our use of baroque must be heavily qualified before it can become a valuable way of characterizing Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry. An epochally, culturally, and generically specific term must be translated from the seventeenth century to the edge of the twenty-first, from a counter-reformational Italy to the Irish nation whose major religion was repressed, and from painting to poetry. In fact, it is tempting to do as art historians have done, according to Jay, ever since the late-Victorian publication of Heinrich Wölfflin's Renaissance and Baroque:

postulate a perennial oscillation between two styles in both painting and architecture. In opposition to the lucid, linear, solid, fixed, plimetric, closed form of the Renaissance, or as Wölfflin later called it, the classical style, the baroque was painterly, recessional, soft-focused, multiple, and open.46

We might free the term altogether from its seventeenth-century base as Jay and Buci-Glucksman do when they declare baroque “the scopic regime that has finally come into its own in our time.”47 One could suspect that their claim merely refashions standard binaries such as romantic and classic, Arnold's celtic and saxon, or even Catholic and Protestant. Yet, even if we see such binaries as fictions of a dialectical view of history, we have to concede also some oppositional, and thereby binary, element in all literature. Certainly, Ireland's colonial position has forced many of its writers—particularly but not exclusively Catholic ones—to recover their own traditions within an adversarial situation. Without extending the term in this essay, we might entertain the possibility that the word baroque could helpfully distinguish certain Irish writers from other British or Irish writers.

Although other Irish writers, such as Joyce, Synge, the Yeats of “Vacillation” and the Crazy Jane poems, Devlin, Flann O'Brien, Clarke, Kinsella, Montague, Muldoon, McGuckian, and Ní Dhomhnaill, to name only a few, may reveal baroque characteristics, the term seems paricularly appropriate for the poetry of Ní Chuilleanáin. In those qualities we have named—a return of the feminine, shifting or indeterminate points of view, an emphasis on the body and desire, a disjunction between different levels of reality, mobile or disappearing borders or frames, startling metamorphoses, sudden or fleeting references to the sacred, and the housing in architecture of her own art—Ní Chuilleanáin translates the Baroque aesthetic into her own distinctive poetic art. Because her subject, and that of the writers named above, is the return of the repressed—religion, the Irish language, the feminine—her poetry necessarily conveys glimpses, incomplete or unrecovered narratives, and sudden eruptions.

Representing this gap between an emotional response to some event and an account of that event, or between what can be told and what must remain secret or unsaid, preoccupies much of Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry. As one reviewer states succinctly, “Usually her poems encapsulate a telling scene from a larger untold narrative …”48 Furthermore, this very absence or suppression of the context for poems or stories or songs has its own tradition in Irish culture. We find this gap represented in enigmatic and secret poems not only by Ní Chuilleanáin but also by some of the other poets most deeply rooted in Irish tradition, such as Kinsella, Carson, Muldoon, and McGuckian. Of these poets, Ní Chuilleanáin may—perhaps with Carson—observe most closely the traditional practices of narrative secrecy.

According to Hugh Shields, “Uncertain or ambiguous action is so common a feature of Gaelic song—lyrical, non-narrative song but song which hints at a story it does not tell. …”49 Song celebrated an occasion or expressed an emotional response to events, the narration of which was told in prose and, often then for various reasons, separated or lost to the song. Consequently, according to Shields, “Many lyric songs in Irish in this way conceal some objective reality, referring to it by allusion, without coherence, in a suggestive manner. …” Shields then gives us a helpful term for this authenticating context: “Too often the body of fact which would have validated a song rendition—the údar—is missing from past record.” The Irish audience for such songs, or for Ní Chuilleanáin's poems perhaps, may distinguish itself from those unfamiliar with the tradition not because it understands the missing context but because it knows that one exists: “The confirmatory ‘údar,’ whether told or not told, exists or else may be invented. Those who listen to songs know that certain things occurred which were the occasion of the songs, even if they do not know what things they were.”50

In “A Voice,”51 Ní Chuilleanáin achieves the displaced or dream-like effect that the suppression of the údar gives to traditional songs. The poem begins:

Having come this far, in response
To a woman's voice, a distant wailing,
Now he thinks he can distinguish words:
          You may come in—
          You are already in.

The singer, he finds, is a skeleton, but he reasserts his reason and “takes account” of stones and walls to disperse this voice. Nevertheless, with the woman now lying “in the bed of the stream,” the voice returns, singing from her “Gravegoods of horsehair and an ebony peg.” The poem concludes:

What sort of ornament is this?
What sort of mutilation? Where's
The muscle that called up the sound
The tug of hair and the turned cheek?’
The sign persists, in the ridged fingerbone.
And he hears her voice, a wail of strings.

The context that gave rise to this poem is sufficiently removed that we can only guess at it; the distance our speculation travels becomes, in a sense, the point of the poem. We can speculate that it alludes to a ballad—“Two Sisters”—in which one jealous sister drowns another to marry the widower and then makes of her sister's “little finger bones” a fiddle-peg and of her hair the fiddle strings that can only play a song that reveals her murder to the husband.52 Consequently, the body of fact that would have validated a song rendition—the údar—must here itself be a traditional song—Child Ballad 10, long ago adapted into Donegal Irish—rather than any account of the original murder.

In The Brazen Serpent, Ní Chuilleanáin adapts the complex poem “Following” from “She Moved through the Fair,” a thorough revision by Padraic Colum of a traditional song “Our Wedding Day.” In Colum's song, the woman's love-pledge and then her jilting of her lover achieve a mystery that is heightened by her return in a dream—“So softly she entered, her feet made no din.” Two poems after “Following her coffin in a dream …,” “Following” echoes some of Colum's second stanza—“She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair, / And fondly I watched her go here and go there”—but in this case the aisling is her father whom the woman tracks through a masculinized landscape:

So she follows the trail of her father's coat through the fair
Shouldering past beasts packed solid as books,
And the dealing men nearly as slow to give way—
A block of a belly, a back like a mountain,
A shifting elbow like a plumber's bend—

She traces her father's “light footsteps” through a bog into an otherworld so haunted by its past—“gesturing trunks,” “Hands of women” shroud-sewers—that, when she overtakes her father, patriarchal in his fine clothes and amid his orderly library, we are prepared for the return of the repressed, in which something like her own nature, incorporated into these books and this setting, breaks out, through progressively energetic enjambments, from its confinement:

The smooth foxed leaf has been hidden
In a forest of fine shufflings,
The square of white linen
That held three drops
Of her heart's blood is shelved
Between the gatherings
That go to make a book—
The crushed flowers among the pages crack
The spine open, push the bindings apart.(53)

The last two lines echo the awakening of Galatea in “Pygmalion's Image,” the important opening poem of The Magdalene Sermon and itself a revision of Patrick Kavanagh's “Pygmalion.” In transforming Colum's slow air, Ní Chuilleanáin reassigns gender roles and gains a haunting, unconventional third-person voice, but she also suggests, paradoxically, that when she, like Galatea, sprouts “her green leaf of language,” she gestures toward the “Real,” toward something of bestial and human nature beyond the margins of the father's books and order.

In the dark heart of The Brazen Serpent, Ní Chuilleanáin, probably writing out of that de-shelled fragility that follows deaths of loved ones, touches on another margin of language and the Real: the relation of language to the inexpressibly atrocious, traumatic, or unspeakable events that are encountered or glimpsed but never assimilated into consciousness. “Passing Over in Silence,”54 first entitled Praeteritio (a rhetorical term meaning I will not speak of something about which I cannot remain silent), opens with the line “She never told what she saw in the wood.” The first stanza, which goes on to suggest, in particularly disturbing glimpses, murder and rape, concludes, “She held her peace about the man who waited / Beside the lettered slab. He sang.” We are not permitted to read the lettered slab, but we hear the man's song, a disturbing, because apparently trivializingly digressive, account of a barmaid who wept silently for “the pierced head, / The tears our Saviour shed.” The reader's first response to these lines—that real atrocities are not like our sentimentalized representations of the crucifixion—soon gives way to the disquieting thought that neither was the actual crucifixion—“pierced head?”—and that such representations indicate the limits of the linguistic garrison that fences out the unspeakable.

More extensively, “Vierge Ouvrante”55 undertakes a similar indirect commentary on man's inhumanity to man and, especially, to woman. Here, we enter another architectural structure, perhaps an enlargement of a reliquary, representing the Virgin's body and meant to harbor bones of martyrs or saints. Instead, we glimpse photographs of violated corpses, as we move through increasingly darker rooms to view the body of the Virgin herself, or her violated successors, restrained by ropes or routines from even writing. She can only “commit / To the long band of memory” until she unwinds withershins as she discharges this memory of violation and fills this space “full of the stuff, sticky / White as a blue-bleached sheet in the sun.” This shining, seminal “blank chronicle of thread” overexposes and blots out any clear representations of this dark history: women's suffering which must remain secreted within the body represented by the Virgin's icon.


In a 1992 interview, Ní Chuilleanáin commented on two distortions of history: the filtering out of “injustice, deprivation, victimization” and the misrepresentation of the sacred as something that had passed out of our lives, when in fact our beliefs remain vital.56 In “Passing Over in Silence” and the “Vierge Ouvrant,” Ní Chuilleanáin associates unspeakable suffering with sacred icons—the Crucifixion and the Virgin—and thereby recalls their original, powerful function: to represent the incarnation on its most credible level, the level of the body and its suffering. Recently, she wrote,

In the last decade or so, I find that it is that other icon that draws me, of the body turned inside out, the heart exposed and bleeding, the man's flesh feminised—the Sacred Heart, which was so common on the walls of Irish houses when I was a child.57

She then associates this icon with “its August equivalent,” Bernini's high baroque sculpture of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa “where the saint in a hurricane of cloth is being pierced by a smiling angel.”

