“As a child, one of my most prized possessions was a large map of the world […] I would look up at my map and see huge regions of the world that had been passed over in silence,” historian Peter Frankopan recalls in The Silk Roads. A scholar of the medieval and Renaissance, translator from many languages, and a self-described “reader of stories from everywhere”, poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has always understood the fluid reality of the known world, its shifting borders, centres, histories and languages. Like the mappa mundi (meaning the “cloth” or “map” of the world) which placed Jerusalem at its centre, her 10th collection, The Map of the World, interweaves physical and metaphysical geographies, myth, folklore, the earthly and the cosmic, calling our angle on the world into question and expanding our limited sense of reality.
Themes of migration, loss, place and displacement, art and representation preoccupy the poet-as-cosmographer as she journeys across borders of time, space and language, searching the margins, the silences, the shadows. The spectacular The Miracles illuminates the artful ingenuity of the poor in Renaissance Italy: “the scenes of distress, their crash and agony changed /into carpentry and the needle’s deliberate work”, linking them to the dispossessed Irish in history. Two poems after paintings by Drogheda artist Nano Reid thrillingly defy paraphrase, hesitating in the gap between art forms, while Caliban’s “sounds and sweet airs” speech from The Tempest transforms into the music of the Irish language. The muse is macaronic, on the move, just as the cat of Cat sa Leaba, a poem in Irish, marks her protean poetic territory and then takes off.
Deeply attuned to poetry as an art of memory, metaphor and metamorphosis, the poet of The Map of the World writes both from the uncharted depths of grief and at the height of her powers, with an extraordinary command of line and colour and an unmatched ethical vision to capture, “the light /that also falls when there’s nobody there to see it” (What Happened Next?). Though a slim volume, this is an immense, light-filled, multilayered book of tremendous musical sensitivity, elegiac feeling and visual intensity, that succeeds, as John Berger’s Monet aspired, “to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched them”.