Sean OBrien on an Irish enigma
Although she has long been famous in Ireland, it is perhaps only in the last 10 years or so that Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has begun to receive due recognition in Britain. Ní Chuilleanáins work often eludes categories (and sometimes interpretation too) but it might be said that she is a storyteller before she is a moralist, and one who both invites and challenges the reader to accept the primacy of imaginative life.
The narrator of The Polio Epidemic (the disease struck the poets native city of Cork in 1956) recalls being allowed out by her father to deliver a message by bike: I sliced through miles of air, / Free as a plague angel descending / On places the buses went: Commons Road, Friars Walk. This eerie comparison is not merely illustrative. Exerting a more persuasive claim than the timid and hesitant modernity of postwar Ireland, the power of myth has continued to inform the poets imagination, while at the same time, Ní Chuilleanáins technical command, with its richly cadenced free verse and sly rhyme, insures her against anachronism.
History itself stands next to myth: one mans skirmish is another womans great fight, as in Ballinascarthy, where Irish civilian rebels were defeated by the Caithness Legion during the 1798 rising. In search of a monument, Ní Chuilleanáin finds the graves of some of her ancestors, some next to the landlord Bence-Jones, subject of a tenant farmers boycott in the 1890s. The stones of both sides are carved by the same masons, but I left the Bence-Joneses in the long grass / And drove back to the cross / And downhill again past the secret monument // To the dead of the battle of Kilnagros / Where the spruces whistle to each other and the carved stone is lost. To be lost, you might conclude, makes the stone invulnerable to revision. While scarcely seeming to do so, Ní Chuilleanáin makes of history something other than what is merely past, and the poem, with its naming of persons and places, serves its continuance in a way that seems beyond the reach of easy sentiment or the accursed presumptions of heritage.
There is an equally unexpected approach in a beautiful elegy, Michael and the Angel, seemingly for Michael Hartnett. A major Irish-language poet, who gave up writing in English apparently on the grounds that it was a language best suited to the sale of pigs, Hartnett is perhaps better known here for drinking himself to death than for the splendour of his work.
At its most densely enigmatic – for example in The Clouds, The Water and Where the Pale Flower Flashes and Disappears – Ní Chuilleanáins work is cousin to the bejewelled, mesmeric poems of Medbh McGuckian, though its dynamic and pacing are often more urgent. Sometimes, out of its flux, there emerges a sudden arresting authority. In The Water Ní Chuilleanáin suddenly turns to apostrophise: O, Hundred-pocketed Time, the big coat lined / With lazy silk pinched close as finger and thumb / Various as oceans, precious-tinted like skies, / What upset you to empty them all at once [. . .]? Somewhere in the background here is Ulyssess image of Time in Troilus and Cressida, seen carrying a wallet at his back, / Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, but where Ulysses is dealing pragmatically with the political problem of Achilless withdrawal from battle at Troy, Ní Chuilleanáin reads Times contrasting prodigality in aesthetic terms.
The effects of light on water offer an embarrassment of riches which will lead us to oblivion by a different route: our gratitude will no more save us than mens ingratitude will remember us. Yet the effect is one of awe rather than desolation: as Ní Chuilleanáin repeatedly indicates, the world is certainly mysterious enough to be going on with.
Sean OBriens Afterlife is published by Picador.