In “God and the Jouissance of the Woman,” Jacques Lacan suggests that “mystical ejaculations” of saints and expressions of jouissance are directed outside of language toward what he calls the Real. He then characterizes Bernini's sculpture more explicitly than does Ní Chuilleanáin: “You only have to go and look at Bernini's statue in Rome to understand immediately that she's coming, there is no doubt about it.”58 He goes on to ask, “And what is her jouissance, her coming from? It is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics is that they are experiencing it but know nothing about it.”

According to Lacan, jouissance does not enter into our sexual economy but remains part of the unconscious and of the undifferentiated ground of the body, which our culture can only associate with the feminine because it can accommodate neither mater nor matter. Lacan asks of jouissance, “Might not this jouissance which one experiences and knows nothing of, be that which puts us on the path of ex-istence? And why not interpret one face of the Other, the God face, as supported by feminine jouissance?59

Although Ní Chuilleanáin reassures us and herself that “the sculptor is following the saint herself in her account of her wounding,” she acknowledges that baroque sensuality here turns blatantly sexual: “The sexual metaphor was never so clearly exposed as merely metaphor, and yet nonetheless it remains sexualised.”60 Some commentators on the baroque, such as Buci-Glucksman, make such desire crucial to the baroque:

It was closer to what a long tradition of aesthetics called the sublime, in contrast to the beautiful, because of its yearning for a presence that can never be fulfilled. Indeed, desire, in its erotic as well as metaphysical forms, courses through the baroque scopic regime. The body returns to dethrone the disinterested gaze of the disincarnated Cartesian spectator.61

Ní Chuilleanáin understands that the point about the baroque aesthetic is not “the tension generated by the compresence of sensualism and spirituality …,”62 but that we know the spiritual only through the body and that in the lives we must live the sacred and the sensual are inextricable. As she says in concluding her comments on Bernini: “We reach out of our bodies with our bodies' eyes and writing hands.”63


  1. Eavan Boland, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 236.

  2. John Hollander, The Gazer's Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 7.

  3. Paula Meehan, The Man Who Was Marked by Winter (Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 1991; Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1994). Medbh McGuckian, The Flower Master and Other Poems (Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 1993). In an “Afterword” to Irish Poetry after Joyce, 2d. ed. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), I discuss the poetry of Boland, McGuckian, Meehan, and Ní Chuilleanáin in relation to painting. Some of my readings of Boland's and Ní Chuilleanáin's poems appear there in a preliminary form.

  4. Boland, Object Lessons, 178.

  5. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, The Magdalene Sermon and Earlier Poems (Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 1989; Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1991), 23.

  6. Boland, Object Lessons, 212.

  7. In “The uncanny” (Standard Edition, 17: 219-52), Freud associates the gaze with the anal desire for mastery. In Toril Moi's phrasing, “The gaze enacts the voyeur's desire for sadistic power, in which the object of the gaze is cast as its passive, masochistic, feminine victim” [Sexual Textual Politics (London: Routledge, 1985), 180].

  8. Eavan Boland, Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-1990 (New York: W.W. Norton; Manchester: Caranat, 1990), 119-20.

  9. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Brazen Serpent (Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 1994; Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1995), 38.

  10. Leigh Bartholdson, a student in English 368 at Wake Forest University (Spring, 1996), pointed this out to me. In our discussion of “The Tale of Me,” Annie Leist recognized “broad Leaves” as a transliteration of “bread loaves.” Generally, I am indebted also to Carey Morton and other members of this class for their discussion of Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry.

  11. Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 131.

  12. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanaín, “Acts and Monuments of an Unelected Nation: The Cailleach Writes about the Renaissance,” Southern Review 31.3 (July 1995): 570-80, 577.

  13. Ibid., 576.

  14. In mislabeling the sixteenth-century “Leda” as “Leda and the Swan,” Ní Chuilleanáin extends the antitheses of Counter-Reformational and Reformational art to Correggio's freely assenting woman and Yeats's “staggering girl.”

  15. Cecil Gould, The Paintings of Correggio (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 132. The painting also represents, in the background, either two other stages of the seduction with other Ledas and attendants or two other maidens also courted by swans, all accompanied by cupid playing his harp. In her happy litheness, Correggio's Leda contrasts sharply with the near contemporary drawing by Michelangelo of a Leda who is interchangeable with his figure of Night.

  16. Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, ed. William Scrammel (New York: Picador, 1995), 129.

  17. Ní Chuilleanáin, “Acts …,” 575, 578.

  18. Gould, The Paintings of Corregio, 114.

  19. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

  20. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Brazen Serpent, 10-11.

  21. Romare Bearden and Carl Holty, The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relation of Structure and Space in Painting (New York: Crown Publishing, 1969), 129.

  22. Ellis Waterhouse, Italian Baroque Painting (London: Phaidon Press, 1962), 105; Charles McCorquodale, The Baroque Painters of Italy (Oxford: Phaidon, 1979), 12.

  23. Gould, The Paintings of Corregio, 109.

  24. Waterhouse, Italian Baroque Painters, 69.

  25. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Brazen Serpent, 14-15.

  26. Kevin Ray, “Interview with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.” Eire-Ireland 31, 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer, 1996): 62-73.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Eamon Grennan, “Real Things,” Poetry Ireland Review 46 (Summer 1995): 44-52, 47.

  29. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Brazen Serpent, 19.

  30. McCorquodale, The Baroque Painters of Italy, 7.

  31. Ibid., 7-9.

  32. Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 3-23, 17.

  33. Ibid., 16.

  34. Bryson, Vision and Painting, 104.

  35. Boland, Object Lessons, 252-53.

  36. Philip Conisbee, Chardin. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press), 1986.

  37. Boland, Outside History, 75-77.

  38. If Boland's subtle but clear depiction in muted colors of the ordinary and, otherwise lost subject verbalizes Chardin, Medbh McGuckian branches from Vermeer, as I have argued in the Afterword to Irish Poetry after Joyce (1997). Martin Jay admits northern painting, as it is influenced by Vermeer, as a third term between the baroque and the classic, of which it is a modification.

  39. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Brazen Serpent, 16.

  40. Boland, Outside History, 93.

  41. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Brazen Serpent, 34-35.

  42. W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 31.

  43. Walter George Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists, 2 vols. (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1969), 1: 415-20.

  44. In eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland this taste for scenic ruins, and the divorce of these ruins from their historical causes, may have been influenced by a similar practice—which validated the grand tour of Catholic countries—of making Roman ruins, rather than Romish art, the ostensible focus of an aesthetic tourism. Certainly the place of Latin and the classics in the university curriculum would have also attracted British tourists to Roman ruins.

  45. In her informative study Women Creating Women (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), Patricia Haberstroh quotes from Padraic Colum's introduction to Strong's Songs of Living (1961) where he says this ancient figure of the sphere-woman appears in Strong's poetry in her three guises “bringing ‘her knowledgeableness out in measured sayings’” (31).

  46. Jay, “Scopic Regimes,” 16.

  47. Ibid., 19.

  48. Jonathan Allison, “Poetry from the Irish,” Irish Literary Supplement, Spring 1991; 14.

  49. Hugh Shields, Narrative Singing in Ireland: Lays, Ballads, Come-All-Yes and Other Songs (Blackrock: Irish Academic Press, 1993), 5.

  50. Ibid., 5, 79.

  51. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Magdalene Sermon 27.

  52. Shields, Narrative Singing, 68.

  53. Ní Chuilleanáin, The Brazen Serpent, 32.

  54. Ibid., 23.

  55. Ibid., 36-37.

  56. Deborah McWilliams Consalvo, “An Interview with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin,” Irish Literary Supplement Spring 1993, 15-17.

  57. Ní Chuilleanáin, “Acts …,” 577.

  58. Jacques Lacan, “God and the Jouissance of the Woman,” in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and theécole freudienne,” trans. Jacqueline Rose, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985), 147.

  59. Mitchell, Picture Theory, 147.

  60. Ní Chuilleanáin, “Acts …,” 577.

  61. Jay, “Scopic Regimes,” 17-18.

  62. Lowry Nelson Jr., Baroque Lyric Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 9.

  63. Ní Chuilleanáin, “Acts …,” 577.

John Kerrigan (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10665

SOURCE: “Hidden Ireland: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Munster Poetry,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 76-100.

[In the following essay, Kerrigan studies how the history of Ireland's Munster region, and past writers from this area, have affected Ní Chuilleanáin's writing.]

During the 1970s, as the Troubles took hold in Northern Ireland, the work of Heaney and his contemporaries was projected by London publishers to an international audience. Here was a poetry authenticated by crisis, which addressed the conditions of violence in ways which the media could understand. In the Republic, where readerships were small and the machinery of publishing exiguous, the success of the Ulster poets was viewed with a mixture of admiration and dismay. Despite the evolving integrity of Thomas Kinsella's modernism, and the innovativeness, in Gaelic, of Michael Davitt, Liam Ó Muirthile and others, there had to be a suspicion that poetry was abandoning the South. In fact, it now appears—though the prestige of Northern poetry has tended to conceal it—that poets in the Republic, and especially those associated with Munster, were producing significant work. I want to look at four of them, partly to signal the value of a body of writing which still remains largely hidden from readers outside Ireland, but also to identify shared attitudes to hiddenness which have helped one of the writers, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, compose distinguished poetry.

