I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Painting Light


Ciarán O’Rourke writes: ‘Yours is the art that conveys / what the world is made of.’ So Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin writes in ‘Instructions to an Architect’, imploring her interlocutor to ‘build me a shelter’, in anticipation of a future that seems already ‘fractured from the inside’. The poet too can redeem and repair a broken world, as Ní Chuilleanáin herself has demonstrated over the course of her five-decade career. Although arguably never attaining the cultural visibility of Seamus Heaney or Eavan Boland, in recent years Ní Chuilleanáin’s work has received some of the acknowledgement it deserves.

The 2020 edition of her Collected Poems confirmed her as a vital celebrant of the poetic vocation itself, giving form to the complex rhythms and inner geographies of a life lived feelingly in time. ‘Incipit Hodie’, dedicated to her grandson, ripples the boundaries of both language and vision, in its address to a newborn who ‘fell into our language / like a fish into water’. The searching gentleness of the poem’s own gestures – reaching for a language precise and exultant enough to welcome a child into the world – leads finally to a space of trust and surety: ‘when you reach for words they will be hard like pebbles in your hand’.

One of Ní Chuilleanáin’s great gifts is her ability to bring readers, repeatedly and miraculously, to that threshold where all the intractable portals – of language, history, familial love – seem somehow ready to open again, letting in the light. So, in ‘Gloss/Clós/Glas’, the poet ventures through the rivery atmosphere of her own memories, where the ‘rags of language’ are seen ‘streaming like weathervanes, / like weeds in water they turn with the tide’, to find a scholar, her father as a younger man, as he sits ‘raking the dictionaries’ like ‘a boy in a story faced with a small locked door’.

In poem after poem, the past comes surging to the surface of Ní Chuilleanáin’s attentions, albeit usually transfigured in a new guise, ‘wrapped lightly, like the one cumulus cloud / In a perfect sky’ (as she says in ‘The Bend in the Road’). There can be a moral heft to such translations. One poem, dedicated to the memory of James Connolly, reflects sadly on ‘all the false beginnings’ of Irish political life, while in ‘Bessboro’, the speaker returns to the gates of Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, only to discover that ‘the blood that was sown here flowered / and all the seeds blew away.’ Lyric art cannot reverse such failures and betrayals, encoded into the very structure of the Irish state, but it can help us, at least, to face the history we inherit with less distortion – by giving voice to those absences previously rendered unspeakable by power. The difficult task, as she writes in ‘The Curtain’, is to discover ‘the bare words’ of honest utterance, so the ‘skewed weights’ of experience can be raised, ‘holding in their place like feathers’.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems often have the recollected mystery and vividness of dream-visions: eccentric fables that gleam, nevertheless, in their own clear glow, filled with ‘provisions for the day just dawning’. ‘Let their hooves print the next bit of the story,’ she urges in ‘The Horses of Meaning’, ‘release them, roughmaned / from the dark stable’ where they have been cooped up, strange, poetic creatures, yearning to be free. Similarly, throughout her acclaimed 2023 volume The Map of the World, Ní Chuilleanáin can be found – like the ‘goddess honoured on the mountain’, who ‘chose / to make her home a refuge for the fugitives’ – striking up kinship with nuns and migrants, artists and animals, whose fleet, nerve-rooted journeyings unlock her own exploratory impulses. In ‘War Time’, a convent gives sanctuary to ‘women down on their luck’, a song rising through its corridors and spanning across history, from a ‘time that’s lost’. ‘Two Paintings by Nano Reid’, from the same collection, watches layers of life crowding to a canvas, as ‘the painter’s / leaf-thin imaginings’ haunt the final image, and the ‘body’ of the original (male) model ‘retreats into / the scruffy quotidian’: a story, a vanishing, that the poem makes palpable once more.

Poetry is by nature a revelatory art, trusting that there are strangers, somewhere, who understand: people willing to share the light unlocked by the hermetic singer in their midst, ‘speaking / the many forms of connection’. Ní Chuilleanáin cleaves to the grain of such illuminations, even as she evokes the richness and solitude of writing as such. ‘For five years nobody lives beside me,’ she says, in what may be a quiet reference to the death of her husband, the poet Macdara Woods, in 2018:

My bones are bare, my spine is a tree stem
threatened with dieback.

My room on the top floor is a green cage,
Spring is here and the ash-tree is flowing …

In her effort to winnow a language of belonging from the rough chaff of experience, Ní Chuilleanáin’s urge is to reach through seasons, and across borders. It seems telling, and apt, that her ‘map of the world’ contains pieces written in Irish (as in the wryly titled ‘Loquitur Caliban’), as well as creative dialogues with the work of Ileana Mălăncioiu. ‘Fear is spreading like a weed, / spreading like fire in a meadow’, she observes in a poem dedicated to her Romanian contemporary: ‘it spreads like water over the whole earth / and Noah’s ark is still not finished.’ The portentous intuition of an epoch in political and ecological free-fall contends with the sensitivity of the poem’s own flowing – with Ní Chuilleanáin’s deft ability, indeed, to clear a space, in words, of habitable perception. At the finish, the biblical figure stands ‘staring everywhere at once / like a wild thing cornered, even though for ages / all around him there has been nothing but the flood.’ Despite the grimness of such a scenario, there is a value, we discern, in seeing the patriarchal hubris of Noah’s position without distortion.

Even as she resists the doctrinal didacticism of an overtly religious paradigm, the lingering impression in Ní Chuilleanáin’s work is of a more-than-private faith being tested and renewed by the procedures of poetic attention she hones. Few contemporary writers, in fact, possess her peculiar, and utterly instinctive, sense of the poem’s inner grace, or have access to that soft core of light her words so delicately reveal, radiating outward to infuse life with meaning. There are ‘so many stories’, she notes, ‘and not all of them / can tell us clearly what we ought to  have done.’ If the past, imagined or remembered, springs to motion among her poems’ lambent grids, the music uttered there frequently takes the shape of an active question: what is to be done? For Ní Chuilleanáin, the force that moves ‘the wheel of language’ has an ethical charge. ‘When I begin the telling the words will not be quiet,’ she murmurs, ‘I have to lie down beside them and listen.’ And what do we hear? The world we always knew inside us, coming true at last.


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