Eilean Ní Chuilleanain’s creative use of language creates a fantastical air of mystery and tension, leaving the reader with more questions than answers about the personal events that inspired her work. Her clever use of symbolism and motifs can express some profound ideas.
Ní Chuilleanain’s poem On Lacking the Killer Instinct combines a multitude of memories, both of her father’s illness and passing, and of tales of her father running from the black-and-tans. She recalls leaving the hospital as her father was dying, unable to process the reality of the situation. She fled to the hills where she sees a hare, peacefully sitting in a field. This memory is evoked through the image she saw in the newspaper of two greyhounds running after a similar hare. The sight of the hare that “shoots off to the left”, filled with a “glad power” as it evades the “absurdly gross” hounds behind.
The poet is reminded of her father who, as a young man in post-rising Ireland in the nineteen twenties, was being wrongfully pursued by “a lorry-load of soldiers”. The hare is creatively used to symbolise her father throughout the poem, whether being rightfully or wrongfully hunted, or at peace surrounded by nature. The evasive hare in the newspaper photograph fooled the bloodthirsty hounds just as her father tricked the zealous soldiers by hiding in a nearby house and masquerading as a member of the family.
The poet is inspired by the image of the hare, how ‘she’ is at peace and accepting of nature and its ways. She regrets her decision to run away from her fears, from hiding from the reality of her fathers impending death, yet the next morning she went back to the city, “washed in brown bog water”, cleansed by the natural sights and realisations she had while struggling to cope. The constant change of perspective, from peaceful hare in the field, to fleeing hare in the newspaper, to her father in the nineteen twenties, to the poet herself hiding from reality, creates a great sense of mystery. The reader is left wondering which images correspond with each other from each individual memory or story. The memories are powerful and though lacking in detailed description, are extremely easy to visualise. While this poem has a considerably lower sense of mystery than the rest of her poetry, it is more than made up for in her other poetry.
Ní Chuilleanain’s poem entitled Translation breathes new life into the stories of the women who were essentially imprisoned in the Magdalene Laundries. This poem does not focus on a personal memory of the poet’s, instead focusing on a feeling, a train of thought that an event provoked. Upon viewing the reburial of the Magdalenes, she imagines the voices of the women calling out, begging for their stories to be told. Each individual’s personal story is shrouded in a blanket of secrets and out-dated beliefs. These women were initially buried in unmarked graves, words of impurity having already replaced their names when they were first brought into the laundries. The poet describes this voice to be “sharp as an infant’s cry,” suddenly evoking the images of the Magdalenes losing their new-born children because they were considered to be impure, having been born out of wedlock. Their names and stories, the identities of their children, all remain hidden, cloaked in a mysterious “veil”.
Possibly the most mysterious of all her poems on this course is Street. Everything about the poem, from its title to its contents answer no questions, instead it raises even more questions that will never be answered. The poem follows an unnamed man with uncertain intentions, only referred to as “he”, who is in love with “the butcher’s daughter”.
This woman is elusive, being described as wearing “white trousers” and “dangling a knife on a ring at her belt”. This phrase alone brings many different images to mind. The dangling knife, which later is hinted as being bloodied, suggests that she is dangerous, a woman of her trade, perhaps. The colour white alone holds many connotations. White clothing near something that could stain, a bloodied knife, for example, suggests that she is daring and willing to take risks. White itself can often imply purity, beauty, peace, kindness, a soft and gentle nature, but paired with the knife, it suggests an almost surgical sterility, an absence of information, a blank page. She is free of all information. The colour white is this woman’s obscurity. She is nothing more than a title. Nameless, faceless, with no personality traits or features. She is “The Butcher’s Daughter”.
The sense of danger and mystery continues as the man decides to follow this woman into “the slanting lane at the back of the shambles.” We are not told anything more about the woman, simply that “a door stood half-open”. We do not know if the woman is aware of the man’s advances or his presence. We know nothing about either of their intentions. Why would the butcher’s daughter leave the door open? Are the man’s intentions innocent or sinister?
The scene described is again a confusing one. Behind this unclosed door is a flight of stairs. The woman’s shoes are at the bottom of the stairs, yet some blood had clung to her feet, “her bare heels” having left a “red crescent” as she had ascended. This poem’s purpose, other than to draw the reader into a dead-end, is unclear, and the poem’s message is even more so.
The red crescents fade away as they reach the top of the stairs, the woman is unattainable. She vanishes into thin air, obscured by the slightest of obstacles, hiding in plain sight. The woman symbolises mystery and the unknown. While it seems dangerous to pursue and to study, humanity, here represented by the man, are unable to resist the charm of discovery and knowledge of what has always been withheld from us, dangling on a ring just out of reach.
Ní Chuilleanain’s poetry features a great number of metaphors and motifs, delving into historical and personal events. She places these images before us, though they are diminished, leaving us to ponder their meaning and try to fill in the gaps. Her creative use of imagery and language allows us to see the world through her eyes, yet continue to seek a better understanding of what we see.