If there was a Munster Renaissance in the 1970s, it was more fissile and cosmopolitan than that associated with An Dún (‘the Fort’), the Gaelic League hall in Cork, sixty years before. The new wave of Irish-language poets who published in the journal Innti had an outlook as international as those Anglophone incomers to Cork city, John Montague and Paul Durcan. Yet the introduction to a recent anthology of poets who studied at University College Cork, ‘Jumping off Shadows’ (1995), rightly notes the persistence in verse of three themes which Daniel Corkery—a leading figure in the earlier revival—had argued were central to Irish culture: ‘(1) The Religious Consciousness of the People; (2) Irish Nationalism; (3) The Land’.1 Indeed a surprising number of poets recall being influenced by Corkery himself—an unfashionable mentor to claim, these days, given his devotion, for more than half a century, in his poems, plays and prose fiction, and his study of eighteenth-century Munster, The Hidden Ireland (1924), to de Valeran nationalism.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, for instance, who was born in 1942 to intellectual Republican parents, has described her upbringing in Cork city as ‘Corkeryan’,2 while her contemporary, Michael Hartnett, whose childhood was spent in rural Limerick among ‘old people … tramps, balladeers, musicians’, says that, when he read Corkery in his teens, he recognised ‘the hidden Ireland’ because ‘I had lived in it’.3 The spread of free education and the growing affluence which followed the implementation of the Economic Development Plan (1958) eroded the traditional economy of small farms which Hartnett knew as a boy; but the ideology of Irish Ireland persisted so strongly in the Fianna Fáil families of the younger poets who interest me, Thomas McCarthy and Seán Dunne (both born in County Waterford in the mid-1950s), that it is not surprising that the former should have chosen to do postgraduate research on Corkery at UCC, nor that Dunne should recall being stirred, as a student, by The Hidden Ireland, ‘despite the suburban world in which I grew up and a childhood spent against the background of the Kennedy assassination and The Beatles’.4

The Hidden Ireland is a grandly conceived and often moving account of the ‘secret life’ of the Munster Gaels under the Penal Laws. Corkery depicts an impoverished people keeping faith with its culture by paying ‘secret homage’ to the dispossessed Gaelic aristocracy and composing verse in Irish for performance in the Courts of Poetry held in Big Houses and inns—descendants of the Bardic schools which flourished in medieval Ireland.5 When the book appeared, in the aftermath of the civil war, it gave eloquent and in some measure healing expression to a version of history which ran back through the idealism of the 1916 rebels into the founding principles of the Gaelic League. Its celebration of an aboriginal Ireland, suffering but intact under English domination, fed currents of sentiment which shaped the formation of the Free State and—even more—de Valeran Republicanism. The book's standing in that lineage has made it a target for revisionist scholars, and they have had little difficulty in qualifying its analysis of social structure and Bardic survivalism.6 Like the schoolbooks of the 1920s and 1930s,7 which were reprinted and read for decades, The Hidden Ireland offered an account of the eighteenth century which was too retrospectively nationalist to be other than a distortion.

Yet its claims continue to resonate, and not just because post-revisionist historians are stressing that Hanoverian Ireland did have an ‘underground gentry’, as well as a group of wealthy farmers who kept up the hospitality claimed by Corkery for the hidden Ireland.8 The potency of the concept seems not to depend on the evidence (produced by Tom Garvin and others) that secret societies devoted to Gaelic and Catholic ideals flourished before as well as after O'Connell, and that the pre-Famine peasantry constituted ‘part of “the hidden Ireland” that Daniel Corkery celebrated’ in the sense that ‘Secrecy, subterfuge, and deception were among the few defenses available’ to it against the rent-collectors.9 By articulating a vision of the past which was integral to the ideologies which took power in Éire,10 Corkery ensured that ‘the hidden Ireland’ would be as much a cultural topos as a historical thesis, and one whose appeal would be felt long after its author became politically peripheral.

The conceptual aspect of ‘the hidden Ireland’ explains why it has evolved into a motif so ubiquitous yet suggestive that it tends to be invoked whenever a commentator wants to draw attention to some neglected grass-roots phenomenon: the ‘many hidden Irelands’ created by unemployment, the rising tide of women's poetry.11 This flattening of the topic into cliché is a perverse indicator of its ability to mobilise deeply held assumptions about Irish mind-sets and social structure. By now, the impulse to work ideas of hiddenness into perceptions of Irish life extends across the ideological spectrum. When Fintan O'Toole, for instance, praises Paul Durcan for ‘loosening the tongue of a hidden Ireland’ by writing about such hybrid figures as the Gaelic Chinaman, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh,12 neither poet nor critic is subscribing to Irish Irelandism. Yet the motif of hidden Ireland—with all its potential for imaginative reworking—is naturally most active in the verse of those who are associated in one way or another with the nationalist-traditionalist forcefield, and its power may be the stronger when such writers come from Munster because the linguistic make-up of the region is still one in which Gaelic persists on a local basis or (more often) lies under a Hiberno-English surface. As Hartnett, McCarthy, and Seán Dunne show, inherited ideas of hiddenness have enriched the way Munster poets think about where they come from. But they have also given rise in Ní Chuilleanáin to a poetics of secrecy which is expressive beyond its grounding in historical geography.

Michael Hartnett tells me that he probably reread his battered copy of The Hidden Ireland just before he wrote the poems collected in A Farewell to English—the 1975 volume which marked his return from Dublin to County Limerick, and his commitment to writing in Gaelic after more than a decade's recognition as an Anglophone poet.13 Certainly A Farewell emulates Corkery's atmospheric word-painting of eighteenth-century Munster. In ‘A Visit to Croom 1745’, the poet imagines a version of himself walking through a rain-soaked landscape to the Court of Poetry at An Dún—the inn which would give its name, centuries later, to the Gaelic League hall in Cork. There, however, he finds a scene which is more than linguistically disappointing:

Five Gaelic faces stopped their talk,
turned from the red of fire
into a cloud of rush-light fumes,
scraped their pewter mugs
across the board and talked about the king.
I had walked a long time
in the mud to hear
an avalanche of turf fall down,
fourteen miles in straw-roped overcoat
passing for Irish all along the road
now to hear a Gaelic court
talk broken English of an English king.
It was a long way
to come for nothing.(14)

In 1745, while Scotland was up in arms, the aisling poets predicted the return of the Stuarts, yet Ireland did not rise. The Hidden Ireland is sympathetic to the hopes of poetic Jacobitism, but Hartnett implies a betrayal: the drinkers, who could be active on behalf of Bonnie Prince Charlie, talk in ‘broken English’ about a Hanoverian monarch. Between Corkery and the poem falls the failure of the Irish state to secure the future of Gaelic. As he commits himself to Irish, Hartnett is nagged by the doubt that any attempt to go back through his birthplace, Croom—site of the last Court of Poetry in Munster15—to attach his work to the frayed ends of Bardic tradition, is likely to be frustrated.

That unease fuels the polemics of A Farewell. In line with The Hidden Ireland, which commends the Gaelic poets who ‘lamented the vanishing woods’ cut down by English planters, Hartnett attacks the Big House at Castletown for stripping the ‘secret wood’ from the landscape.16 Echoing Corkery's Synge, he mocks ‘the celebrated Anglo-Irish stew’ which passes for poetry in Eire. And he recycles the arguments of the Gaelic League when he claims that English is the agent of a bureaucratic centralism which is spoiling all that is sensitive, irregular, wild, and green: ‘Gaelic is our final sign that / we are human and therefore not a herd’, he writes, ‘English a necessary sin / the perfect language to sell pigs in’.17 Given such reductiveness, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin was right to say of A Farewell, ‘When Hartnett faces the problems of the whole of Irish culture he's in a bit of trouble’;18 yet his vehemence seems driven less by Anglophobia than by the insecurities registered in ‘A Visit to Croom’. A poet so trenchant in English cannot but whip that language into acerbity when he fears his inability to relinquish it,19 especially when he suspects that Gaelic, a language in retreat, will not bring him an audience.

To become a hidden poet linguistically and geographically is to risk finding a false consolation in obscurity, and there are touches of indulgence in Hartnett's Irish poems about wild animals, trees, ‘The Gaeltacht Face’, and the beauty of life ‘anseo i nead na Mumhan’ (‘here in the nest of Munster’).20 Yet the poet's upbringing inoculated him against taking too rosy a view of rural Ireland. Both the Collected Poems of 1984-6 and the 1994 Selected break with chronology and start with lyrics about the pathology of hidden lives. ‘All the perversions of the soul / I learnt on a small farm’, the Selected begins: hinting at one incitement to covertness, in the ‘dark secrets about the “Troubles”’ which shadowed his childhood,21 Hartnett recalls working out how ‘to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold, / and to avoid among my nameless weeds / the civil war of that household’.22 ‘Prisoners’, the later lyric which opens The Collected Poems, has a more Romantic, even Tennysonian, timbre, but the lovers who inhabit its ‘secret world’ must be locked in a slated house against the eyes of neighbours who would hound them. This anticipates the most ambitious poem of Hartnett's Irish-language decade, ‘Cúlú Íde’, in which a widow who bears a child is persecuted by her neighbours. Here the hidden Ireland is shown at its most vindictive, as activities associated with rural insurgency, back to the eighteenth-century Whiteboys—‘the secret meeting in the dark’, intimidation, fires blazing at cross-roads—are set against the inward lyricism of Ita's pregnancy.23

Though ‘Cúlú Íde’ was published in Irish, it took shape in two languages at once. This was neither a new experience nor the culmination of a process. Hartnett has said that A Farewell emerged from a state of ‘bilingual chaos’,24 and, although his writing in Gaelic has waned since Inchicore Haiku (1985), he does still compose in Irish and he has kept faith with Corkery's Ireland by translating the early modern masters: Haicéad, Ó Bruadair, Ó Rathaille.25 More or less than choice seems to drive this complex process: cultural incompatibility and a degree of self-division are tied into his discovering that ‘Cúlú Íde’ had to be a different poem (in content, rhetoric, and sensibility) from its English equivalent, ‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’. Hartnett sometimes presents his creative volatility—which cuts in several ways across his oeuvre—positively, comparing himself with Pessoa and claiming the right to use many styles and personae, but he also speaks of a ‘schizophrenia’ in his predicament.26 ‘The “quaking sod” is still with us’, he declares, using a phrase from The Hidden Ireland.27 It is as though his work were condemned by its Corkeryan affinities to stagger on the cultural-linguistic incoherence of his country.

