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What Else is There? & Hofstetter's Serenade

Roisin Kelly reviews collections by Adam White and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin




Roisin Kelly was born in Belfast, raised in Leitrim, and currently lives in Cork City. Her first chapbook of poetry, Rapture, was published by Southword Editions in 2016. Her work has appeared in POETRY, Lighthouse, The Stinging Fly, HeadStuff, Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 (Eyewear 2016) and in The Irish Times after it was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. She won the Fish Poetry Prize 2017. www.roisinkelly.com


Photo cred: Simon Curran




What Else Is There?

Adam White

(Doire Press, 2017)

ISBN:  978-1-907682-47-6

€12 paperback

Buy from Doire Press



Hofstetter's Serenade

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
(Periplum, 2017)
£5 paperback
Buy from Periplum





When I reviewed Adam White’s debut collection Accurate Measurement in a 2015 issue of Southword, I described it as “a poetic celebration of the world of manual labour, of craftsmanship and doing things in the right way.” This statement is just as true of his latest collection What Else Is There?, in which the aforementioned themes are further explored with White’s trademark deliberateness. Take the way in which he shows to us the significance of something as ordinary as a pile of firewood, which, “drying / in the right conditions / has the fat worked off it by the years.” It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to consider how these lines, and the ones below, could equally refer to the craftsmanship of White’s poetry:


Something like birch

to get the whole thing started right;

the slow release of oak and ash

to keep it going through the night


It’s a time-honoured mark of literary prowess when a writer succeeds in making us examine in a new way something everday in order to realise the quiet magic in it, and so does White allow us to see both the woodpile and what the woodpile represents: labour; a fire in the grate; long night and conversations with loved ones present or absent; the careful shaping of poetry itself. Meanwhile, unexpected little details like the description of rings in a tree as “pressed layers of xylem / and phloem” flare up like sparks and bring the poem to life.


            Although the poems that concern welding and woodworking and blacksmithing held less interest for me than, say, several that touch on the world's melting icecaps, I did appreciate White’s gentle celebration of such labours. Almost as an aside, he mentions how he sometimes runs his “eye along the build of something square / (just to see again that I could see that it was square).” The poet’s quiet confidence in his own natural abilities when it comes to working with his hands and eyes also reassures his readers that he will not falter when it comes to the painstaking craft of writing.


            He is brave enough, too, to look beyond the boundaries of his own world and take on the voices of people from other times and places—his talent lies in emphasising the ordinary details of their lives, summoning rich and poignant existences that seem at once familiar and irrevocably alien to our own. So we find ourselves at the edge of a goldfield in 1901, which to reach Irish immigrants have had to trudge over “a thousand miles of nightmare ice.” The voice of one such immigrant describes to us the collective comfort and value that the diggers find in hearing the myths and legends they grew up with being re-told after a long day’s work. We can almost hear the tales of the Salmon of Knowledge and Tír na nÓg being told, despite all their ancientness, for the first time in a new strange land below its star.


            ‘The Hundred-Dollar Stove’ touches on the refugee crisis, possibly the most important and daunting subject matter of our time. Commonly, the most successful art to have addressed the issue is usually that which avoids outbursts of horror and sentiment, and instead focuses on the small realities of refugees’ lives. This is the case in White’s poem, in which a family in Tel Abyad regufee camp can no longer afford wood for their stove, despite the freezing temperatures. Now the wife can hardly bear to compare the stove's “shell of a promise”, now the “coldest thing in the tent”, with how “we used to lift down the bubbling pot from it, / and sometimes wake in the middle of the night / by it, my husband and I on the mats, / both of us burning to the other’s touch.”


            However, ‘Mare Nostrum'—about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean—is less gripping, told as it is in the dry tones of a nautical officer. It's one of several poems in the collection that veer close to cliché, like in another poem concerning several months the narrator and his childhood friend spent flower-picking in the Netherlands. Despite not having seen his friend in years, the question is put to us: aren’t they “still the best of friends in all these ways?” Well, how should we know? And if the question is rhetorical, it's a slightly more Hallmarky sentiment than I expected to find amid such otherwise well-crafted poems.


