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DOWN THE SUNLIT HALL: a review by

Jennifer Matthews

 

 

 

Jennifer Matthews review in Southword 18

Jennifer Matthews was born in Columbia, Missouri in the USA. After studying for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria she moved to Cork, Ireland in 2003 and continues to live there now. Aside from reviews, she also writes poetry and has been published in Mslexia, Revival and Poetry Salzburg, and has read her work at the New Writers Showcase in the Heaventree Poetry Festival in Coventry, UK. In 2010 she was anthologised in Dedalus's 2010 collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places.

 

 

 

 

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Down the Sunlit Hall review in Southword Journal 18

Down the Sunlit Hall

Eileen Sheehan

(Doghouse Press, 2008)

ISBN: 978-0-9552003-97

€12 paperback

 

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 “I send such things would make you know/ A thorn/ A dream/ A ragged crow.” Eileen Sheehan’s latest collection begins with an incantation, words that work as spell and warning. Wisdom can be found in dark places. Down the Sunlit Hall lifts the veil on the ordinary, exposing all the gremlins and angels we’ve been living with, but ignoring. There are spaces for the dead at the dinner table, imaginary stairs to the moon, parades of daytime ghosts, golden-skinned books and voices in the floorboards. The mystical elements in her poems work—they aren’t nonsense. This needs to be said outright. ‘Spirituality’ in some modern poetry can lapse into lazy shorthand of chakras and star signs. Sheehan’s surreal touches, on the contrary, are encounters with the subconscious; they’re Dickenson’s “truth told slant”.  And when she gets into the mystery and magical, her language picks up the rhythms of chants, prayers, songs—creating a more intense tone. Her poem ‘Floorboards’, for example, is haunting. Interrupting sleep are the voices of everything unsettled in the house: “A woman lies awake/ interpreting the voices of the timbers./ There is so much under there/ pushing to get out:/ toe-nail clippings; fallen hair; years/ ....a playing card/ showing the seven of hearts; tears/ ....All night/ she is collecting.”

            There is an intense loneliness running through many of the poems in Down the Sunlit Hall, manifesting itself through deaths, illnesses and relationships ending.  Sheehan presents “Loss” as unexotic, ever-present, as familiar as a cup of tea, and for the readers peering in to these private moments of coping, this is a great comfort. Although her work is personal and revealing, the voice is always skilfully removed enough to make the piece relevant to the reader, which I imagine is one of the lines that divides good poets from hobbyists. This isn’t ‘confessional’/public therapy by a long shot. (Thank God.)  I particularly liked ‘Upended on My Way to Someplace’. The narrator has an uglier version of a Proustian experience, slipping in dog piss and remembering a moment of being bullied in her youth. The moment also anticipates a future rejection, but the voice in the poem is strong and resigned. “Beside me the puddle’s meniscus / is broken. Dragged through/ with my skid mark and splattered./ Lustre off timber. Fingertip. Fingertip./ Gingerly, lifting myself till I’m standing.” The poet is choosing to deal with a moment which is infinitely more interesting than the ‘break up’ itself, and there is such strength in that choice. Sounds a bit heavy? It isn’t. Her sense of humour is sharp, and she never leaves you too long without a little cathartic laugh. The next poem in the collection after ‘Upended’ is a funny, touching poem about making a snow-woman (“a sexy dame with a jaunty hat/ big-bellied and laughing”) with her daughter.

            Something particularly strong in Sheehan’s work is how visceral it is. Body parts take on lives of their own, as fugitives, rebels or omens. The heart in particular gets a lot of mileage in Down the Sunlit Hall. At different points in the collection it is left behind, it runs away, it is given on a plate to a lover after an argument (“pulsing and steaming”), and happily in the end it is returned to her by a partner, “cradled in his gentle hands”. In these poems with hearts, teeth, tumours and hair, Sheehan employs the subconscious lexicon of dreams, tapping directly into our most fundamental fears and desires. Of these poems, nothing surpasses ‘Living in the Surreal with Alois’ for its gritty, shocking beauty:

 

            my mother makes a tight, knuckled knot of her hand

            knocks on the side of her head

            it’s in there she says, the tumour

            red and hard and the size of my fist

            it makes me forget, they told me it’s there

            deep in my brain like the yolk in an egg

 

The poem goes nowhere near self pity. And the surreal imagery replicates how incredibly hard it is to process the reality of a loved one’s serious illness. 

            But sadness is not where I want to leave off describing this collection. Rather, what make the collection so unique are its moments of wildness.  While I was reading Sheehan’s poems I kept returning to one of my favourite books called Women Who Run with Wolves in which psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés examines threads of ‘the wild woman archetype’ in various myths and fairy stories. (The purpose of such a book being to overturn the restraint of civilised roles women normally occupy, in order to release a kind of suppressed power and life force.) Sheehan isn’t afraid to bare her teeth; as a reader I found that exhilarating. Take ‘From the Cold of the Garden, She Speaks’:

 

            did you think

 

            little man

 

            I would fatten

            on the pickings

            you threw

 

            did you think

            I would thrive

 

            on the slivers

            you sliced

            from your life

 

            did you think

 

            did you think

            I’d survive

 

            a woman like me

            a woman of appetite

 

Although male readers may find a few of these poems unsettling, they should take them instead as a kind of honesty—this wildness, too, is in the women you know. 

 

 

         

©2010 Jennifer Matthews

 

 

 

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Author Links

 

Interviews with various poets through Ó Bhéal

Matthews poems on Poetry International Web

Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)

 

 

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