Fresh surprises from two of Ireland’s most distinctive poetic voices

Review: Paul Durcan: ‘The Days of Surprise’; Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: ‘The Boys of Bluehill’

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Paul Durcan’s poems characteristically mix together everyday, folkloric and religious occasions. Both use free verse and like to skew the point of view in quick, surprising poems. Although they share some subjects, however, they are utterly distinctive and original poets. Their new books should be on the shopping lists of anyone interested in Irish writing.

Durcan's The Days of Surprise (Harvill Secker, £12) attaches itself immediately to private moments in public places: 57 Dartmouth Square begins "I was three years of age in the full of my days, / Never again to be so fully myself."

Charming enough to be, also, fantastically outrageous, Durcan's family mythology, coloured by an anxious and repressive Catholicism, matches his loving mother with a frightening and unpredictable father. In First Mixed Party the speaker returns from a party only to be summoned to his father's study: "Whereupon instead of unbuckling his trousers belt / With which to give me an unmerciful thrashing, / Which would be his normal course of action, / He slumped down into his swivel chair, groaning: 'A black shirt! / . . . Will I always have to be ashamed of you for the rest of my days?'"

He is just as incisive when he writes of the new pope, "A figure of childlike passivity / As well as childlike authority" (St Peter's Square, Sunday Morning, 27 April 2014) while he angrily trashes the values of the Republic in 1916 Not to Be Commemorated, chancing a revision of WB Yeats's famous litany: "The Irish government has announced that 1916 / Is not to be commemorated in 2016" and " all forms of humane speech are to be outlawed / In the light of the disgustingly visionary utterances / Of the poets Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett, / And the gay, casual words of the feckless MacBride" (not only Yeats's nemesis but also Durcan's granduncle).


Readers will learn he spends too much time now around consultants and car-clampers, and that he still writes giddily joyful lyrics that relish the sound a poem can make. Waiting for Essex Woman addresses its subject: "You will throw me further / Than any woman has ever thrown / Any man anywhere / In Alice Springs and Merovingian Gaul / And I will be content where I fall."

Longer poems, such as Visiting Elizabeth at Home, feature lovely, tender, almost by-the-way accounts of conversations:

Mother, dead, is very happy.

I had to go to the bank this morning.

Did you know – banks

are not for people any more?

Still, I said to the girl, “I am meeting

Paul Durcan at two o’clock –

Wouldn’t you like to be me?

Of course, you would. I can see the envy

written all over your face.”

While these poems are still read, the language they long for – speech that is simultaneously humane, casual, visionary, gay and feckless – will be present in the Irish public life Paul Durcan has both jibed at and graced for nearly 50 years.

In Meeting a Neighbour Durcan namechecks "favourite authors" and includes among them Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, whose wonderful new collection, The Boys of Bluehill (Gallery, €18.50/€11.95), continues to test, as she puts it in Juliette Ryan and the Cement Mixer, the proposition that "The world is beauty and order / beauty that springs from order, / but more, it is a breathing surface a rippling."

Calm and exploratory where Durcan is declamatory, her Youth begins, thoughtfully, "I might go back to the place / where I was young", although her Judgement Day is as decisive as Durcan's religious poems: "For once," it begins, "here's a subject where no corner is left / for a cat or a lion, there's no shelf / for a parked cardinal's hat", before she turns the facts of childhood towards an image of transience as surprising as it is convincing:

Is this where they were bound, the robed

processions of my childhood that wound past

open doors with hallstands, area gates,

narrow entries, wisely departing cats?

Away from every angle, every weight

sinking into our lives like the mark

of a body in a bed?

The impressions that ideas and images make on us are also central to her version of Song of the Woman of Beare, which ends "Hardly a harbour now / Seems familiar to me; / All that the high tide saw / Low water drags away," and its imagery of coasts and tides recurs across the book.

Somewhere Called Goose Bay begins, like Elizabeth Bishop's great poem The Map, "Just looking at the map in the long cold corridor / before the door opens for breakfast, I can see / how countries are nibbled out of continents" and then explores the world from unexpected perspectives: "something flew up reminding one of his home – / or an inland name – Omaha Beach!"

The poem elaborates further on its speaker’s situation and “how / to cope at all with the past, since to my own mind / I appear to have been born in 1870 / and schooled in 1689? I am stranded / in the pilgrim hostel where the only advice / I have been given is not to comment / on the goat’s hair in the butter, if indeed / it is fair to call it butter.”

Seamus Heaney called Ní Chuilleanáin’s style “second-sighted”, and this poem’s ostensibly plain tale of a stranger in a strange place is haunted by the way its opening beach is recalled by the stranded speaker, and the strand of goat’s hair she may or may not find. The painterly details begin to swim in and out of focus in ways that remind us, maybe, of the speaker’s feeling of being lost, and of all the other intense parables Ní Chuilleanáin discovers for her readers. It ends:

For the moment there is nobody here except me

and the man who stands by the door. I’ve asked him

why it should be goose, he said what is a goose?

He says, Eat it up. You’ve surely paid for it.

John McAuliffe teaches poetry at the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. His fourth book, The Way In, will be published by Gallery Press this summer