Eiléan​ Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem ‘Translation’ describes a work scene in a convent laundry. Over the bustle of cleaning and ironing, one voice rises insistently, ‘sharp as an infant’s cry’. Its speaker has been incarcerated for offences against Catholic Ireland and in this brief monologue continues to expiate her shame:

Washed clean of idiom • the baked crust
Of words that made my temporary name •
A parasite that grew in me • that spell
Lifted • I lie in earth sifted to dust •
Let the bunched keys I bore slacken and fall •
I rise and forget • a cloud over my time.

The poem is subtitled ‘for the reburial of the Magdalenes’ and forms part of contemporary Ireland’s reckoning with the clerical abuses of the past – specifically, the cremation and reburial of the remains of 154 inmates of High Park Convent laundry in Glasnevin Cemetery in 1993, for which it was written. It’s oddly elliptical – allowing the victim to speak, but in a way that reinscribes her silencing. But even this constitutes a breaking of cover: ‘Why doesn’t she speak when they ask her/what has happened,’ Ní Chuilleanáin wonders in ‘Witness’, to which the immediate answer might be that no one has in fact asked.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s narrative poems are tales of ‘life with the lid on’, to echo Elizabeth Bowen. Her protagonists are typically nameless: a woman on her way to join a convent, a swineherd, a group of traveller women cooking round a campfire. Her style, with its absence of rhyme and its angular line breaks, is correspondingly muted. Compare her translation of ‘The Old Woman of Beare’ to Derek Mahon’s version of the same Old Irish text. His woman is urbane, garrulous, much like Mahon himself, and his translation has after-echoes of the palatial Yeatsian stanza. Ní Chuilleanáin’s version is stonier and unsparing, insisting that ‘I don’t join in sweet chat.’

Well for islands at sea,
their high tide follows low
water; I do not hope
my tide will turn and flow.
Hardly a harbour now
seems familiar to me;
all that the high tide saw
low water drags away.

Ní Chuilleanáin stands out even in comparison to poets such as Eavan Boland, who wrote extensively about the injustices of Irish history. Boland gravitates towards emblematic figures, the state personified by a woman, as in her poem ‘Anna Liffey’. Ní Chuilleanáin’s narrators are slow to take ownership of their own stories, let alone anyone else’s. In ‘Bessboro’ (the site of a notorious mother and baby home) she writes: ‘This is what I inherit –/it was never my own life.’ Even as her poems piece together forgotten stories, their speakers insist that their testimonies have been lost: ‘the blood that was sown here flowered/and all the seeds blew away.’

Collected Poems (Gallery Press, £19) gathers together nine of Ní Chuilleanáin’s collections, from Acts and Monuments (1972) to The Mother House (2019), and ends with a scattering of new poems written in response to the death of her husband, the poet Macdara Woods, in 2018. The early books up to The Rose Geranium and Other Poems (1981) move the allegorical machinery into place: female figures wander through landscapes, often in the midst of church architecture or the ruins thereof; history hangs heavy in the air, even when references to it are oblique or parenthetical; folk and religious ceremonies form a constant backdrop; and the poems tend to end on imperfect cadences, leaving any resolution deferred, intangible or else dissolved (‘The island trimmed with waves is lost in the sea,/the swimmer lost in his dream’).

Domestic spaces are temporary and precarious. Navigators (often Odysseus) abound, sailing between islands or to the centre of the earth; even milk in a glass turns out to be tidal, following secret imperatives of its own. Her third collection contains two longer sequences, ‘Cork’ and ‘The Rose Geranium’, and the missing sections from each are the most significant omissions from this Collected. ‘Cork’ vacillates between studied non-specificity (‘We could be in any city’) and the scorched particulars of Black and Tan raids, turning the urban space into a ‘site of Ambush’ – the title of Ní Chuilleanáin’s second collection. Her return to the Irish revolutionary period is one way of confronting the Troubles in Northern Ireland, though these conflicts are very much family affairs – something she commemorates in ‘On Lacking the Killer Instinct’, about her father’s role in the War of Independence, and ‘Seaweed’, on her grandparents’ experience of the 1916 Rising (Joseph Mary Plunkett, the rebel leader and signatory of the Proclamation of the Republic, is Ní Chuilleanáin’s great-uncle).