No other Irish poet is as divided and uneven as Hartnett, but he is far from unique in his preoccupation with hiddenness. Thomas McCarthy's début volume, The First Convention (1978), for example, includes a poem called ‘Grand Tour, 1745’ which shares more than a date with ‘A Visit to Croom 1745’. Describing a journal kept by the topographer Charles Smith, who ‘noted stone castles and garrisoned seats … but ignored the dark version / of landscape—the small holdings that crumbled / when those castles made their invasion’, the poem repeats the simplified social geography of The Hidden Ireland. Despite the hostility of modernisers during the 1960s and 1970s to the fading ideology of Irish Ireland, McCarthy's childhood attachment to the small holdings of rural Waterford gave him a set of loyalties which (especially in his early work) associate Gaelic-speaking and the rural landscape with valued resources of Irishness. He will look at a pelting downpour and call it ‘Corkery rain’.28 Such gestures are of a piece with the many poems which he has written about the history of Fianna Fáil, from ‘State Funeral’ in The First Convention through the lyrics about de Valera's childhood in County Limerick, ‘soaking gallons / of folklore and folk-solitude’,29 in The Sorrow Garden (1981).

Irish intellectuals can find it hard to tolerate McCarthy's fascination with Dev, and his willingness to be known—through and beyond The Lost Province (1996)—as the ‘chronicler’ of Fianna Fáil.30 But his now-detached attitude to Republicanism was never far from the scepticism which makes for intelligent political verse. ‘The Provincial Writer's Diary’, for instance, suggests that Corkery was driven to join Sinn Féin as much by ‘loneliness’ as by patriotism. Using to good effect the ‘conservative techniques’ which he learned from the Northern Irish poets,31 McCarthy shifts the mood of his verbs to claim diagnostic command over Corkery's routine, and ends up half-rhyming into doubt his anti-British judgment on the slums of Cork:

He lived far from the heroic. On Monday
mornings he would stalk the grey ghettos
of the North side and low-lying tenements
for absentee school-children. He would be taken aback
by the oppressive stench and filth of their lives.
One morning he thought, as if explaining all misery,
that such homes were the nests of the Military.(32)

McCarthy has explained that he ‘veered away from’ Corkery because the older writer ‘believed that the future lay in Muintir na Tíre and small local communities. As I had just escaped from a small rural community, that scenario was too depressing.’ Significantly, though, he goes on to praise Corkery's prose fiction because it ‘uncovered a distinctive new world, the world of urban, lower middle-class Catholicism’.33 This admiration for work which reveals a twentieth-century hidden Ireland helps explain why the cosmopolitan ambitions played out in McCarthy's Seven Winters in Paris (1989) are unconvincingly executed—his Paris is a bundle of clichés. He may address his poems from Iowa or Minnesota, and aspire (like Louis MacNeice) to give his ‘loyalty’ to ‘the country of imagination’,34 but he writes with most authority about the localised world of Munster politics. The committee-rooms of Fianna Fáil provide an archive of intimate continuities and generational struggles; they show ‘the familial secretive world’ of the IRB passing on its ethos to the network of contacts and favours and deals (‘the secrets / / that he filed in his heart’) which a Fianna Fáil politician relies on.35 In the novels Without Power (1991) and, less successfully, Asya and Christine (1992), McCarthy follows Corkery into prose fiction, exploring the hidden Ireland36 of small farmers and Republican activists in County Waterford in the 1920s and 1970s, and illuminating (as one blurb puts it) ‘the “darkness” out of which Fianna Fáil derives its power’.

These ventures into what Seán Dunne has called, in his Cork Anthology (1993), ‘that inner geography which comes … from the experience of life in a particular place’37 have a personal imperative: because McCarthy's father was a Fianna Fáil party-worker, he must recreate a political milieu if he is to come to terms with his childhood. But there is a larger process at work, one which owes as much to the decay of traditional nationalism as it does to its selective persistence. The seventies and eighties saw a growing enthusiasm in Ireland for local history and environmental studies—a development which correlates with the appearance of such anthologies as Seán Dunne's. Wary of full-blown Republicanism because of the violence in the North, and troubled by the homogenising globalism which was sweeping McDonald's and Apple Computer Inc. into Munster, many sought ‘the type of anchoring provided by a sense of place’.38 This resembles the place-centredness found in the poetry of Dunne and McCarthy—a globally aware particularity rather different from old-fashioned regionalism. If their localising is influenced by the legacy of Irish Irelandism, it also represents at the level of text-production that specialised reinforcement of the local within a global economy which geographers call glocalisation.

Self-conscious awareness of the global allows both poets to resist the label of ‘provincialism’ which Sean O'Faolain attached to Corkery, and encourages them to identify with Hubert Butler, who wrote internationally informed essays out of County Kilkenny thanks to his ‘exemplary engagement with the local’.39 When McCarthy is being analytical, the link with Butler seems plausible, but Dunne's glocalising had run to mysticism by the time of his early death in 1995. As his affecting autobiography The Road to Silence (1994) makes clear, his mistrust of international capitalism passed through Catholic, Marxist, and Quaker phases, before maturing into admiration for the reclusiveness of Thomas Merton—a sympathy which comes out in the way he characterises ‘places apart’ in his Cork Anthology:

It is as if all those clichés about the global village, and those Cassandra-like warnings about the growing uniformity of the world, have come to nothing. The world seems to have become smaller, yet our sense of the parish has grown and deepened. To twist E. F. Schumacher's phrase, small is meaningful. And small, as I discovered, can also be limitless.40

Developing Patrick Kavanagh's distinction between the bad provincial and the good parochial, Dunne arrives at a spiritual valuation of ‘small places’. Whether such faith is tenable in the face of globalisation is secondary here to the question of how far Dunne's sense of threat makes his poetry at once too brittle and too defensive in its rehearsal of the geo-cultural matters which are crucial to his work.

Early McCarthy links the ‘hidden / life’ of nests and shells with the covertness and integrity of de Valera's childhood cottage.41 Dunne has his nests and cottages too, but his places apart are usually emptied of patriotic iconography—sometimes literally so, as though he found his spiritual home in the silence left on the Blaskets or in West Cork after the break-up of Gaelic communities. His bare, elemental lyricism is at its most characteristic when reclusive life is endangered—as in ‘Five Photographs by Thomas Merton’, where world-shrinking jet planes fly over Merton's ‘house built for quiet in the woods’ and blow away the words of his psalm.42 But seclusion is often too highly prized to be technically manageable. Here, for instance, is ‘The Gougane Notebook’, which celebrates a site in West Cork associated with St Finbarr:

My place of hills and silence
          violence in faraway squares
                    disruption shuffling the maps
My place of peace in crisis
          a core crumbling around me
                    the mountains steady and still …

This is exemplary in the negative sense that the underanalysed sentiment and bolstering alliteration seek to claim and protect a retreat the value of which is as disablingly obvious to the poet as is its vulnerability. The local develops a hiddenness not just because Dunne believes that place can only be understood through its ‘inner geography’ but because that thesis is too palpably a reaction against what threatens apartness.

The most conspicuous result of this is the sort of preciosity found in ‘One Sunday in the Gearagh’, which describes an ‘Afternoon of perfume / Flowers crushed beneath feet / Scents yielded like secrets’:43 here the local is so endangered that secrecy offers a means of protection which itself becomes an enticement. A larger consequence, however, is a tendency for poems about many things (men and women, Wittgenstein on language, mung beans as ‘Secrets sprouting in the dark’)44 to touch on benign obscurity. This is no doubt why Dunne was drawn to the minimalism of medieval Irish lyrics and Japanese haiku: their reticence makes beauty out of what is withheld. Certainly he felt the attraction of the type of writing described in ‘The Woman's Script’, where a woman in ancient China produces an openly covert text: ‘My husband watches as I set / My sadness down in secret script’.45 Such poems, explicitly about secrecy, are not necessarily Dunne's best, but they show how ideas of hiddenness, developed variously by poets from Munster, can go beyond historical geography, illuminate quite other areas of experience, and recommend verbal techniques. A similar process can be traced, to more subtle and difficult ends, in the work of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

That the politics and scholarship of The Hidden Ireland were part of Ní Chuilleanáin's childhood is beyond dispute. Her mother, Eilís Dillon, came from a strongly Republican family, and she added to her output as a novelist a widely read translation of one of the greatest poems discussed by Corkery: Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill's Caoineadh Áirt Uí Laoghaire. Her father, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, fought the British in County Cork, and, as a Professor of Irish at UCC—where Corkery taught English—his work (as the poet recalls) ‘was on just what [Corkery] describes in The Hidden Ireland, the scribes who preserved so much, the clerics with one ear cocked to catch news from the Continent and the other for the whispers—or do I mean gracenotes—of a Gaelic past’.46 Small wonder that Ní Chuilleanáin should publish, within months of her first collection, Acts and Monuments (1972), an essay on Gaelic verse which refers respectfully to The Hidden Ireland.47 Though her poetry is too oblique to employ the language of cultural politics used by Hartnett in A Farewell to English, her job as a teacher of English Renaissance literature at that Elizabethan protestant foundation, Trinity College, Dublin, has kept her rawly aware of the break-up of the old Gaelic order. It is no accident that the first poem in Acts and Monuments should allude to the destruction of Irish chapels by Cromwell's troopers. Outside poetry, she can be more direct: ‘“Forgetting the past” in Ireland is a joke. I may be working for the Virgin Queen but that doesn't mean I've forgiven her.’48

