The first few days of April, I was supposed to be in Houston for the annual meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies. This community of academics is one of my favorites, and this conference is something I’ve come to look forward to, not least because there are pretty much always four poetry roundtables, conference sessions in which a small panel takes the whole audience through a discussion of a recent book of Irish poetry. Handouts of select poems are provided for everyone, and the panelists and some audience members will have read the whole collection, and the hour and a half tends to be an excited discussion of the work in question.
Of course, I did not go to Houston. The conference was canceled.
The Mother House, the newest collection from one of the living greats of Irish poetry, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, was supposed to feature in one of these roundtables. Ní Chuilleanáin has published ten prior books of poetry as well as a Selected Poems, as well as multiple works of translations and several academic monographs, work which won her the post of Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2016-2019 (preceded by Paula Meehan, and succeeded by Frank Ormsby, whose new collection The Rain Barrel is in my currently-reading pile). She writes mostly in English, but also occasionally in Irish, and she’s a writer whose work I need to spend more time in, which is why I was so keen to read and discuss The Mother House.
And that’s an interesting title, isn’t it? A mother house (or motherhouse) is of course the founding house of a religious order; for an order of nuns, it is where the Mother Superior of the order is located. (If you watch Call the Midwife on PBS, you have of course heard these terms bandied about.) Is this a poetry collection about nuns? Well, partly! The opening poem, “An Imperfect Enclosure,” is dedicated to Nano Nagle, the founder of the Presentation Sisters and a force for education in Ireland in the 18th century when Catholic Schools, under the Penal Laws, were illegal. But rather than focus on Nagle’s remarkable life, Ní Chuilleanáin spends most of the poem lingering on her death, and, in particular, where she was buried, suggesting that when she was buried in the nuns’ graveyard instead of the common cemetery as she desired, “she could not stay,” and thus: “they built her a stone tomb / nearer to Cove Lane // and opened a latch and one end / so hands can touch the coffin.”
It’s a striking opening, and one that suggests Ní Chuilleanáin sees life, art, and faith as things that can never be fully cloistered or shut away, nor should they: love and suffering will, somehow, always find access to other people, or people will find access to what they most love and esteem.
She picks up this theme again, more humorously, in her poem “Kilmainham,” about the famous Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin where many Irish revolutionaries were at various times imprisoned and sometimes executed. A jail, of course, is a cloister of a far more punitive form, but the speaker is someone who has escaped, and weaves a web of lies for the warden as to how they managed in order to:
distract him from the innocent who passed down the high wall
at my side, who is wandering the world now
transparent as the ocean, direct as the shallow flow
of tides over stones, will he make it home, or must he fall.
No matter how you shut things up, some things will escape, though as that last line suggests, escape is not a certain indicator of success.
Nuns continue to appear across the collection, but interwoven with the rest of Irish history, as in “Maria Edgeworth in 1847,” which describes the famous novelist knitting scarves for porters who refused payment for their work loading ships with supplies for the sufferers of the Irish famine. While this is framed in a contemporary biography in sentimental terms, Ní Chuilleanáin pulls out the thread of anger: the rage that motivated the porters to refuse payment, and how Edgeworth’s response is an answer to that anger in a form acceptable for women–and, moreover, that anger can be an expression of kindness and love, not merely formless, violent wrath. Anger, too, is something can escape from the cloisters of the self–and with it, also love.
Ní Chuilleanáin is undeniably gifted, and yet the poems also hold me a little at a remove: there is something a touch distant to it all for me, and I don’t find myself as inexorably drawn in, or quite as thrilled, as I am by some of her counterparts–at times, these poems feel a bit too opaque and vague in places where I want a sharpness and immediacy. But her vision is clear, precise, and powerful, and her command of form only heightens the crystalline quality of her work at its best, as in “Bookshelves” or “To the Mother House.”
In the collection’s penultimate poem, a prose poem provided in both Irish and English, a woman stands in her well-appointed house, watching crowds of poorer people fleeing in the snow from a calamity that has yet to befall, something to do with soldiers (it could be quite a number of moments in Irish history represented there). The woman, protected by privilege and her home, is left untouched by the soldiers, but troubled by what she has seen. She thinks of the words a wise woman told her, blended with the story of the prophetess Fedelm from the early Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge:
Why did that woman’s words come back to her? I see them crimson, I see them red. When Fedelm came to tell the queen what she foresaw, she spoke from her chariot, and the queen listened from her own chariot. On the same level. They were dressed similarly. Both dressed in many colors. But, said she to herself in her own mind, from this place I’m in, safe and sound, I can only see what is in front of me, in the present. Is that not enough for a single person?
The reflected light from the snow shining on her.
The woman’s question, juxtaposed with the mythic tale, shows is own falseness: while most of us are not prophets, this poetry collection as a whole reminds us how much more we can see than what is in front of us: religion, history, stories, family narratives all combine, like “all that was sent from the mother house” in an earlier poem, from which we can either make meaning, or craft something that “sucks in meaning” and gives nothing back (lines from “To the Mother House”). This collection, in all of its moving back and forth in time, from the convent to the world and back, reminds us that nothing is static, and that meaning is restless and constant in its movement, if only we choose truly to pay attention to all that is in front of us in the present. And that, in all its richness, is indeed more than enough for a single person.