The Mother House by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (Wake Forest University Press, 2020).
Still Life by Ciaran Carson (Wake Forest University Press, 2020).
Since the Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed so many aspects of our lives, it stands to reason that reading has also been changed. It seems strange to move, imaginatively, into worlds that would have been judged unremarkable just months ago, before our thoughts and movements in the world were not so taken up with the parameters of illness, susceptibility, contamination. Quarantine has given many people a taste of isolation, but of course isolation (in various forms, and for various reasons) has always been part of human experience. Volitional isolation can be positive for an artist, but the isolating experience of disease is a very different circumstance. Two recent books by Irish poets provide a basis for thinking about isolation from many angles. If reading can be a kind of shared solitude, what these poets bring to it is most generous.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet and scholar whose work has delved the rich terrain of Irish women’s imagination and confronted the realities of their historic relegation to servitude. The Mother House takes its title from the principle residence of a religious community of nuns. The book feels solid, like a house—a foundation. This impression is created and maintained chiefly by Ní Chuilleanáin’s assured, elegant voice, one that invites listening. There is a hush about its many rooms, containing secrets and windows that look out into other realms. The poems usher the reader across thresholds and out into fields but also back into the past. Histories emerge and scatter. There are presences, but also absences:
Now silence is waiting, a music from under the floor
too deep to be heard, a procession pacing
with tall faded banners that sway and swallow
the laneways’ clatter and the brewery smell.
—“A Map of Convents”
The poems layer voices, stories, landscapes, and distances that in turn generate shadow portraits of migration, the upheavals of war, and other pressures on communities and individual lives. The inescapability of human transience, both in the sense of residence and nation, and in terms of life and death, is threaded through the book. Yet death is not a final severance from the living world, because there is an enduring connection between the human world and another hidden realm, a “still deeper seam” that roots in the imagination.