Another underground presence is the realm of women whose lives were given over to others, whether the Church or children or other family—who were obscured by duty. Ní Chuilleanáin’s ear is tuned to these voices. Her poems arise from the conditions of history, and the conditions of women. She brings the almost entirely hidden histories of nuns, women whose diligence and sacrifice guaranteed the survival of the very institution that suppressed them, to vibrant life. She invokes the prolific Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth, whose books were critical of absentee English landlords in Ireland, and were credited as being the first to describe the humanity of Irish peasants. Edgeworth’s own life was almost entirely circumscribed by an interfering father and her own resulting preference for self-abnegation.
We are in the centuries when work told the body how
to lift, fasten and drag, the weight of the world needed heaving,
when the horses staggered and slowed on the steep hill
the coach too full, too heavy to drag onwards—
—“Maria Edgeworth in 1847”
How far removed so many of us are (those of us reading this, anyway) from the way physical labor shaped the days, weeks, seasons, life in that time, and the way it made or re-made the world. Yet the depiction of Maria Edgeworth as a woman who knew her own privilege but was driven to contribute what she could to the people whose suffering she witnessed, to keep working, to make something, to make a difference, was moving then and remains so now.
The choice of some women to live in the relative isolation of a religious community, to hide their intelligence and ambition, to refuse marriage—all of it was a drain of women’s capital, both intellectual and imaginative, in a time when the only alternatives were variations on confinement. And yet these were still voluntary decisions, in some sense. Others were still more unfortunate, forced to emigrate or to labor in the ways that heaved the world.
In The Mother House sometimes history comes back as the news of the day, as in “The Blind”:
One broken slat pulled from the blind
shows only a slice: the marbled clouds,
a world of bright sky stretching.
But she can’t look out. The news,
a thread that crawls and winds, drags her
into the dark well
that widens then pulls tighter:
what is down there is heavy
and it is true. It pulls on her skin.
“Seaweed” is an astonishingly powerful poem that focuses on a couple whose wedding date was the day before the Easter Rising in 1916 in order to pull back and describe the aftermath of events. Violence is described by details of the way it creates jagged angles, leaves things askew, churns up waves, disorients those in proximity:
And for the man in the room, obscured
by her shadow against the window
the darkening was a storm shifting in his life—
he wondered, where were they now, and would
this perch above the scene blow apart soon,
and he imagined the weeds that sink their filaments
between rocks to nourish a life in water
until all of a sudden they’re sheared away to sea.
And storm and fragility continue, as he imagines them evacuated again and then landing (not settling) “as the seaweed is landed, a darkness in the dark water.” Within this stillness upon stillness is contained the simple, in inescapable fact that any rootedness we have, and all of our connections, can be “sheared away” at any moment.