These factors shaped Ní Chuilleanáin's orientation in Munster from the outset, especially her attraction—shared with the Innti poets49 as well as Seán Dunne—to Corca Dhuibhne. In a 1973 interview she recalls starting

a long poem, partly to do with reminiscences from my father and things he had described from the Black and Tan war. … The form of this was to have been largely geographical, it had to do with the West Cork landscape. There's a kind of middle bit of West Cork which is very secret and cut off from the rest of the world and that fascinates me, there's something about that country which has never been violated completely. The Irish that they speak around there I understand, it's very important to me …50

So familiar is the situation of this ‘very secret’ Ireland that it comes as no surprise to find Ní Chuilleanáin citing among its attractions the literature which fascinated Corkery: ‘Things like the eighteenth century Irish poetry, and the “Lament for Art O'Leary”, one of the great poems written by a woman, that's from West Cork, from Macroom.’ Yet there are the beginnings here of a distinctive response to the matter of The Hidden Ireland. When the poet came to analyse Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill's ‘Lament’ in print, it was in a book of essays called Irish Women (1985) which she edited for a feminist press. The places apart in her work are by no means always rural and secluded—they include nunneries and households run by women; and while these are sometimes sited in Ireland, her interest in exile as a place apart means that she traces Irishness to France and Belgium, where her aunts lived as nuns, and to Rome, where she spent time as a young woman.

As a result, when she deals in verse with the geography of The Hidden Ireland she follows Irish women overseas. Here is the start of ‘In Rome’ from The Magdalene Sermon (1989):

The Pope's musketeers are breaking their fast
On the roof above my bed. Harsh burning of kebabs
Reeks down through the gap in the beams, and the retching
Of their caged doves. The captain lowered some charcoal
Last night; my poor girls are cooking eggs now
Behind the screen.

In line with nationalist tradition, Corkery romanticised the Gaelic aristocrats who fled to the continent after Cromwell and the Treaty of Limerick. Resisting Ascendancy claims to cultural superiority, he says that the ‘flying secret visits’ of exiled kinsmen kept such houses as Ní Chonaill's Derrynane ‘informed of European life, culture, and affairs in a more intimate sense than the Planter houses’.51 Ní Chuilleanáin goes behind what is competitive in these arguments, and brings out the humiliations of an exiled noblewoman whose dependants must beg with holes in their stockings and do genteel work for the church: ‘We keep the bell-shrine there, and the gold chasubles / For the feast day’.

This is as close as Ní Chuilleanáin gets to the documentary lyricism of Hartnett's ‘A Visit to Croom 1745’, yet the historical basis of the poem in the life of Lady Rosa O'Doherty52 cannot obscure the continuity with ‘Night Journeys’, in The Rose-Geranium (1981), which describes the poet's teenage visits to Rome to be with her family: ‘Two widows are living together in the attic / Among the encyclopaedias / And gold vestments’. The way the past merges with the present in Irish experience is a preoccupation of Ní Chuilleanáin's, and it is complicated by her awareness that too passionate an engagement with history can betray it by denying difference. As a travelled member of the Irish-speaking élite, it is almost too easy for Ní Chuilleanáin to identify with such women as Eiblín Dubh Ní Chonaill, for whom, as she points out, ‘the international dimension of earlier Irish aristocratic culture was not lost’.53 No doubt the poet's sense of the dangers of ready empathy explains why there is such a drive to create distance through an accumulation of picturesque detail in ‘In Rome’.

The gradual and variegated shift in the setting of Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry, from her early interest in West Cork to the Irish/European axis of her later books, can be understood within the cultural geography described and partly invented by The Hidden Ireland, but it has also been shaped by the global shrinkage which affects McCarthy and Dunne. Initially, the poet says, ‘exile was the definition of isolation. My first love was an exile from a place in West Cork … Then my parents went to Rome, and I went to Oxford’—another ‘exile’. Now she and her husband, the poet Macdara Woods, live with their adopted son in Umbria as well as Dublin, and, as they travel about, between Ireland, the States and Britain, ‘the family is redefined as nomadic as the earliest families and the Irish bards were’.54 Because this changing relationship with travel reflects broad changes in Irish society—from the loneliness of emigration still common in the fifties and sixties, to the package-tour mobility of the 1990s—Ní Chuilleanáin can write a poetry which cuts with some authority across that argument about the parochial versus the provincial which globalisation has revived for McCarthy and Dunne. Yet she could not have achieved this freedom without feminism, which encouraged her to resist the limiting ‘language about masculinity and the sense of place’ which descends from Kavanagh to Heaney, and which she finds in Seán Dunne. ‘The modern Irish poet is not a man in the foreground, silhouetted against a place’, she insists: ‘like a Gaelic bard the creature can be male or female, nomadic without losing tribal identity’.55

A scepticism about verse which frames the poet against an authenticating place can be found as early as Acts and Monuments, where the geography of West Cork is abstracted and traversed by voyages. It is a peculiarity of the book that its mythical and more everyday travellers are caught in states of delayed departure, or their movements are slowed by displacement. The surface of the sea becomes a clock-face which cancels motion. Growing up is undynamic, a smothering or atrophy: ‘I discovered the habits of moss / That secretly freezes the stone’. Domestic scenes become still lifes, where yesterday's milk sours in a jug and ‘Time on window-panes / Imposes a curved edge of dust’.56 No doubt this atmosphere of decay gradually coming into definition was brewed up by the frustrations of a love-life: one lyric says that love is ‘like snow hardening / In strata, grey to blank white / Producing paralysis’.57 But the way in which all sorts of acts are frozen up as monuments has a more than personal aetiology: it has to do with Ní Chuilleanáin's saturation in the historical geography of Munster.

Thus the ‘largely geographical’ work about the Black and Tan war which she mentions in her 1973 interview—the piece which became the title-poem of her second book, Site of Ambush (1975)—was partly suggested by an IRA attack at Kilmichael,58 and it is possible to discern in its second section a lorry swerving into a river and the soldiers on board it being drowned. No narrative momentum is sought, however, and Ní Chuilleanáin shifts location and chronology (e.g. into geological time) to disperse the significance of the event. Not wanting to write verse which is, like Derek Mahon's, ‘fettered by places and times’,59 Ní Chuilleanáin uses indeterminate settings, mythical voyages and legends to make the burden of history metaphysical. Her conclusion invokes the patience of St Ciarán as it finds a compromised lyricism in the inertia which covered over the wreckage of war in post-treaty Ireland:

                                   —troubling for a minute the patient republic
Of the spider and the fly
On the edge of the aspic stream
Above the frail shadows of wreckage
The white water-plant glinting upward
While the tall tree adds a rim to its age
And water focusses to a fish jumping
The rims of time breaking slowly on the pebbles like a bell
Eyes slacken under the weight
As the saint's arm began to sag
His hand spread under the warm nesting wren
But did not give way.

When ‘Site of Ambush’ was published it attracted respectful bafflement, and this Eliotic passage shows in miniature why that happened. The pointed minuteness of observation and the self-sustaining intricacy of the word-music withhold the passage from topicality, working the ‘very secret’ quality of the ‘West Cork landscape’, mentioned in the 1973 interview, into a texture of reticence.

Why would such a writer publish as her third book a sequence of poems about Cork illustrated with street scenes by Brian Lalor and rounded off with a map and a key? One reason—perverse but creative—might be the impulse to work out new relationships with place by going against the grain of a loco-descriptive project. Certainly Ní Chuilleanáin's contributions to Cork (1977) rarely match topographically the drawings which they are opposite. Of course, the book would fail if the artist and the poet had nothing in common, and there is a clue to what brought them together when Lalor says in a postscript that his ‘drawings developed as a result of a habit … of never passing a laneway, flight of stairs, courtyard or public building without investigating what secrets it might conceal’; but the secrets which interest Ní Chuilleanáin belong in perceptual and psychological spaces which an artist's pencil could hardly reach.

‘Barrack Street’, for instance, which shares an opening with a picture of Brown Street, in quite another part of the city, crystallises a maze of hiddenness out of a demolished site:

Missing from the scene
The many flat surfaces,
Undersides of doors, of doormats
Blank backs of wardrobes
The walls of tunnels in walls
Made by the wires of bells, and the shadows of square spaces
Left high on kitchen walls
By the removal of those bells on their boards,
The returning minotaur pacing transparent
In the transparent maze cannot
Smell out his stall; the angles all move towards him,
No alcove to rest his horns.
At dawn he collapses in the garden where
The lecherous wise slug is caressing
Ribbed undersides of blue cabbage leaves
While on top of them rain dances.

As often, Ní Chuilleanáin sets syntax adrift (holding back the subject of the first sentence for nine lines) to unsituate even what is hidden. Her own implication in the poem is reinforced by the idea of return, since the entire book's existence depends on her coming back to Cork, yet the text does not silhouette her against the city. The quester remains notional until the poem has catalogued the absences which might define location, and, even then, his/her nature, which shares a transparent elusiveness with its setting, slips from the maleness of the minotaur to the (equally horned) soft-bellied femininity of the slug.60 The text obscurely destabilises those correlations between author, gender and place which the poet finds too predictable in much Irish poetry since Kavanagh.

