It is a mystery that the Cork-born poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, esteemed in her homeland, is not as familiar to British readers as younger compatriots like Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian. Is her name just too difficult for the monoglot? Visiting the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall to investigate her cuttings file, I held up the book rather than risk an ignorant mispronunciation. (There was no cuttings file.) What is clear is that Ní Chuilleanáin's reputation in Britain has not been hindered by the quality of her poems, which are good enough to stand alongside the work of that contemporaneous generation of poets from the north of Ireland which includes Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon.
Her work is not located in any obvious tradition. Readers of Patrick Kavanagh must have understood what Heaney was up to from the start, and anyone familiar with Joyce and Beckett would recognise the challenges of Paul Muldoon's poetry. But Ní Chuilleanáin's unsettling poems seem to emerge more from the subconscious than from the library. Her poems take us line by line into deeper water, until we no longer touch bottom. Yet for all the images of seas and rivers, for all the trance-like passages, there is nothing wishy-washy about the writing. Her free verse is pin-sharp, highly sensitive to the world, full of a seemingly casual linguistic brilliance. That such clarity sometimes results in this reader's bewilderment is another mystery.
Motifs of ruin, bones, ashes, creatures – especially horses and spiders – escape, journeys (Odysseus makes several appearances), solitary figures and secrecy recur obsessively throughout this selection of three decades' work. Living in seaside caves, the hermits of "Celibates", from Ní Chuilleanáin's 1972 debut, Acts and Monuments, watch a bee humming along the strand; 22 years later, in "Studying the Language", the hermits are "coming out of their holes / Into the light. Their cliff is as full as a hive." The survival, or perhaps resurrection, that this poem witnesses (the hermits of the earlier poem drown) concludes with an affirmation of the creative act: "I call this my work, these decades and stations – / Because, without these, I would be a stranger here." It reads like a personal statement, made all the more moving by being so unexpected.
While Ní Chuilleanáin's is an original voice, it is not a revealingly autobiographical one. Both pungent and withdrawn, her voice is caught somewhere between reality and myth, like Sylvia Plath's (a writer whom Ní Chuilleanáin otherwise does not resemble). Heightened senses tend to minutiae and simple language is deployed, often to startling effect: a tree "inflates" on a hill, rain "darns" into the grass. It makes for a hypnotic poetry.
Later poems dwell more on religion and, coincidentally or not, become a little more sinister, but the work has barely altered over the years, either in its content or its form. An early poem rhymes unobtrusively, and then rhyme disappears from the work, only to return in a poem that includes the line: "I no longer own a ribbed corset of rhymes." This kind of lightly worn wit saves the work from portentousness. It can be melancholic, tending towards elegy in the later pages, but is too strange ever to be merely glum; and, of all the motifs, light is the most consistent, with the poet striving to capture its particular quality at any moment, so that even at its most crepuscular, her poetry is never dark and unforgiving.
It is, in the end, the volume's cumulative effect that so impresses. Her poetry's atmospheres are unforgettable; haunted by a profound silence, and marvellous in every sense of the word.