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The Deep Music of the World

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

This One High Field, by Michelle O’Sullivan, Gallery Press, 64 pp, €18.50, ISBN: 978-1911337546

The fantasy landscapes that were fashionable from the seventeenth century make great play with light and shade, with hills and valleys. Tiny people out of the mythological dictionary are fleeing and pursuing, shepherds are gazing over gorges, shadows are dappled or profound with blue and brown depths, and in the distance the sun of morning or evening caresses a mountain peak. The scene manages to say not only look here, and look there, but perhaps even more insistently look at time, how it breaks up. Such visible meditations are not about nature but about how we see and what we long to see, and they are about here and elsewhere and the pathos of horizons. Time, the time of our breathing and shifting while we consider those distances, soaks into our sense of seeing.

The title of Michelle O’Sullivan’s This One High Field invokes a similar take on time. The poem from which it comes, “The Measure”, is buzzing with a sense of the moment, its individuality, opening: “Such stillness. And the mouth / of the ditch caught in moonlight.” The attention it demands is laced with wonder and curiosity, the brief lines are packed and jumpy with detail, and then they open out into a sense of a view as a whole: “air-stung trees on this one high field”. The single moment becomes the special place.

Time, it seems, is not a given in this poet’s world, rather the sense of time is precarious and evanescent, needs to be pinned down; “Timepiece” opens: “I return to wind it / to believe that time / still exists here.” What is registered is an instant of change. In “The Old Ice House” a single gable “gleams / then passes to shadow”. Seasons are reflected in shifting habits in “June”, and place is pinned down by shifts in perspective: “Evening has thinned, the moon at the back/ of the house hasn’t reached us yet” (“Rootstalks”).

O’Sullivan is often a poet of landscape in a more relaxed sense, with a sharp sense of colour: “A spark of citrus green / rubs stark from the trees” in the concluding section of “Townlands”, the most sustained piece in the collection. Domestic concerns manifest in still-lifes and fragmentary dialogue where we hear only one side. Much less a poet of rural life: the social presence is stripped down, visible only in squinting moments: “They didn’t see the thinned man, key / in hand, scurrying to and fro from the lock – / the fillip to this run of unmarked silver” (“The Mooncalves”).

Other living beings are equally half-present, apprehended but elusive, for example: “From a small pool one fish surfaced” (“Elsewhere”). The reader is being invited to share a narrowed focus, where a sketched moment, anchored by a few salient details, points to correlatives of mood and personal significance rather than the literally recognisable. Not that we don’t recognise her deployment of light: Romantic, even Gothic rather than Impressionist, but stingingly real in its moments:

And the rift, the sudden rent in its cloudwork
as when a child throws a half-eaten apple and the bruised
core is momentarily exposed like a gulf; the underbright
that follows …

As well as the stunning evocation of the effect of light in moving clouds, the rightness of the language, “rent”, “bruised”, “underbright” – only the last of those words is at all showy, while it’s totally justified. In its baroque capture of light as something that pours itself out, a presence rather than an illumination, it points as so much of her work does to the broadest, most nearly abstract of meanings, and the poet’s skill with words serves to bring those meanings closer.

“Townlands” considers the moods of an estuary in a succession of twelve- to fourteen-line pieces. The approach avoids any suggestion of a progression or a programme, there are no labels, the perspective sways and changes as the windings of the river correspond to the evolving consciousness of the solitary. The state of mind sketched here is a resolute acceptance of life and change, firm but still responsive, grounded. It is an achieved, polished piece that draws on the confidence of a poet in full control of her medium, confronting her condition: “What to do with the unsummoned hours. / The brackish substance, your gritted hands.” In a book packed with fine perceptions and tantalisingly mysterious poems, it stands out.

This is Michelle O’Sullivan’s third collection; her first appeared in 2012. I had been attracted by single poems before then, but the weight of her three books, and especially this one, convinces me that her work deserves to find its way to attentive readers. Readers who will not try to fit her into any boxes narrower than the big one marked “poets”, who will appreciate her skill with language, her alertness to the deep music of the world.

1/3/2019

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet and editor.

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