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The Art of Honesty

Liam Mac Amhlaigh

The Talk of the Town, by Caitríona Ní Chléirchín, trans Peter Fallon, The Gallery Press, 85 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1911337881

The Talk of the Town is an intriguing and beguiling bilingual collection, hollowed out of the bedrock of inspirational love, its location in nature, and in the care for life in its broadest sense.

At the outset, it would be remiss of me not to contextualise this volume’s importance in literary terms as a sister publication of Calling Cards (The Gallery Press, 2018), a vibrant anthology that includes prize-winning authors of several collections as well as three poets who have yet to publish a book. This volume of Irish-language poetry and translations, a joint venture between Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann and The Gallery Press, co-edited by Peter Fallon and Aifric Mac Aodha, is a critical milestone in the appreciation and study of Irish-language poetry of the millennium. The Talk of the Town is the first volume from Gallery of one of the ten “Calling Card” poets since its publication, but it follows seamlessly from the previously published The Coast Road (2016, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh and various translators), and Foreign News (2017, Aifric Mac Aodha/David Wheatley). This set of four books is a critical resource in Irish-language poetry post-2000 for readers and students alike, and their arrival has begun a process to better map the Irish-language poetical landscape of this millennium.

Like The Coast Road, this edition is a landmark publication in the literary career of Caitríona Ní Chléirchín. It brings together a selection of poems previously published by Coiscéim: Crithloinnir (Shimmer) (2010) and An Bhrídeach Sí (The Fairy Bride) (2015) in a single volume, bolstered with excellent translations. Her poetry speaks of love, and engages with mind, body, and soul, moving from the modern to the traditional, drawing inspiration from Irish-language folktale and story, encompassing both the personal humanity of love in its caring sense, and the corporeal erotic attraction between loving partners. Similar in some ways to Mac Aodha’s work, Ní Chléirchín’s poetry is sensitive and subtle. She has the capacity to be very precise, exact and concise. Her verses are neat, highly strung, full of conviction and rich in interpersonal suggestion. Ní Chléirchín acknowledges that love comes in many forms and is not reluctant to evidence the wounds that are advanced by a love that has painfully dissipated or separated.

The poems taken from An Bhrídeach Sí contain many references to folklore, and to love at one with nature. In a similar way to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Ní Chléirchín is very adept in using mythology to engage with deep feelings in life. Such poems are ably read and appreciated without knowledge of the literary pedigree of such concepts. However, for anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the Irish literary and song tradition, they are an added enjoyment, giving depth and resonance to the poems. The persona of a “Brídeach Sí” allows Ní Chléirchín to relate to love, loss, illness, death from a distance, at arm’s length. The abbreviated version of the poem “Bean Róin” (seal-woman or selkie), for example, also manages to summon up Ní Dhomhnaill’s versatile “mer-women” or Ní Ghearbhuigh’s elegant “swan-woman” (éan-bhean).

While both her previous collections are represented, the poems in An Bhrídeach Sí, a winner of the 2015 Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry, take precedence. It is worth reminding the reading audience that the style of sometimes lighter, and more contemporary, multi-locational poetry evidenced in her first collection, Crithloinnir, is one that should equally be lauded in its exposition of the realities of love at the heart of the human psyche. The title poem “The Talk of the Town” is the translation of “Cogarnach” from Crithloinnir, where Ní Chléirchín reflects the ennui of the female persona, turning honesty into an art form, and lightly brushing away the perceived disadvantage from that same persona.  

My feeling is that the Irish-language poetical canon has always benefited from a wish both to preserve the riches of Irish-language poetry and make it available for those who could not read the original versions. However, can the translations in this volume be understood as “raiders” or “settlers”, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s terminology? My sense of this collection is that Ní Chléirchín’s original work has been teamed with the distinct voice of a sympathetic translator, forming an advantageous bilingual duet. Peter Fallon respects the style and depth of Ní Chléirchín’s poetry, without swallowing or engulfing it, responding very successfully to the prompting of the originals. The new “works”, therefore, adorn the original verse, enabling the reader to be treated to a second set of dependent, but paradoxically free-standing, poems. In a poem such as “Amharc Orm” and its companion “Look at Me”, Fallon is able to minutely extend the expressive function of certain lines, allowing an additional or variant emphasis to grow. 

With The Talk of the Town, Fallon is to be applauded for now publishing, under the Gallery imprint, a trio of millennial women poets (Ní Ghearbhuigh, Mac Aodha, Ní Chléirchín), each embodying an écriture féminine in their writing in the Irish language. Ní Chléirchín is a welcome addition to this canon: a feminine voice, delicate at times, but most deliberate; showing an echo of writers such as Eavan Boland, Sylvia Plath and Marguerite Duras. While there may be an occasional poem imbued with an uneven sense of sentimentality, her poetry enriches the literary landscape by its examination of how love meaningfully envelops life in its fullest sense. 

Once again, The Gallery Press has produced an admirable and high-quality anthology; one that is a calling card for the introduction of Ní Chléirchín’s poetry to a wider audience. For this, all those involved deserve our thanks.

Liam Mac Amhlaigh is a scholar of Modern Irish-language literature, and Irish-language lexicography, and is a lecturer in Maynooth University. His current research addresses late modernism in Irish-language poetry, the subject of his 2019 Annual Léacht Uí Chadhain keynote in University College, Dublin. He is the editor of Portráidí na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge (portraidi.ie).

 

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