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Echoes from the Cistern

Thomas McCarthy

The Boys of Bluehill, by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Gallery Press, 72 pp, €11.99, ISBN: 978-1 852356217    

Reading Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s new collection, I am struck by this affecting truth: we will never again have a poetic mind like Ní Chuilleanáin’s available to us at any other time in literature. Her sensibility is unique; her society, and her place in it, will never be seen again. She is one of the last representatives of that mid-century haut-bourgeois Catholic Irish world. Her literary mentors are in Catholic Europe; in Mauriac’s fiction and Kate O’Brien’s Presentation Parlour, in Máire Mhac an tSaoí’s diplomatic briefcase and Eilís Dillon’s childhood summers. This world, especially as it is mediated here through a postdoctoral education and a Trinity workplace of Huguenot reticence, has flowed easily and fluently for her whenever she’s put pen to paper  – 

which is why it seems so difficult at last to handle and stack 
the whole folded history balanced on two bone shoulders 

as she puts it in “The Burden of Cloth”.  This poem captures the moment when a film crew breaks camp after shooting a scene for a costume drama: in describing the moment she is able to recreate an ensemble that includes a cardinal, acolytes, a nun’s veiling, painted calico and lace “all full of holes”. This is familiar territory for Ní Chuilleanáin, but here it is laced with irony (to coin a phrase) and with some pity. Like Seferis in “The King of Asine” or “The Return of the Exile”, she elicits information from her own constructed scenarios by persistent questioning – she captures atmospheres as mysterious and echo-sounding as any Mediterranean cistern. In “An Information”, she persists in this method of interrogation, only to be answered with a deathly finality, with an admonishing wind: 

  do not look back to see whose hand 
finds it, or where it is hidden again when found. 

This ambiguous approach to facts, this duality of being, and of a sensibility created by velvet whispering, is Catholic in a highly educated Irish sense: “Didn’t she remember / a frescoed wall with resurrected limbs?” she asks in “The Signorelli Moment”,  and in “Judgement Day” 

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?’  

That this is all part of a journey, of a pilgrimage towards a place of insight; of this, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry is certain. Whether the wanderer begins with a line drawn in chalk by Maighréad Uí Mhurchú or in a room where the grandmother sits shelling peas, or climbing the steps of Palmers Green station, or in that wakeful mill 

that once consumed the house keys years ago 
Saved from Córdoba: the tunes, though, 
The Boys of Bluehill, Mrs Canty’s Reel 
The orchestral variations 
With the lewd words added to the symphonies, 
Will follow me … 

She knows that each poetic journey will end in some kind of Byronic revelation. A secret-keeper, a sort of non-cooperative detective called Dr Proteus, becomes a ghostly objective of the poet’s searching; “Dr Proteus hanging holds the perspective glass  / but how through all her changes and her daft / excuses, how to tear it from her hand?” In a reality where Flesh has fallen away there is nothing left to be extracted but unearthly knowledge, disentangled runes. The word “Proteus” reminds us of the syndrome of excess, linguistic protuberances from which a shepherd-poet might cling; but also of that King of Egypt, the one who protected Helen in Euripides, sending on a phantom-Helen to suffer conflict, and leaving the beautiful Helen undisturbed. There is that very strong sense, ferried through all of Ní Chulleanáin’s collections, of an abandoned otherness. As a poet she has instinctively made common cause with what was left behind, whether it was Oxford or Cork, Old Irish or Dieppe in 1956: “Fresh, I remember, like bleached cloth, like lemons, / fresh as the ribbons and cherries / printing my white cotton dress ...” Her poetry, for all its vibrant sensuality, still yearns for a time before poetic revelation: trying to voyage back to that undisturbed place of repose has been a constant task in her work, as if she had taken to heart Bachelard’s view that the roots of the grandeur of the world belong to one’s childhood. 

What distinguishes The Boys of Bluehill from most other collections is the depth of its texture. There is nothing tentative, or merely suggestive, in this work. Her academic training is outraged by vagueness, so that the poems grab a firm hold of their subject-matter; the work is pre-meditated: it is never a pen shuffling in the hope of inspiration. Again, for all their sensuousness, these are the poems of a scholar and a scholar’s daughter. In their texture and deep lode of references they have more in common with the work of Máire Mhac an tSaoí or Líam ÓMuirthile than with any other Irish poet. Her poetry is directed towards a high point of knowledge where the poem-mountain over time becomes a mountain range. In recalling her father, she reminds us that “he believed that foreign words were real, / their declension revealing even what crawled away”; and recalling Pearse Hutchinson she writes: 

the small difference intrigued you, 
between a word in Catalan and its Castilian cousin; 
the dense closeness, the narrow gap 
distancing the genitive plural in Irish 
from the nominative singular ... 

I can imagine the two friends having this deep conversation in Selskar Terrace. I would contrast this with many of my own conversations with an elderly writer I admired, conversations around the correct measures of gin and Cointreau in White Lady, or some such after-dinner drink. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with shallowness, but a firm and enriched knowledge of language gives a scholar like Ní Chuilleanáin certain advantages, and possibilities of depth, that are not available to literary butterflies. In poem after poem here, knowledge shows; it enriches what was from the beginning a God-given talent – but knowledge enriches the text, there’s no denying it. Her rendering of “Song of the Woman of Beare” makes my point eloquently; or, should I say, reticently? In very carefully honed quatrains, short lines, few beats, she mirrors the bleak depth of the original Irish. This is not only instinct, it’s learning, respect for how things got made in the first place: 

Well for islands at sea, 
Their high tide follows low 
Water; I do not hope 
My tide will turn and flow. 

which brings us back to that Mediterranean sense of voyage, to “a fragrance like spice enticing from the kitchen - / a pulse beating behind the embroidered veil”: to that wise, educated impulse to touch in order to be certain that a voyage has not been in vain. In “Juliette Ryan and the Cement Mixer”, Lord Byron himself becomes the exemplary survivor, the restless youth who survives one kind of amputation. In this poem she encapsulates the yearning for dangerous knowledge and the eventual impossibility of knowing. It is her certainty that full knowledge is impossible, that we can only know through metaphors and gestures, that makes The Boys of Bluehill such a consistent, mysterious and satisfying work – 

                                                                 or as Byron 
after travelling through four cantos, and eight years, 
through four hundred and ninety-five Spenserian stanzas, 
and across Europe and Turkey, so at last 
he could finish with the pilgrim Harold and meet himself as 
   a child 
said 
    that he laid his hand on the mane of the dark blue sea. 

1/5/2015 


Thomas McCarthy is a poet, novelist and essayist. Born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and educated at University College Cork. He worked as a Public Librarian for many years. In 1994/95 he was International Professor of English as Macalester College, Minnesota and Assistant Director of Cork 2005-European Capital of Culture between 2001 and 2006. His next collection of poetry, PANDEMONIUM, will be published in May 2015.  

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