The transparency of the opaque which the minotaur encounters in his labyrinth is a recurrent motif in Ní Chuilleanáin, and in such later poems as ‘A Glass House’61 she writes beautifully about the sensuous free-fall that comes when perception is denied a resolving ‘edge’ and the boundaries of self disperse. There is, however, a counter-impulse—equally integral to her deconstruction of place—to find opacity in the transparent and to veil or cancel the self-situating processes of reflection. Walk into a pub in Cork and

You face a window blank with dust
Half-inch spiderwebs
Rounding the squares of glass
And a view on either hand of mirrors
Shining at each other in the gloom.(62)

This tracing-out in short lines—which seek perceptual precision rather than formal regularity—of a paradoxical interior (where squares are round and mirrors shine at mirrors), is typical. Rather than describe known landmarks, Ní Chuilleanáin moves inward, intent on secrets. In ‘When you pass the doorway’, for example, we are shown,

Just visible, a glass window,
Blackness beyond
Half veiled by a net curtain,
A lined curtain, a lampshade
The wooden back of a looking-glass, then blackness.
We could be in any city.

This conclusion is virtually the opposite of what Brian Lalor's drawings proclaim. The artist sets before us the tokens of a particular city: the poet suggests that what is characteristic about Cork is not what makes it distinctive but what makes it mysterious. She shows the hidden Irelands which become scrutable when familiar settings are dislocated and obscurity becomes overt.

The poetics emerging in Cork are also implicit in the reviews and essays which Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin published, during the 1970s, in response to Northern writing. Her perceptive notice of North, for instance,63 prefers the ‘mystery’ in ‘The Grauballe Man’ to its ‘over-articulate’ account of sectarian violence, and objects to the way that, in his sexual allegories about colonialism (‘Ocean's Love to Ireland’ and ‘Act of Union’), Heaney treats ‘male and female as fixed and recognisable start-points to be used in getting one's bearings on a wider scene’. This is judged a mistake not just because it ignores the ‘fragmentary nature of such comparisons’ (a nation has no gender, the individual is a slug and a minotaur) but because the ‘heavy equations belong to a world of shared assumptions’. This objection is central to her reservations about Northern poetry: she believes that its topicality depends on a recycling of inherited attitudes, so that ‘a mush of superimposed habits’ is passed off as vital reality. For her the poet must understand that ‘Though living in the present is impossible, the present is where poetry lives’.64

That enigmatic remark, which stems from Ní Chuilleanáin's sensitivity to the pressure of the past in Ireland, does highlight a weakening tendency in such texts as The Rough Field and North to underpin identity politics by appealing to tribal history rather than searching for the quick of the moment, but it also illuminates aspects of Ní Chuilleanáin's own writing after Cork. Here, for instance, is the full text of ‘Street’ from The Magdalene Sermon:

He fell in love with the butcher's daughter
When he saw her passing by in her white trousers
Dangling a knife on a ring at her belt.
He stared at the dark shining drops on the paving-stones.
One day he followed her
Down the slanting lane at the back of the shambles.
A door stood half-open
And the stairs were brushed and clean,
Her shoes paired on the bottom step,
Each tread marked with the red crescent
Her bare heels left, fading to faintest at the top.

No poem can speak to readers without some ‘shared assumptions’ to draw on but the situation observed so precisely is amplified in its mystery because the parameters are set so wide. We might be in a folk tale, not far from Bluebeard's Castle or the legend of the murderous Jew's daughter, where carnal enticements are dangerous, yet the swept stairs and paired shoes suggest a more homely romance. The lyric is vivid with details which carry an erotic charge—the knife, the ring, the blood, the light ascent of the prints—but they are denied a resolution, and the half-open door remains half-closed. When we follow the protagonist up the stairs and trace the heelmarks out of the poem, they fade as we proceed because there is no sure advance into knowledge. So this door into the dark resembles the windows and mirrors in Cork; it gives hiddenness a location beyond the specificity of place. The poem appears to put all its cards on the table and still it keeps its secret.

Actually, those terms of praise are used by Ní Chuilleanáin herself of the lyric ‘A bhean lán do stuaim’ (‘Woman full of wile’) in a 1982 essay about late medieval and early modern Gaelic verse. Is she engaging in self-description when she says there that the Munster poetry of Piaras Feiritéar has ‘a mystery which has nothing to do with vagueness but owes much to control’?65 Sound and syntax are managed in ‘Street’ to make the mysterious lucid—as in the kinetic shaping of the second stanza, with its slightly perplexed anapaestic movement down the back lane and the expressive end-position of ‘stood half-open’ (which hint-rhymes the reach of the stairs by tying ‘the bottom step’ to ‘the top’), or in the integrations of the final line, where assonance and fricative alliteration lead the tracing eye with the ear from what fades to what is faintest. The poem's simplicity and anonymity, and the sense that it has been written to have an effect as a whole rather than to mobilise quotable phrases, are qualities which Ní Chuilleanáin values in early modern Gaelic verse and which she sets against Heaney et al.

It is, however, the idea of secrecy as a means to self-expression (rather than its stifling) for such poets as Piaras Feiritéar, which most attracts her to their work.66 This is of a piece with her respect for the creative potential of secrecy elsewhere. Her essays on Maria Edgeworth, for instance, are drawn to ‘Lady Delacour's secret’ (her supposed cancer) in Belinda, and to the ‘secret room’ and ‘secret affair’ which complicate her life. ‘Secrecy and mysteries generate the action’ of that novel, she contends.67 In her essay on ‘Spenser as an Irish Writer’, she presents A View of the State of Ireland as ‘essentially a secret text’ because it ‘respects the rules of secrecy in high places’ and, in its dealings with Irish history, ‘reveals the secrets of origin, which lie hidden’.68 This alertness to the covert helps secure Spenser the Hibernian identity which Ní Chuilleanáin accords him. This is an extraordinary gesture of acceptance (or appropriation) for someone from her background, and it makes it the less surprising that, when she deals with historical topics, she should repeatedly focus on hiddenness—not least when she turns sympathetically to what Corkery calls ‘The Religious Consciousness of the People’.

In ‘Our Lady of Youghal’, for example, collected in The Brazen Serpent (1994), she writes about the spirituality kept alive under the Penal Laws by describing a miracle associated with an Italian ivory which was supposedly washed onto the Munster shoreline inside a huge piece of timber. Ní Chuilleanáin has explained to me that this ivory was (again that keyword) ‘hidden by a family from the 16th until the 19th century’ before being doubly enshrined within a shrine in a church in Cork. The poem ends exquisitely, fusing the statue's emergence out of the timber with the sight which its holy water brings to a blind man:

It takes the blind man's fingers
Blessing himself in the entry
To find the secret water treasured
In the tree's elbow; he washes his eyes and sees
A leaf cutting its way to the air
Inside a tower of leaves,
The virgin's almond shrine, its ivory lids parting
Behind lids of gold, bursting out of the wood.

Here, as in ‘Street’, and perhaps as in Spenser's View, the discovery of what is secret does not devalue the hidden because its revelation enhances mystery, and disclosure is the more potent because the reader knows that the poet is not refusing tactically to put all her cards on the table but herself deals in the mysterious.

I make that qualification because there is some danger that the art of secrecy can become a form of deception in which the writer tantalises the reader by hiding a poem's occasion; and there may be lyrics by Ní Chuilleanáin in which obscurity becomes an end in itself, or in which the impulse to write generates hiddenness only as a means, and the verse becomes blowsy and vague; but her most involving texts are reticent because they negotiate the unspeakable. One example is ‘Passing over in Silence’, which is about the terminal illness of Ní Chuilleanáin's sister, but only, as its title implies (because it translates the rhetorical term praeteritio),69 by means of being about not saying what it is about:

She never told what she saw in the wood;
There were no words for the stench,
The floated offal, the burnt patches.
She kept the secret of the woman lying
In darkness breathing hard,
A hooked foot holding her down.
And held her peace about the man who waited
Beside the lettered slab. He sang:
I went into the alehouse and called for a drink,
The girl behind the bar could not speak for tears,
The drops of beer flowed down the sides of the glass;
She wept to think of the pierced head,
The tears our Saviour shed.

This is movingly paradoxical not just because it discloses what it passes over, but because, once we gather, from other poems, that the ‘hooked foot’ is cancer, it can only intensify our awareness that secrecy is part of the poem's subject, as well as its characteristic means, because it deals with the poet's sense of guilt that she cannot but be too transparent a reporter of what she saw. The second stanza alludes to a folk tale in which a man who commits a crime is told that he can't be forgiven ‘unless he can find a woman in a public house that is holier than a nun in a convent. He sees a woman weeping as she pulls a pint of beer and she tells him it is because the drops of beer running down the outside of the glass remind her of the blood of Christ running down his face. So he is forgiven after all.’70 The lyric divides the writer between guilty man and weeping barmaid, and raises the hope that devoted grief might redeem the scrupulous crime of having witnessed a death (that other passing over in silence) and written the poem about it.71

Though ‘Passing Over in Silence’ draws on the same ‘Religious Consciousness of the People’ as ‘Our Lady of Youghal’, its relationship with the beliefs of the hidden Ireland is more perplexed than anything to be found in Michael Hartnett, Thomas McCarthy, or Seán Dunne. Ní Chuilleanáin's idiom is now so far removed from the accessibility which she resisted in Northern poetry during the seventies that it creates difficulties which can be misunderstood. In the best account of her work, the poet Peter Sirr says that, if her verse seems ‘coded it's not in the private, exclusive sense of concealed or coyly distorted confessional, but that codes are part of her approach to rendering the world’.72 Though he is right to distinguish her art from the confessionalism of Lowell or Berryman, Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry does owe unfashionably more to the private and the concealed than to codes which can be cracked. She has written in absolute terms of ‘the privateness of a work of art, a mystery to be questioned’,73 and it is symptomatic that the one poem of hers which is simply called ‘The Secret’ remains opaque even after she has glossed its allusions to her sister's (and her mother's) terminal illness and various events in County Cork.74 Any reader can sense how its imagery of meadow-grass, signed away and sold off from around a house, would relate to chemotherapy and the advance of cancer, but it is not at all implausible that the poet should find the lyric a secret to herself. She has said that some of its most haunting phrases ‘just came up from some depth’.75

This is compatible with Ní Chuilleanáin's urge to find topics which are ‘intractably in the world I and others have lived in, hard and resistant to explanation’76—a defence of heuristic difficulty which makes Sirr's late-structuralist talk of codes somewhat off the point, since it produces interpretative problems around the untidy biographical conundrum of distinguishing between factors which have prompted a poem and those which are so disturbingly part of it that they must be passed over in silence. Does it matter, for instance, that when pressed about ‘Street’, Ní Chuilleanáin told me: ‘There WAS a very striking girl, from a rather tragic family, working in a butcher's in Ranelagh’.77 In one sense plainly not, since, in reading the poem, we do not need to know about the intractable tragedy beyond it. But in a larger sense to learn about what is unspoken by ‘Street’—rather than an unspeakable part of it—elucidates what a sensitive reading will register as a condition of the text, that Ní Chuilleanáin needs a hiddenness in the Ireland she writes about if she is to write poetry at all.

