Anthologies of women poets like to strike a note of breakthrough and departure in their titles: The World Split Open, Making for the Open, Making for Planet Alice . Although Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has done as much as anyone to map out new territories for Irish poetry, her poems, in contrast, are never happier than when sequestering themselves or seeking out some comfortable hidey-hole away from public view. A woman slips into a box pew at the back of a church and closes the latch; an old woman takes refuge in the “porched crannies” of her house; the “one safe place” for Dantes Paolo and Francesca is “an alcove in the wind”. Hers in an eye that instinctively looks for the secret places in a landscape. As she writes in “The Cloister of Bones”: “I am searching for a shape, a den, watching / For the cloistering blank of a street wall, / A dark reticence of windows / Banked over an inner court.”
Evasiveness and concealment are both themes and tropes in Ní Chuilleanáin, deliberate strategies in the “poetics of secrecy” that John Kerrigan has found in her work. If Medbh McGuckians poems defy the reader to piece together a bare minimum of narrative sense, Ní Chuilleanáins are no less mysterious in their apparent repleteness, a repleteness that on closer inspection turns out to be full of those mysterious crannies and alcoves. Examples in this vein from The Girl Who Married the Reindeer include “Trouble?, “Autun” and “A Capitulary”. In “From an Apparition” the stuttering line breaks suggest the elusiveness of the female figure the speaker attempts to remember.. “Where did I see her, through / Which break in the cloud, the woman / In profile, a great eye like a scared house?”
Questions of inheritance have always been central to Ní Chuilleanáins work. In “MacMoransbridge”, from “The Magdalene Sermon”, a dead mans will becomes “a litany of objects lost like itself” as his sisters bustling housework gradually removes all traces of the dead man from his house. Several poems in The Girl Who Married the Reindeer examine the repressive legacy of institutional Catholicism, principally “Translation”, subtitled “For the reburial of the Magdalenes”. Ní Chuilleanáins contestation of tradition is never less than subtly done. “This is what I inherit”, she writes in “Bessboro”, even though it was never my own life”, extending an empathetic understanding without presuming to arrogate the voices of the suffering and the silenced.
There can scarcely be a contemporary poet whose work is as full of nuns as Ní Chuilleanáins. Seamus Heaney had to wait until he was “nearly fifty / to credit marvels”, according to Seeing Things , but Ní Chuilleanáin accommodates the miraculous almost casually, as in the description of a levitating nun in “Anchoress”. “Autun” relocates Plaths Lady Lazarus in provincial France , “Wrapped and lagged in my flesh” and more like a church relic than a vengeful revenant, but arising “like the infant / that dances out of the womb”. But the moments of greatest revelation come in language. Ní Chuilleanáins work aspires to a condition of simultaneity across time and languages so that, in the words of “In Her Other House”, “each page lies open to the version of every other”. “Gloss / Glós / Glas” is a meditation on linguistic difference in which a scholar searches for “two words, as opposite as his and hers” which are nevertheless as close:
As the word clós to its meaning in a Scots courtyard / Close to the spailpín ships, or as close as the note / On the uilleann pipe to the same note on the fiddle - / As close as the grain in the polished wood, as the finger / Bitten by the string, as the hairs of the bow / Bent by the repeated note […]
Reaching a language that has “no word for his, /no word for hers”, the scholar finds himself brought up short “like a boy in a story faced with a small locked door”. Ní Chuilleanáin puns on the fact that the “glas” of her title (pronounced “gloss”), translates as both “lock” and “green” in the poems remarkable final image: “Who is that he can hear panting on the other side? / The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.” Ní Chuilleanáin has not received the acclaim of some of her Irish contemporaries, but to the mysteries of her work can be added what is by now an open secret: that she has written some of the most skilfully crafted and rewarding poetry of the past thirty years, a verdict only confirmed by The Girl Who Married the Reindeer.