Then there is the nun question. Why is Ní Chuilleanáin so drawn to them? There’s a clue in ‘J’ai mal à nos dents’, when a young nun visiting the dentist in Calais uses the first-person plural to describe her teeth. To take religious orders is to surrender one’s individuality to communal life. Later in the poem, she lifts the older nuns onto a pig cart as they flee from the Germans. At 78, she is given permission to return home to care for a sister in Ireland, before finally reclaiming ownership of her own body, ‘its voices and its death’.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s writing about religion, particularly religious art, is seen to great effect in the poems of her middle period. ‘Fireman’s Lift’, from her seventh collection, The Brazen Serpent (1994), records the Felliniesque scene of a statue of the Virgin Mary being lifted into place in a Parma church, the workers gazing up after her ‘as she came to the edge of the cloud’. Her icons are warmer than the ‘marble or … bronze repose’ ascribed to Yeats’s religious images. In ‘Our Lady of Youghal’, a lost ivory plaque of the Madonna and Child lies underground but appears to orchestrate its own dazzling rediscovery (‘inside a tower of leaves,/the virgin’s almond shrine, its ivory lids parting /behind lids of gold, bursting out of the wood’).

There’s an elegiac strain in much of Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, but it becomes her dominant mode from The Girl Who Married the Reindeer (2001), poems for her mother, the novelist Eilís Dillon, and her violinist sister who died young. But there is also a vein of anthropological parable here. Mysterious gifts are made of ashes wrapped in tissue paper, journeys undertaken, levitating anchoresses encountered, lips that ‘move in the grave’. These later poems also take the measure of modern Ireland. In ‘The Faces’, Ní Chuilleanáin sits in a traffic jam, while a woman in the car alongside hers knits and the woman’s husband ‘rages at the wheel’: ‘It was like history, held there/in view of another lifetime://we climbed the cogged wheel of our age,/our century, side by slow side.’ Meeting the demands of the age will always be difficult for a poet who ‘appears to have been born in 1870/and schooled in 1689’, a feeling that may account for Ní Chuilleanáin’s more Jacobite tendencies. Few poets’ work has more visions of lost realms and kings o’er the water, held tight in the embrace of a history that forgets nothing without ever properly getting started: ‘no unformed capricious cry/can sound without its monument.’ It would be an obtuse reader who saw these poems as gestures of unthinking nostalgia: time redeemed is as ubiquitous in Ní Chuilleanáin as the leaden time of public monuments. But often this takes the form of a tantalising absence: ‘Her history is a blank sheet,/her vows a folded paper locked like a well.’

In a lecture Ní Chuilleanáin delivered as the Ireland Professor of Poetry, later published in Instead of a Shrine (2019), she addresses the idea of ritual in Henry King’s ‘Exequy’, an elegy for his wife that begins ‘Accept, thou shrine of my dead saint,/ Instead of Dirges this complaint.’ Of these twelve words, three sound a risky Catholic note for a poet who had suffered persecution during the Civil War: ‘shrine’, ‘saint’ and ‘dirges’. Fraught though they are, the words perform a slippage from the religious to the conventionally poetic (a ‘saint’ often meant a mistress in 17th-century verse). ‘What happens comes out of a lack,’ Ní Chuilleanáin writes, ‘a sense of distance from the received ritual that prompts the poem to emerge instead.’ Ní Chuilleanáin’s own work could be described as an extended exercise in the conversion of loss into re-enchantment. Among the loveliest examples of this is ‘Gloss/Clós/Glas’, a poem that toys obsessively with the intimacy and distance between languages by punning on the Irish word ‘glas’, meaning ‘green’ and ‘lock’, and on the English ‘gloss’. ‘The rags of language are streaming like weathervanes,’ as a scholar trawls through one of his dictionaries late at night, and a boy in a story has come to a small locked door: ‘Who is that he can hear panting on the other side?/The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.’

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