The links between the inherited and variable topos of the hidden Ireland and Ní Chuilleanáin's opaque lucidity are not such as can be reduced to one or two strands of explanation. Neither, though, can her style be understood apart from the importance of the Gaelic tradition to Corkery and his followers. Like him she is antipathetic to ‘that blurred entity known … as “Anglo-Irish literature”’,78 and, though she is willing to braid material from such Hidden Ireland poets as Aogán Ó Rathaille into her verse,79 and to try her hand at translating Feiritéar,80 she respects the ‘sharp edges between early modern English and Gaelic81 and thinks of the translator's voice as having ‘no taste or weight’.82 But in her case, as in Hartnett's, any summary must deal too smoothly with the legacy of division, the bi- or multi-lingualism of the quaking sod. The problem of how an Anglophone writer can be true to Irishness was irresolvable for Corkery; and it stirs Ní Chuilleanáin into inconsistency when she discounts linguistic ‘edges’ and says of translating Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, ‘in one sense she and I are writing the same language, because the fact that the words are different doesn't come into it that much’.83 Would she rather be writing Gaelic? There has to be a suspicion that her cultivation of secrecy is partly driven by a desire not to write a style which is too readily and transparently English.

Such a conclusion is best tested by cumulative acts of reading, yet it does seem borne out by ‘Studying the Language’, a fine poem in The Brazen Serpent which had its inception (like ‘Passing Over in Silence’) in visiting the ill,84 and which addresses its occasions as well as its means by imagining a student in somewhere like a Gaeltacht. Here an unspecified tongue is associated with hermits of both sexes, who live an archaic life in holes, and only come out to drink:

On Sundays I watch the hermits coming out of their holes
Into the light. Their cliff is as full as a hive.
They crowd together on warm shoulders of rock
Where the sun has been shining, their joints crackle.
They begin to talk after a while.
I listen to their accents, they are not all
From this island, not all old,
Not even, I think, all masculine.
They are so wise, they do not pretend to see me.
They drink from the scattered pools of melted snow:
I walk right by them and drink when they have done.
I can see the marks of chains around their feet.
I call this my work, these decades and stations—
Because, without these, I would be a stranger here.

What might have been yet another poem about the bondage of Irish history and the decay of Gaelic in Munster is dislocated by a geography which emphasises the emergence of a hidden community into an uncertain linguistic scene.

The complexity of that situation is signalled by structure and rhythm. Until quite late in its drafting, the poem had sixteen lines (a mistakenly extended octave made explicit the sick-room circumstances, the passive and ailing corporeality which binds ‘warm shoulders’ to crackling ‘joints’).85 Its reduction to sonnet form combines with the endecasyllabics of the sestet, and the rules of gender inflection in the language being studied, to suggest Italian as much as Gaelic. Synthesising two parts of her cultural geography, the poet produces a verse movement which is Anglophone but not quite English. Meanwhile, the closing lines, which shadow Irish-Ireland sentiments about keeping in touch with Gaelic, echo the preface to Utopia (that classic account of ‘no-place’), where More stresses the importance of having an active domestic life.86 Historically this connects ‘Studying the Language’ to a period when endecasyllabics were interacting with the cadences of English (through the sonnet translations of Wyatt), but it also links the poem with a saint who resisted the Reformation (and its terrible consequences for Ireland), which is why the activity of writing, and thus of studying language, is associated with the Catholic disciplines of the rosary and stations of the cross. The poem shares with Seán Dunne a recognition that the Irish ‘sense of place … is connected with the sacred’,87 but it deromanticises that understanding, and realises a home-place which doesn't cohere linguistically but traffics between Latin, Italian, Gaelic, and English.

The resulting style is precise without striving for resonant finality. As often with Ní Chuilleanáin, the writing seems enigmatic as a function of its exactness but it is also exacting because it articulates incommunicability: it employs the self-fabulation of a sonneteering I (elsewhere, in ‘The Tale of Me’, she invokes Astrophil/Sidney's ‘I am not I’),88 to intimate the grievous fate of friends through an encounter with a dying culture whose hived-up legacy is obscure to the other-language of English. Hence the alien speech rhythms which are audible in the poem. By unsettling metrical norms, the sonnet secures the effect, which Ní Chuilleanáin has recently described, of writing ‘English rather as if it were a foreign language into which I am constantly translating. I feel that I am free’, she continues, ‘of the need to simply accept the traditional verse-rhythms of English poetry, because there are other languages pressing to be heard all the time.’89

Many poets have sought to give an Irish accent to their verse, but Ní Chuilleanáin's venture strikes me as more interesting than the attempts of Austin Clarke and others to echo Gaelic sound-patterns. They rehearse an old dialectic, while her inter-linguistic allusiveness, in and beyond this sonnet, is attuned to the actual situation of minority tongues like Irish—to a situation in which, globally speaking, even English is a minority language. This being Ní Chuilleanáin, however, such renegotiations of authority would not persuade if they were not also hidden. She has said that she sometimes counts syllables in parts of a poem ‘Because that's a conspicuous but inconspicuous and secretive thing one can do’.90 This reflects a long-standing ideal—the notion that ‘form … must somehow conceal itself’,91 that the palpable should be openly secret—and its significance, at this point, is obvious. The rhythms of ‘Studying the Language’ are inseparable from a principle with deep roots in Irish self-perceptions: a principle of hiddenness which runs through all the dimensions of her art.


  1. Greg Delanty and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (eds), ‘Jumping off Shadows’: Selected Contemporary Irish Poets (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), p. xvi; see Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature: A Study (Cork: Cork University Press, 1931), ch. 1, sect. 7.

  2. E-mail to me, 23 November 1996.

  3. Letter to me, 4 December 1997.

  4. Thomas McCarthy, ‘Five Summer Afternoons’, Éire-Ireland, 26:1 (Spring 1991), 7-18 (p. 16); Seán Dunne (ed.), The Cork Anthology (Cork: Cork University Press, 1993), 6.

  5. The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century (1924; Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1967), 60.

  6. See e.g. L. M. Cullen, ‘The Hidden Ireland: Re-Assessment of a Concept’, Studia Hibernica, 9 (1969), 7-47; Michelle O'Riordan, ‘Historical Perspectives on the Gaelic Poetry of The Hidden Ireland’, Irish Review, 4 (Spring 1988), 73-81. For a defence see Seán Ó Tuama, ‘Daniel Corkery, Cultural Philosopher, Literary Critic: A Memoir’, Repossessions: Selected Essays on the Irish Literary Heritage (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 234-47 (pp. 243-4).

  7. E.g. Mary Hayden and George A. Moonan, A Short History of the Irish People, rev. edn (London: Longmans Green, 1927), ch. 24; James Carty, A Class-Book of Irish History, Bk 3 (London: Macmillan, 1930), ch. 12.

  8. Kevin Whelan, The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760-1830 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996), 3, 31.

  9. Tom Garvin, ‘Defenders, Ribbonmen and Others: Underground Political Networks in Pre-Famine Ireland’, Past and Present, 96 (1982), 133-55; Robert James Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine, and Emigration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 4, 83.

  10. On his early reception see e.g. Margaret O'Callaghan, ‘Language, Nationality and Cultural Identity in the Irish Free State, 1922-7: The Irish Statesman and the Catholic Bulletin Reappraised’, Irish Historical Studies, 24 (1984), 226-45 (pp. 235-6, 242-3), and, for the longer view, Patrick Maume, ‘Life that is Exile’: Daniel Corkery and the Search for Irish Ireland (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1993), chs 6-7.

  11. William J. Smyth, ‘Explorations of Place’, in Joseph Lee (ed.), Ireland: Towards a Sense of Place, The UCC-RTE Lectures (Cork: Cork University Press, 1985), 1-20 (p. 12); Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, ‘The Hidden Ireland: Women's Inheritance’, in Theo Dorgan (ed.), Irish Poetry Since Kavanagh, The Thomas Davis Lecture Series (Four Courts Press: Dublin, 1996), 106-15.

  12. ‘In the Light of Things as They Are: Paul Durcan's Ireland’, in Colm Tóibín (ed.), The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan (Dublin: New Island Books, 1996), 26-41 (pp. 33-4).

  13. Letter cited in note 3.

  14. Unless indicated, quotations are from Collected Poems, 2 vols (Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1984-5).

  15. See Hartnett's footnote to his title-sequence, ‘A Farewell to English’, sect. 2; cf. Hidden Ireland, 124.

  16. Hidden Ireland, 35-6, ‘A Visit to Castletown House’.

  17. ‘A Farewell to English’, sects 3, 6, 7; on selling pigs and the poet's grandfather, see Victoria White, ‘Heartbreak in Two Languages’ (profile of Hartnett), Irish Times, 15 December 1994.

