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Matthew Sweeney

Sweeney's most recent collection of poems is Black Moon (Cape, 2007), and prior to that, Sanctuary (Cape, 2004), Selected Poems (Cape, 2002) and several earlier books of poetry. He is co-author, with John Hartley Williams of a chapbook, Writing Poetry (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997 – updated in 2002 and 2008) and has edited or co-edited a number of poetry anthologies. Bilingual poetry selections came out in Germany and Holland in 2008 . Earlier translations appeared in Mexico, Romania, Latvia and Slovakia. Born in Donegal in 1952, he has returned to live in Ireland recently, having previously been resident in Berlin, Timişoara and, for a long time, London. He currently lives in Cork.






The Sun Fish by Eiléan Ní ChuilleanáinThe Sun Fish

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

(Gallery Press, 2009)

ISBN: 978-1852354824

€11.95 paperback

Buy from Gallery




The first poetry reading I remember attending was one of a series of lunchtime readings, in some part of Dublin Castle, I think, in 1972 or '73. The poet was Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and she was reading from her first book, Acts and Monuments, which was not long out. I recall being very struck by some of the poems she read—by their clarity and vividness, and their strangeness. I’m thinking of poems such as ‘The Second Voyage’, ‘Swineherd’, and ‘Celibates’, all well-known and widely anthologised since then. Here is the beginning of the last-named poem:


        When the farmers burned the furze away

        Where they had heedlessly lived till then

        The hermits all made for the sea-shore,

        Chose each a far safe hole beneath rocks,

        Now more alone than ever before.


I loved how a poem like this was so concrete within the mystery of the whole. I could not see how the poem had arisen—why the situation of the hermits had attracted the poet so much. Similarly, with a much later poem, ‘Studying the Language’, from 1994’s The Brazen Serpent, we get the following opening lines:


        On Sundays I watch the hermits coming out of their holes

        Into the light. Their cliff is as full as a hive.

        They crowd together on warm shoulders of rock

        Where the sun has been shining. Their joints crackle.


Two years ago, at the West Cork Literature Festival in Bantry, I was asked to introduce a reading by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin where she was quite revealing in what she said about her poems. She introduced one of the above two (I forget which) by telling us (if I remember correctly) that her sister had died before her mother, and that this was an unnatural sequence. After the reading, one member of the audience asked her how the poem accommodated that fact. Her answer was approximately this: ‘In order for the poem to get written, something has to happen.’ In other words, there has to be a transubstantiation of the autobiographical. There is no room here for the dependence on autobiography of, say, the American poet, Sharon Olds. This reply of Ní Chuilleanáin’s was/is very illuminating. Her last book, The Girl Who Married the Reindeer (2001), opened with the brilliantly clear, yet mysterious ‘The Crossroads’:


        I have been at the crossroads now

        All the time without leaving

        Since the afternoon of Shrove Tuesday.


Why? There are no explanations whatsoever, and none are needed. The poem is perfect, a film in words. It stays in the mind long afterwards. One gets the feeling that somewhere at the back of it there is some autobiographical story, but it stays buried.

In the new book, The Sun-Fish, the third poem, (or second if one leaves alone the opening epithalamium dedicated to her son and daughter-in-law), is called ‘A Bridge Between Two Counties’:


        The long bridge

        Stretched between two counties

        So they could never agree

        How it should be kept


        Standing at all


As the poem continues, we see in the mist a woman advancing onto the bridge with a well-wrapped child whom she passes to ‘a brown human shape’, and shortly after this the reader encounters a surprise personal interruption, with a reference to ‘my sister’s funeral’.  This move between the mysterious and the personal is not untypical—and one gets the feeling that family history and family stories are always somewhere around. Likewise, the world of Irish Catholicism is liable to emerge into the poems. We have seen the hermits above, but monks, brothers, shrines, litanies, and of course nuns (it has been written elsewhere that nuns are no strangers to her poems) all make an appearance in this new collection. A fine elegy to Michael Hartnett comes in the form of a visitation from an angel (who gives cooking advice!), ‘Michael and the Angel’. Another striking poem, ‘The Nave’, creates a strange phantasmagoria out of religion. I don’t have any clear idea of what exactly is going on in this poem, but it speaks to me. There is often something visionary or numinous like this about Ní Chuilleanáin’s work. Eliot’s remark about a poem communicating without being understood comes to mind. It is true to say that sometimes, even for this partial reader, the poems withhold too much, and remain in the opaque zone – the successive poems ‘Come Back’ and ‘In His Language’ are ones I would nominate here – but mystery and keeping back some of what’s going on are central to what she does. The most straightforward piece in the book is arguably ‘Vertigo’, about an old mother climbing Sceilg Mhichíl with her two daughters, but one still knows nothing of what goes on before or after the events of the poem. More typical is ‘The Scrubbing Map’, where old cars arrive after dark in a car park, and the drivers begin scrubbing their cars, then the stonework underfoot, and this morphs into ‘the frayed relief of graves’, and they polish again and gaze:


        Through a cloudy floor at the place they left behind,

        The deep strait that the ferries face at sunset,

        And the shadowy patches, where deeper into the night

        A few wrecked boats fearfully make their way.


        Like rubbed plans their faces look up out of the stone.

        Behind their heads are the maps they will make before dawn

        Of the way back to their new lodgings,

        And where the landlord keeps the spare key, and the butter.


There is no one else in Irish poetry, or poetry elsewhere, writing like this. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a unique voice, and this book, as all her books, is to be welcomed. The last poem I will quote from is the last poem in the book, ‘The Copious Dark’, which strikes this reader as superb, and ends dazzlingly like this:


                                                            Questing she roamed

        After the windows she loved, and again they showed

        The back rooms of bakeries, the clean engine-rooms and all

        The floodlit open yards where a van idled by a wall,


        A wall as long as life, as long as work.

                                                                      The blighted

Shuttered doors in the wall are too many to scan—

As many as the horses in the royal stable, as the lighted

Candles in the grand procession? Who can explain

Why the wasps are asleep in the dark in their numbered holes

And the lights shine all night in the hospital corridors?


©2010 Matthew Sweeney






Author Links

Guardian Review: Black Moon

Sweeney's Contemporary Writers bio

Bio and poems at Poetry International Web





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