Northern Lights: Poems in Irish, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill with translations into English by Eiléan Ní Chuilleaneán, Peter Fallon, Eamon Grennan, Bernard O’Donoghue and Dennis O’Driscoll, The Gallery Press, 104 pp, €18.50, ISBN: 978-1911337522
The fifth bilingual volume of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s work to be published by Gallery Press, Northern Lights, consists of twenty-eight poems from across her illustrious international career. A small number of new poems is included, but the majority have already been published and translated. The editorial decision to use new translations, suggesting that there is no definitive way of translating a poem, will no doubt give food for thought to students of translation studies; so too will the choice of cover image – Diarmuid Breen’s “The Dilemma”, which cannot but be interpreted as a comment on the translation process.
However, this is a book for a much wider audience than is to be found within the academy, spanning a continuum from fluent speakers of Irish through to the Anglophone and possibly monoglot readers who have only ever read the poems through the prism of translation, as Ní Dhomhnaill writes poetry exclusively in Irish.
Such a book invites a type of triangulation: to appraise the original poems, the translations, and the tension in the space in between. There is also the temptation to compare the approaches taken by different translators: for this reader at least, Ní Chuilleanáin’s translations seem to be seamless reflections of the originals, whereas others introduce a different voice and tone. Even for a reader with no knowledge of Irish, the parallel presentation draws attention to aesthetic or linguistic choices, highlighting differences in lineation, stanzas, and more substantive variations, such as the introduction of epigraphs.
It would be a waste to focus on the intricacies of translation to the neglect of the poems themselves though, for here, in both languages, is poetry striking in its sensuality, its ferocity, its interweaving of the personal with the universal, the sexual with the spiritual, the corporeal with the transcendental and mythological. The relatively small selection gives a good overview of Ní Dhomhnaill’s themes and devices, and proceeds chronologically from early love poems through the complexities of world citizenship and inexorably onwards towards bereavement.
The opening poem, “Fáilte Bhéal na Sionna don Iasc”/“The Shannon Mouth Welcomes the Fish”, exquisitely melds the human body with the landscape as the waterway/poet welcomes her salmon/lover in a lyric that builds to an orgasmic conclusion:
Is seinnim seoithín
do mo leannán
tonn ar thonn,
leathrann ar leathrann,
mo thine ghealáin mar bhairlín thíos faoi,
mo rogha a thóghas féin ón iasacht.
And I play lullaby
to my lover
wave after wave,
couplet by couplet,
my phosphorous glow a sheet under him,
the one I chose for myself from far away.
The affinity with “far away” adds weight to Ní Dhomhnaill’s political commentary in the central section of the collection, which includes “Dubh”/“Black” and “An Mhaighdean Mhara”/”The Mermaid”. The sense of world citizenship informing her work, and conferring it with international significance, was recently acknowledged in the form of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, presented to her in March 2018. She is the first woman recipient of this prestigious award, which was created to recognise “outstanding artistic and intellectual literary achievements on the world stage”. This collection was compiled partly as a tribute to mark her receipt of the award.
Northern Lights finishes with poems of age and death, including a new elegy for Seamus Heaney. The final poem, “An Chaor Aduaidh”/”Northern Lights”, translated by the poet and editor-publisher Peter Fallon, offers an apocalyptic vision, depicting the “olagón bog binn na cruinne / ag casadh ar a fearsaid” – “the mellow and melodious / lamentation of the globe / rounding on its axis”, and ending, literally, with the final curtains:
Titeann bréithre na teangan domhanda seo
chun talaimh ceann ar cheann
ina néalta bána is uaithne
ar nós cuirtíní.
This earthly tongue’s syllables
are grounded once, again
and then again, rumbling in dark clouds,
bright, then green, like closing curtains.
The volume is dedicated to the memory of the poet’s late husband, Dogan Leflef, who died in 2013 and whose presence is strongly felt throughout the work.
Northern Lights is an excellent taster volume of Ní Dhomhnaill’s oeuvre. Some long-standing readers of her work may be frustrated by the lack of context and criteria for inclusion, as there is neither introduction nor bibliographic information for the poems or translations, but others will regard it as a good excuse – if one were needed – to revisit the earlier collections.