  18. Review of A Farewell to English and Augustus Young, Danta Gradha: Love Poems from the Irish, Cyphers, 3 (Summer 1976), 42-4 (p. 42).

  19. Even as A Farewell was being published, he admitted to still writing in English: ‘Elgy Gillespie Talked to the Poet Michael Hartnett’, Irish Times, 5 March 1975.

  20. A Necklace of Wrens (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1987), quoting ‘Sneachta Gealaí '78’ (‘Moonsnow '78’).

  21. Michael Hartnett, ‘Unbound Poet’, Old Limerick Journal, 16 (Summer 1984), 23-4 (p. 23)

  22. ‘A Small Farm’, Selected and New Poems (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 1994).

  23. Necklace of Wrens. The Irish reads: ‘Ach bhí gach mac máthar / is iníon athar / ag an gcruinniú rúnda seo’.

  24. Michael Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, Irish Times, 26 August 1975.

  25. Of these translations, published by Gallery Press (1985-98), Hartnett writes: ‘A few sparks can set the thatch on fire. Corkery was such a spark’ (letter cited in note 3).

  26. Dennis O'Driscoll, ‘An Interview with Michael Hartnett’, Poetry Ireland Review, 20 (Autumn 1987), 16-21 (pp. 17 and 21).

  27. Hidden Ireland, 122.

  28. ‘Cataloguing Twelve Fenian Novels’, Seven Winters in Paris (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1989).

  29. ‘De Valera's Childhood’.

  30. Barry Roche, ‘Cummann Out’ (profile of Thomas McCarthy), Stet (Spring 1991), 16; for hostility see, e.g., Harry Clifton, quoted by Ciaran O'Driscoll, in his negative review of Seven Winters in Paris, Cyphers, 32 (Spring 1990), 49-55 (p. 50).

  31. ‘Five Summer Afternoons’, p. 11.

  32. The Sorrow Garden.

  33. ‘Five Summer Afternoons’, p. 16.

  34. ‘Documents of Exclusion’, review of Alan Heuser (ed.), The Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice, and Hubert Butler, Grandmother and Wolfe Tone, Irish Review, 9 (Autumn 1990), 138-42 (p. 142).

  35. ‘Cataloguing Twelve Fenian Novels’, Seven Winters in Paris, ‘The Talker’, The Non-Aligned Story-Teller. On clientelism but also its limits see Richard Dunphy, The Making of Fianna Fáil Power in Ireland, 1923-1948 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 10-14.

  36. Cf. Thomas Dillon Redshaw, ‘Teach Beag Nó Bungaló: The Hidden Ireland of Thomas McCarthy’, Nua: Studies in Irish Contemporary Writing, 1:1 (1997), 1-14.

  37. Seán Dunne (ed.), The Cork Anthology (Cork: Cork University Press, 1993), 3.

  38. Kevin Whelan, ‘The Power of Place’, Irish Review, 12 (Spring/Summer 1992), 13-20 (p. 18).

  39. Cork Anthology, 5-6, 2; ‘Documents of Exclusion’, 138-40.

  40. Cork Anthology, 12.

  41. ‘Bachelard's Images’; cf. ‘Professor Bachelard’, ‘De Valera's Childhood’ (epigraph from Gaston Bachelard) and ‘Returning to De Valera's Cottage’.

  42. Time and the Island (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 1996).

  43. Time and the Island.

  44. ‘Beans’, in ‘Sydney Place’, The Sheltered Nest.

  45. The Sheltered Nest.

  46. E-mail to me, 23 November 1996. For contexts see John A. Murphy, The College: A History of Queen's / University College Cork, 1845-1995 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), esp. 231-2, 247-81, and Eilís Dillon, ‘In the Honan Hostel’, in Dunne (ed.), Cork Anthology, 107-14.

  47. ‘Gaelic Ireland Rediscovered: Courtly and Country Poetry’, in Seán Lucy (ed.), Irish Poets in English, The Thomas Davis Lectures on Anglo-Irish Poetry (Cork and Dublin: Mercier Press, 1973), 44-59 (p. 46).

  48. Unpublished interview by correspondence with John Goodby (14 November 1996), answer 14.

  49. See, however, Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, ‘Contemporary Poetry in Irish: Divided Loyalties and the Chimera of Continuity’, Irish Review, 6 (Spring 1989), 46-54.

  50. ‘Harriet Cooke Talks to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’, Irish Times, 6 April 1973.

  51. Hidden Ireland, 61-2.

  52. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, ‘Acts and Monuments of an Unelected Nation: The Cailleach Writes about the Renaissance’, Southern Review, 31 (1995), 570-80 (p. 575).

  53. ‘Women as Writers: Dánta Grá to Maria Edgeworth’, in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (ed.), Irish Women: Image and Achievement: Women in Irish Culture from Earliest Times (Dublin: Arlen House, 1985), 111-35 (p. 115).

  54. ‘The Stone Recalls its Quarry’, unpublished interview by e-mail with Leslie Williams (1994-5), 49-76 (pp. 55-6).

  55. ‘Borderlands of Irish Poetry’, in Elmer Andrews (ed.), Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1992), 25-40 (pp. 27 and 38); ‘A Hectic Rumour’, Cork Review, ‘Seán Dunne 1956-1995’ (1996), 1.

  56. ‘Early Recollections’, ‘Evidence’.

  57. ‘Exhumation’.

  58. Interview with Goodby, answer 11. For conflicting accounts of the ambush see Peter Hart, The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), ch. 2.

  59. Review of Medbh McGuckian's Portrait of Joanna and Mahon's Courtyards in Delft, Cyphers, 15 (Summer 1981), 51-4 (p. 54).

  60. E-mail to me, 8 November 1997.

  61. The Brazen Serpent (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 1994).

  62. ‘A slot of air, the snug …’.

  63. Cyphers, 2 (Winter 1975), 49-51.

  64. ‘Drawing Lines’, Cyphers, 10 (Spring 1979), 47-51.

  65. ‘Love and Friendship’, in Seán Mac Réamoinn (ed.), The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982), 49-62 (pp. 58, 49).

  66. ‘Women as Writers’, 112-13, ‘Love and Friendship’, passim.

  67. ‘Women as Writers’, 121-5; introduction to her Everyman edition of Belinda (London: J. M. Dent, 1993), pp. xx-xxi.

  68. ‘Forged and Fabulous Chronicles: Reading Spenser as an Irish Writer’, Irish University Review, 26:2 (Autumn/Winter 1996), 237-51 (pp. 242-3).

  69. The title of the poem—quoted here from The Brazen Serpent—in Cyphers, 34 (Summer 1991), and ‘Dánta Úra: New Poems’, Eire-Ireland, 28:3 (Autumn 1993), 38-44.

  70. E-mail to me, 10 January 1998.

  71. ‘As a poet, I have a bad conscience, in one sense, writing about such things. You know, they're gone and here am I with a bunch of poems is how I feel’: Kevin Ray, ‘Interview with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’, Éire-Ireland, 31:1-2 (Spring/Summer 1996), 62-73. Cf. praeteritio and ‘the most vividly remembered, the most secret sins’, in her ‘Time, Place and the Congregation in Donne's Sermons’, in John Scattergood (ed.), Literature and Learning in Medieval and Renaissance England: Essays Presented to Fitzroy Pyle (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1984), 197-215 (p. 205).

  72. ‘‘How things begin to happen”: Notes on Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian’, Southern Review, 31 (1995), 450-67 (p. 453).

  73. Review of P. J. Kavanagh, Life Before Death, Cyphers, 12 (Spring 1980), 51-3 (p. 51); cf. her comments on James Simmons's ‘Goodbye, Sally’, in ‘Drawing Lines’, 51, on Medbh McGuckian's Portrait of Joanna, rev. cit., 53, and (more surprisingly) on Ted Hughes, in her review of his New Selected Poems 1957-1994, and Paul Muldoon, The Annals of Chile, Poetry Ireland Review, 46 (Summer 1995), 67-72 (p. 69). Cf. Eamon Grennan, ‘Real Things’ (review of The Brazen Serpent), Poetry Ireland Review, 46 (Summer 1995), 44-52.

  74. The circumstances of the poem, collected in Brazen Serpent, are discussed in ‘The Stone Recalls its Quarry’, 68-9, 71.

  75. E-mail to me, 8 November 1997; for the same girl see Macdara Woods, ‘Angelica Saved by Ruggiero’, in his Selected Poems (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1996).

  76. ‘Nuns: A Subject for a Woman Writer’, unpublished typescript, 11 pp., p. 4.

  77. E-mail to me, 8 November 1997.

  78. ‘Acts and Monuments’, 573.

  79. See ‘The Witness’, in Brazen Serpent, which echoes ‘Is fada liom oíche fhírfhliuch’; cf. Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella (eds), An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (Portlaoise: Dolmen, 1981), 140-1.

  80. ‘Lay Your Arms Aside’, in Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (eds), The School Bag (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 99.

  81. ‘Acts and Monuments’, 572.

  82. ‘A Posting’, Brazen Serpent.

  83. Ray, ‘Interview’, 71; for her versions see Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Pharoah's Daughter (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1990).

  84. Letter to me with xeroxed drafts, February 1998.

  85. ‘One of them has certainly got legs like a goat / A stubble chin, gold spectacles’ (drafts cited above).

  86. ‘Acts and Monuments’, 573-4.

  87. Ray, ‘Interview’, 68.

  88. The Brazen Serpent; cf. Astrophil and Stella, 45.

  89. ‘The Stone Recalls Its Quarry’, 53.

  90. Ray ‘Interview’, 66.

  91. ‘Harriet Cooke Talks …’.

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