You will be scattered like wreckage,
The pieces every one a different shape
Will spin and lodge in the hearts
Of all who love you.
In the last book death has come, and taken away people the poet loved. “Agnes Bernelle, 1923-1999” is a moving elegy that compares, with considerable tact, the departed with a spider “that makes her own centre every day,/ Catching brilliantly the light of autumn.”
Besides the fictions and facts of death, the poems also say life is a journey, traveling often by water. Born in Cork, Ireland, Chuilleanáin traveled to Oxford for her studies, and, later, moved to Dublin, where she teaches at Trinity College. So there are poems in this Selected about the journey back home, both literal and metaphorical. Odysseus appears twice, once in the first book, then in the second, Site of Ambush.
When the poet imagines herself the traveler, she also imagines traveling with her, leading her, the figure of a pilot. “I Saw the Islands in a Ring All Round Me” sees the pilot as “the pivot/ In the middle of a clockface.” The pilot is, possibly, many persons—lover, husband, father, and God—but he is always envisioned as male. There are tender love poems here, to a husband who is also a poet (Macdara Woods), and to a father, an academic, who was the poet’s intellectual light. The poems do not address God explicitly but he is felt behind every him.
When the woman figure is not a traveler, guided by a male pilot, she is envisioned as a lifeless body brought to life upon the action or discovery of a man. “Pygmalion’s Image” focuses on the coming to life of the stone image lying in the ferns, “a green leaf of language” twisting out of her mouth, but the title, especially in its possessive form, reminds us of the absent life-giver. “Permafrost Woman” should be read together with Seamus Heaney’s bog woman. “A Voice” also imagines a man discovering an ancient mutilated corpse of a woman. These middle poems about lifeless women are of a piece with the earlier “The Absent Girl.” This poet has a deep and abiding sense of, not the plenitude, but the blankness of life. The blank page is a recurring metaphor, a blankness that needs recurrent filling in.
When Chuilleanáin imagines women who take charge of their lives, she thinks of saints. Saint Margaret of Cortona who was “neither maiden, widow nor wife.” Saint Mary Madgalene preaching at Marseilles. These women are wonderfully independent, somewhat indifferent and mysterious to the religious establishment. Even more mysterious to men is the figure of the Virgin Mary. In “Our Lady of Youghal,” the wooden image is discovered on the beach by yet another of Chuilleanáin’s men, a lay brother. As he touches the image, “blessing himself in the entry,” the wooden image reveals itself to him in a sexual and spiritual climax,
The virgin’s almond shrine, its ivory lids parting
Behind lids of gold, bursting out of the wood.
In the marvelous repetition of “lids,” the opening of sex is equated with the opening of sight. “Lids” is so much more intimate than gates, ivory or horn, so much more embodied.
My favorite poem of this Selected is another Mary poem. In “Fireman’s Lift,” the speaker, with her lover-husband, looks at a painting of the Virgin’s ascension, in “the big tree of the cupola.”
She sees the Virgin spiraling to heaven, but she focuses on the “teams of angelic arms” that raise her.
This is what love sees, that angle:
The crick in the branch loaded with fruit,
A jaw defining itself, a shoulder yoked,
The back making itself a roof
The legs a bridge, the hands
A crane and a cradle.
Spiritual transcendence depends on bodily labors. A woman is raised up on the backs of men. The idea is so at odds with contemporary feminist ideas of sisterhood that it must constitute a challenge to those ideas. The mention of fruit recalls Eve's first disobedience, which the Virgin, in her obedience to God, now transcends. How to read this poet? Is she trapped in the male-dominated Irish Catholic and poetic traditions? Or is she a corrective to some of the excesses of radical feminism?
The poems must be their own justification. And this poem, observant, humane, and finally radiant, convinces me that those traditions are not so much deadwood of the past to be discarded, but living trees for some poet’s shelter. Marie Howe, Marie Ponsot, and now, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Committed to her religious and poetic traditions, Chuilleanáin finds a clearing in their woods for singing her own songs.