            But poems that deal with that other even more terrifying and possibly insurmountable problem that the world’s writers and artists must face—climate change—are where White’s talent truly makes itself known. In the first of a sequence of poems on the melting icecaps called ‘Postcards from Greenland’, a photographer of the glaciers remembers when he was a child and “cried because I hadn’t one crayon /  the true colour of ice.” The language and imagery White employs mark a stark contrast between that childhood innocence and the reality of our planet today, when the “white grip of the poles is withering, / when coal-fired holes etch / the flat top of the world.”      


            In a second poem, the Jakobshavn Glacier is described in no less luminous and devastating language: “Today I saw the big one, defreezing / tongue of the ice sheet, blue alps calving / and collapsing into the ocean. / Its thaw water weeps.” Digging through the tundra until he strikes the “permafrost’s solace”, the poet wonders, “Now why is it I can only like the world / the way it used to be, things left well and alone? / What is there to be done?” It is to the poet’s credit that he feels he can address us so directly, and at other times abandon restraint and careful structuring of lines to indulge in striking language and vivid imagery:


mackerel are shattering


the bay’s appearance,

which is the noise of heavy rain

gunning the water,


their silver and green

winking like dropped-in

flipping sinking coins (‘Elegy for a Welder’)


Yet even while allowing his imagery to almost run away from him, White reminds us that he is nothing if not controlled. These lines work, whereas they might have overwhelmed a lesser poet. It is in this joyous, controlled freedom of imagery that the lines themselves almost become the wild, shimmering, flipping fish, flashing startling colours at our eyes before they sink again and the sea becomes calm once more.


            Hofstetter’s Serenade, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s pamphlet from Periplum Press, doesn’t have the catchiest title ever but what does that matter to one of Ireland’s poetry masters? Its title poem is a compassionate musing on death; more specifically, on the death of the poet’s mother. Such a simple line as the one that describes the poet’s grief spreading “wide across these years [her mother] knows nothing of” conveys more about the reality of dying than many full collections by others have come close to. Ní Chuilleanáin imagines her mother at eleven—who could have been “married to an emperor” if she had been born a thousand years earlier—when the piece of music that would come to define her life, and her daughter’s, began rising out of her “smooth like a weaver’s thread / back and forth tracing.” This musicality of language is also evident in ‘Inside the House’, in which a character waits until her family is at church until she acknowledges the “kernel” that might provide a temporary escape from the reality of her life: “even if its hiding place was a shell, / even if it had to be secret / as the fragile yolk that held the giant’s life.”


            Ní Chuilleanáin’s extraordinary talent is so understated as to be barely noticeable at points. I had to read ‘Inside the House’ several times before I was struck by the subtle power of its opening lines: “She crossed the footbridge, the bell / was ringing from the chapel, they were there / expecting her. In she went, / inside, like breathing.” The tone is so conversational, the scene so seemingly tranquil with the only discernible sound being the chapel bell, that at first I missed the almost sinister, almost melancholic nature of the image of a family in church waiting for a daughter who has other things on her mind. And how marvellous to describe going into a house “like breathing.” Indeed going into our house is as natural and everyday and unremarkable to us as breathing, but it takes a writer of Ní Chuilleanáin’s skill to make the comparison between the actions on our behalf.


            ‘Seaweed’ is a poem with a beautifully extended metaphor at its core. As a couple married on the day of the Easter Rising watch scenes of destruction and despair unfold on the street below their upper-storey room, the effect this event might have on their new lives together is encapsulated in the image of “weeds that sink their filaments / between rocks to nourish a life in water / until all of a sudden they’re sheared away to sea.” The image of seaweed’s “filaments” is already astonishing enough in its associations with both power and delicacy; but in using the image as a metaphor for the fragility of human life, relationships, and social structure, Ní Chuilleanáin reminds us exactly why she is one of Ireland’s foremost poets.


            In fact, her style could be summed up in these lines from ‘She was at the Haymaking’:


she saw the wave so gently courting

the land, with shallow pushes


and the curved edge of the tide

making its way upstream


So gently and persuasively does Ní Chuilleanáin court the reader that we perceive her bending of our expectations as little as water notices where the river leads it. These are poems brimming with lives lived deeply and quietly. Reading this short collection is at times like drifting between wells of emotion, dark and still, here and there reflecting the moon; at others it is like stepping into a bright, airy, whitewashed room, where the sounds of the real world fade away and are forgotten.



©2017 Roisin Kelly



Author Links


'Oranges' at Poetry Foundation

'Tuam' in HeadStuff

Poetry at Roisin's website

More work by Roisin in Southword








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