University of Oviedo, Spain
by Luz Mar González-Arias. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2015.
The Boys of Bluehill is Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s latest collection of poetry, published a few months before her appointment as Ireland Professor of Poetry in May 2015. Summarising what a collection of poetry is about is a rather impossible task but there are several themes that recur throughout this book. Among these are the power of memory and the incorporation of people and things from the past into our present-day lives. In this regard, the opening poem – “An Information” – becomes a manifesto of sorts for the poetic persona: “I returned to that narrow street / where I used to stand and listen”. These two lines set the tone for poems that will be melancholic at times but mostly liberating in their coming to terms with what once was, but no longer is.
Irish literature has often been under attack for what has been perceived as its generalised lack of engagement with contemporary issues, namely the economic boom, the subsequent recession, and the resulting austerity policies. For Aingeal Clare, reviewing The Boys of Bluehill for The Guardian, is not an exception in this respect when she wonders why the poet doesn’t “speak more directly about contemporary Ireland”. However, Ní Chuilleanáin’s insistent examination of the past – be it distant or recent, private or collective – invariably connects past and present, even organically so.
The Boys of Bluehill abounds in descriptions and perceptions of places to which the speaker returns after a long absence or where she no longer belongs – “Yes, I lived there once”, comments one of the characters in “The Binding”; “I might go back to the place / where I was young”, read the opening lines of “Youth”. The past tense in these instances is non-negotiable and mirrors the speaker’s realisation that the landscapes of her childhood and youth – whether real or imagined – have been utterly transformed by the passing of time: “the holly tree we knew so well is taller / so the clock on the town-hall tower no longer tells us / the time” (“Outdoors”). In “Who Were Those Travellers” the poetic voice acknowledges the transformation in the eponymous characters, who “are not / elemental as before, exile has changed them”. This realisation is not always devoid of pain or, at least, some degree of nostalgia: the “something” that “has intervened” between the past and the present of those travellers is unreachable and the moving figures end up fading “from the earth one by one”. The poet utilises fluid imagery throughout the book to signify change, so that “nothing is stable” (“From Up Here”) and everything becomes a matter of perspective. In this respect, painting plays an important role in this collection and the distance that the painter needs to see his/her piece with some degree of clarity is also adopted metaphorically by the poetic voice in order to discern the world “whose shape / can best be seen in the distance, dark against the sky” (“Distance”). However, we often get the feeling that such different perspectives are all real and equally valuable, in what becomes a very postmodern conception of history and memory: “This is real, … , like the hours of your past, / those roots with their population / of slugs and slaters” (“From Up Here”).
In some of these poems the material traces of the past, as well as the artistic representations of that past, are conceptualised as what stays put while life moves on, flows and changes. And so, in “The Incidental Human Figures”, the poetic voice is describing the scenes in an etching by Piranesi. Line after line Ní Chuilleanáin lists the different characters in the composition and the activities they perform in a way reminiscent of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Where the Romantic poet stated that “[h]eard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”, Ní Chuilleanáin speaks of the shepherd trailing behind his Biblical sheep “whose tinkling bells you cannot hear”, and also of “the old tune played on the keypad” that “freezes in memory, locked / in the moment I wrote it there” (“I Used to Think”). Similarly, the images our memory retains, though changeable and unstable, are also portrayed as eternal, acquiring in this way the never-ending quality of materiality – “They are dancing still beside the river” (“An Information”) – and, one could add, will always be. As opposed to this, human life is subjected to the cycles of time and this contrast between the eternal life of the material and the transient dimension of humankind is not painfully poignant but infused with the freshness of renewal and transformation. And so, in “Passing Palmers Green Station” the protagonist hurries past the station where “for years [she] would step down to the platform / and climb up the long stairway to the road”. The melancholic tone of the first lines is counterbalanced by the realisation that “everything lost on earth can again be found”, albeit in a different form. In “The Knot”, which is probably the collection’s most graphic example of this philosophy, a glass butterfly that had been hanging in the house for years suddenly “loosed the knot” that tied it to the ceiling. Far from being blown to smithereens, the beautiful decorative object is described as “falling into its freedom”. The reversal of expectations – the breaking of the glass is not an end but a new beginning – is also vividly visible in the many instances of liminality found in the collection. Liminal spaces can be interpreted as neither here nor there, not fully belonging anywhere. However, there is a much more positive reading of in-between-ness, namely the capacity to inhabit more than one space simultaneously. The liminal is then conceptualised as the productive space where magic can happen – its potential inexhaustible – and therefore an apt metaphor for the poetry itself. In many of these poems Ní Chuilleanáin shows her preference for shadowy boundaries. As Nessa O’Mahony has noted, many of her characters are “pressed up against a window or at a portal of some kind”. The poetic voice seems to be more comfortable in this liminal zone, which lacks a final definition or shape and where full belonging is not possible. It is the potential inherent in the uncertain and the undefined that she seems to be most interested in: “With the door wide open, still hesitating, / this is the moment when for once she feels more at ease” (“Fainfall”).
In her monograph on contemporary Irish women poets, Lucy Collins contends that the tension between past and present in Ní Chuilleanáin’s work creates “gaps in meaning” and “formal challenges” for the reader. Indeed this poet has often been labelled as cryptic or too intellectual. The Boys of Bluehill is not an essay book to read, its multiple meanings unfolding gradually and steadily. However, the intellectual quality of the work is never at odds with lyricism. In “Juliette Ryan and the Cement Mixer”, for instance, the poetic persona meditates on beauty and order – a well-known theme for lovers of poetry – and lists different stimuli for the sensory pathways in what becomes a display of synaesthesia and lyrical metaphors. The “breathing surface”, the “fragrance like spice enticing from the kitchen”, that “pulse beating behind the embroidered veil” – the commonplace is again connected to the darkened, the hidden, or the forbidden and dangerous in order to inspire sensorial responses. When the potential brutality of the cement mixer comes into play we are ready for the desire that will ensue: “her brother grabbed / her elbow in case she did touch and finished / losing the hand”. The poem ends with the poetic persona, naturally, also wanting to touch, “as if reaching out to lay my hand on velvet / or on the skin of a muscular chest”, or as if laying a hand “on the mane of the dark blue sea”.
The “Coda” for the collection is provided by Ní Chuilleanáin’s translation of the anonymous 9th century Old Irish poem “Song of the Old Woman of Beare”, a text that has inspired other contemporary Irish poets such as Leanne O’Sullivan and that is spoken in the first person by the ageing protagonist. The poem is rich in sea imagery, the cycles of high and low tides and the seasonal changes in landscape signifying the passing of time and its effects on the Woman’s corporeality. Although saddened that she is ageing, the Old Woman is glad she lived her life to the full – “I wore out my youth first, / and glad I did” – but can’t help being haunted by memories and images from the past. In tune with the rest of the collection, the last lines of this poem point towards the freedom, albeit of a melancholic kind, that can be found in letting go: “All that the high tide saw / Low water drags away”.
The Boys of Bluehill is a collection about memory and the past and about how it all merges into the present in different forms. In “Somewhere Called Goose Bay” the final question is “how / to cope at all with the past”. The answer can be found by returning once again to the volume’s opening poem: “whatever you are holding, / … let it go / let it lie until it is blown to the river” because, as the poet’s father once reminded her, “they [words, memories, troubles] need not last forever; / the need not lay you forever low” (“Direction”). It is in the tension between preserving memories and letting go that the beauty and value of these poems reside. Ultimately, The Boys of Bluehill acknowledges that one cannot completely return from these forays into the past, a part of us utterly transformed after the journey.