A pre-eminent poet of her time
POETRY: EAMON GRENNANreviews The Sun-FishBy Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin The Gallery Press, 64pp. €18.50hbk, €11.95 pbk
IN THE title of her latest collection it’s possible to detect something of the nature and texture of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s brightly lit, extraordinarily supple imagination. For the word “sun-fish” (technically a basking shark, the Irish for which is liamhán gréine) brings together cosmic and terrestrial forces, coaxes the opposing elements of fire and water into apposition, touches the enormous and remote with the comfortingly near and natural, the solidly still with the endlessly mobile – that hyphen an image of balance, of reconciliation, of the both/and that is always poetry’s instinctive response to the either/or choice-making of the world at large.
It is Ní Chuilleanáin’s skill in negotiating what are, essentially, different realms (which is always the business of metaphor, and metaphor is her beautifully handled, or played, instrument) that always catches and holds my attention, and it is a skill on plain and continuous view in this latest volume (a Poetry Book Society recommendation).
Coming on the heels of her last year’s Selected Poems, this fresh poetic harvest not only testifies to the lively, enduring fruitfulness of her art, but confirms Ní Chuilleanáin’s standing among the pre-eminent poets of her generation.
A recurrent habit, present from the very beginning of her career, is how she counterpoints solid architectural images with images of textural fluency (often bodied by references to water), drawing the reader into a delicious uncertainty as to where the world of hard facts ends and the fluid world of imagination begins. In Ní Chuilleanáin, these seem to have achieved a kinetic harmony: her language universe, in other words, is charged with all the fluent energies of the actual, but carefully shaped and harnessed, then rendered up for cool yet sympathetic inspection.
So her memory of a bridge, with barrels and planks, evolves into “mist vowels/ Melting and the scatter of foam;” or “a well-made pillar of stone” leads to “the river spilling/ All around it;” or a church nave “Hums like a ship,” its gallery “Swings and revolves;” or “A wide piazza with angled flights of steps,” becomes “The deep strait that the ferries face at sunset”. What all this to and fro between the solid and the fluid stands for (and for me it is one of the lasting excitements of her poems) is Ní Chuilleanáin’s apparently effortless ability to navigate between matter and mystery, to be grounded in a world of peculiarly immediate particularities, while at the same time becoming quite buoyant. It is like watching someone in ordinary clothes suddenly achieve weightlessness to the point of levitation.
Rooted as they are in the quotidian – in real things (often with settings in a historical past) – they always nonetheless seem deep and strange, like those landscapes, known and not known, that you walk through in a dream. This happens in poem after poem in Sun-Fish, some of them among the very strongest and richest examples of her patient, and persuasive art ( The Cold, The Litany, In the Mountains, Two Poems for Leland Bardwell, The Scrubbing Map, Michael and the Angel, the wonderful Vertigo).
With an always vigilant, yet never intrusive intelligence at work, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems are often implicit meditations on her own craft, on language, on how these and the world that has to be lived in – with its sanctuaries of belief, its deserts of skepticism – may endure, may coexist, may be, between them, at last the truth of things. And in a few narrative miniatures, like tiny fables with religious freight ( The Cold, In the Desert), she manages, as her best poems always manage, to embody mystery that’s been palpably encountered and, in a language of concrete presence, expressed.
Again and again, that is, she creates small, clear windows into a fully realised narrative world, yet one that retains its hint of the mysterious, one in which ghosts are given right of way (eg In the Mountains), and one charged all of a sudden by something we’d have to call the visionary (as in The Married Women). And always there’s a sense that here is a world profoundly and persistently female (nuns, sisters, mothers,): a condition the language (in its substance, its texture, its behaviour) carries without the slightest hint of self-consciousness or a position purposefully taken.
In addition, what I find astonishing about her poems is the almost preternatural lack of ego in them. The “I” seems just one of a floating family of pronouns, and though it’s often hard to get a solid purchase as to whom the pronouns “actually” refer to, that lack is erased by one’s absorption in what is happening, in the strange and real acts being performed inside each poem.
A few poems here don’t have the lift-off of her best work (e.g. The Polio Epidemic), while some may be a touch too opaque for their own good (eg In His Language). But this is because in her poems she explains nothing, so their language has to be a force of experience not explanation. And though on occasion the distance between known subject and subjective expression is a little too much to carry a reader with ease, still the dominant impression is of poems that are, like the sun-fish themselves, “Suddenly present, a visitation“ – all composed in a tone that is equal parts knowledge, wisdom, at times a quiet ferocity, and something like warm yet detached compassion.
Like other Ní Chuilleanáin volumes, this one resembles, with no hint of piety, a book of prayers – secular and sacred at once, and curiously consoling in their depths of spiritual reserve. And all this is presented, made formally present, in beautifully poised, mostly stanzaic free verse, the lines possessing a kind of organic musculature, as if the body is enacting exactly the stream-like swerves, hesitations and hurries of the mind’s meditating action. “How as a child she watched without moving,” she says in one poem. It is that patience married to that intensity, that utterly absorbed attention that drives these poems, poems that make Sun-Fishyet another indispensable Ní Chuilleanáin collection, containing poems that are real as “an old headstone” or “the danced tangle/ of light on the sliding depths”.
Eamon Grennan’s latest collection of poems is Out of Breath