A Review of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Poetry

by Lind Grant-Oyeye

A common theme in reviews of her poetry is that Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work is not restricted to space or time but shifts between realms and places. In the Dublin Review, Gerard Smyth characterizes the poet as one who shifts from the material world to the otherworld [1]. She is portrayed as focusing on the metaphysical, translating experiences between worlds. Accordingly, readers new to her poetry might expect texts bursting with paranormal experiences. Her latest book Collected Poems (Wakefield Press, 2021) comprises work spanning over four decades with some new poems included. Assembling nine books into a single volume seems ambitious at first glance; however, it provides an excellent opportunity to explore Ní Chuilleanáin’s writing in detail. It also provides an opportunity to examine historical theories and assertions critics have made regarding her work, such as the idea that she is an Irish poet without borders.

Ní Chuilleanáin was born in Cork, Ireland. An alumna of University College Cork, she also studied at Oxford University. She is the recipient of multiple poetry awards, including the 2010 Griffin award and the Patrick Kavanagh award with her debut collection, Acts and Monuments (1966). Her previous poetry collections include The Boys of Bluehill (2015) and The Mother House (2020).

In Collected Poems (2021), the presentation is chronological, beginning with poems from Acts and Monuments (1966), proceeding to the few new poems included in the collection. Consequently, a review of this book captures the essence of her work from a new perspective, rather than offering an opinion on the current direction of Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetics. Not surprisingly, some poems in the book describe the supernatural and mythical, as reported in past reviews. However, Ní Chuilleanáin’s narrators are limited in the extent they transcend the material experience. Their experiences are unlike works from regions such as Africa, where authors sometimes describe full re-incarnation or movement between worlds. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and John Pepper Clarke have all described this phenomenon in their works. In Wole Soyinka’s poem “Abiku,” the narrator torments others by dying and returning to earth as a new person multiple times, as voiced in the line below:

“I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time.”

In Collected Poems, the paths of transition into a different world involve permanent, irrevocable death or a metaphysical transformation of the mind. The portrayal of mystical events by poets such as Soyinka and Clarke versus those of Ní Chuilleanáin and Seamus Heaney, another Irish poet, makes one ponder the influence of cultural belief systems in their various works. Edward Hirsch’s review of Heaney’s book, Seeing Things, published in The New York Times, suggests subjects are caught in a hallucinatory and imaginative realm [1]. Further, the differences in content and context, even in addressing matters relating to the otherworld, raises the question of whether Ní Chuilleanáin’s work is devoid of borders, as suggested by reviewers, or is rooted in Irish culture, such as Ireland’s local myths, legends, and their scope. An example of the latter occurs in the poem “Borders,” in which Ní Chuilleanáin references the Irish legend, “The Children of Lir”, in the lines,

“I remember how often you crossed the map in a toil
of love (Like Lir’s daughter driven to the Sea of Moyle by spells). . . “

Additionally, critics have also explored feminist themes in Ní Chuilleanáin’s body of work. Carmen Bugan in the Harvard Review observes that although women are always present in her work [2], in Collected Poems Ní Chuilleanáin alters the frame to describe gender roles shifting from resigned domesticated acceptance to assertiveness. The Female is not restricted to a stereotype of feminism. The narrators engage in leisure and challenging work both inside and outside the home. Further, the male is not shut out but woven into the fabric of her poems. For example, in “Man Watching a Woman,” the narrator engages the man who watches the female personae, who seem like composite characters, go through their day:

“He will watch the faces behind the bar, tired girls,
their muscles bracing under breakers of music
and the weight of their balancing trays, drinks, ice and change. “

Ní Chuilleanáin differs from many contemporary Irish poets who, like Eavan Boland, focused on Irish specific experiences like the plight of the Irish diaspora. In contrast, Ni Chuilleanáin’s narrators could pass for any female going through similar experiences in any part of the world. She addresses feminism directly, not from the point of an individual who feels suppressed but through coordinating the speaker’s experience within the prevailing environment.

Religion, another compelling aspect of Irish socio-cultural life, appears in Collected Poems with multiple references to nuns. In a public reading, the poet herself humorously recalled that her readers believe that she is obsessed by “nuns.” One wonders whether the poems speak to the general religious experience of Ireland as a subject or whether nuns in Ní Chuilleanáin’s work are an archetype of the female experience.

“A roomful of Seicento frames,” describes a narrator who decides to stay put and remain stoic in the face of adversity in a poem, describing a violent encounter in a convent.

“ . . . but I stay for now, alone
with the frames, their gilded spirals
half shaped like the ring made
by fingers and thumbs of both hands,
their dark stained quotes, twisted,
curved like the martyr’s ribs like Ivy
they shine, they clasp, but it’s emptiness

She often applies the element of surprise in language and voice, moving fluently from a severe narrative tone to a lyrical, emotive presentation. The poem “The Printer,” for example, shows intense feelings in the speaker who states:

“I was angry like a fool
I slammed outside, and I walked the tangle of passages”

Collected Poems is a book that celebrates the work of a poet who has contributed immensely to both the Irish literary community and to the international world of poetry. It serves as a declaration of the power of her art. Furthermore, it is an introduction for new readers, making it possible for every reader to examine the consistency and growth in her work through the years. The new poems included do not deviate from her vision, although there is a deliberate focus on illness and death. For example, “The Blood Map” evokes strong imagery of familial health matters with this line:

“The map in my head is colored with the places
they took your blood, or we sat in a grey passage.”

The apprehension of death and dying in these poems seems intimate and focused. The spiritual element prevails as she completes her poetic journey in both a personal and universal way. As Gerard Smyth indicates, Collected Poems is the work of a distinguished poet who has demonstrated her place in the literary world. In their entirety the collected poems reveal a writer whose work, rooted in Irish culture and heritage, both witnesses and illuminates the human and spiritual experiences of a global community.

‘Seeing Things’ – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Collected Poems. HYPERLINK “https://harvard review.org/book-review/collected-poems-nichuilleanain”–HYPERLINK “https://harvard review.org/book-review/collected-poems-nichuilleanain/” Harvard Review

Lind Grant-Oyeye is an Irish poet and literary critic of Nigerian descent. Her work features in literary magazines, anthologies, and specially curated poetry projects globally, such as The Honest Ulsterman, A New Ulster, New Verse News, The Clarion, Leicester city mental health project, Expound, and Sub-Saharan magazine. She has received the following writing awards: Ken Saro-Wiwa poetry prize and the UHRSN human rights poetry award. She is a member of the Diversifying Irish Poetry cohort, a program for critics of color sponsored by the Irish Research Council, culminating in a residency program at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.