Many Irish poets have found the Trojan War and its aftermath a resonant reference point for the Troubles. The last nine books of Homer's Odyssey are about having to go through more conflict, on your home ground, when you've just got back from a 10-year voyage from hell after 10 years of war. If you looked at this poem without her other Odysseus poems, the title (plus all this in the first line) would not absolutely have to speak to the guerrilla-like Ithacan scenario in the Odyssey. But modern life is not overstocked with swineherds, and literature has only two famous ones I know of: the Prodigal Son and Odysseus's servant. In Homer, the swineherd is the first human being Odysseus talks to back home. He tells him what's been going on: he has been loyal all through, has had a bad time and now gives Odysseus a bed in his hut, shows him the loutish squatters occupying the palace, and helps plan their assassination.
If this swineherd is that swineherd, then the speaker is the archetypal unsung hero, coming from the most lowly occupation there is to play a key role in a violent campaign - to recover a kingdom and see years of wrong righted. But Ni Chuilleanin's imagination leaps instantly away from Homer (or Ireland), doling out Umberto Eco-like clues to another scenario whose details are unknowable. Special skills? (Bomb-making, garrotting, or pig-care?) Portuguese lay-sister? (Are we in a monastery?) Brass fenders? (Are these in the monastery kitchen, will he retire to a villa with log- fires, or are we talking vintage cars?) The point is, we cannot know. The poet is unloosening us from any original setting, kicking the ladder away to let our own imagination get to work. Once she's established this, she gives us the impossible - the sound of cream crawling to the top of the jug, of water lying soft in the cistern. The last stanza seems a pastoral idyll, but everything is the wrong way round. Happy orchards are not in straight lines, a good summer does not get dark early, and the final wish lands us among mad serried ranks of militarised navy-blue trees. You wonder again about those special skills. Who is this speaker with his surreal desires? Why does his blue-skies-over-the-white-cliffs-of-Dover vision in time of war end with blossom withering on the bough?
The emotional effect is a delicate see-saw. On one hand, when all this is over offers the optative dream of a soldier doing his job, longing for domestic peace: coffee-making, polishing, undisturbed cream. On the other hand you get the increasingly disturbing details: cream crawling, straight lines, dark early in summer, withering. As if the fantasy is for a peace that will not happen, or will happen wrong. The climax of longing is allowed in the last line. Whatever his special skills, he wants nobody to know them; wants not to have to talk about whatever campaign this is; wants shelter (even for foxes), and withering. He wants everything, including himself, to be allowed to stop. He wants, in some sense, a negative.
In this unknowable situation, given us by an unreliable, increasingly strange voice, the first clear thing is the wish to be out of all this. But the rhythm and sound-patterns have a mysterious clarity too. Two stanzas of four lines, flanking one of six, make a broken-apart sonnet: the sestet sitting inside the octet. The rhythm is dominated by the trochee (-u, long short, with the accent on the first syllable), the shape of the first key words over and swineherd. In this very concrete vision of an unattainable world, the key trochaic things are mostly concrete: nouns (weather, coffee, kitchen, fenders, water, cistern, orchard, shelter, summer, blossom), or activities (crawling, wither). A few vowel-harmonies hold each stanza together (over/weather, swineherd/heard; make/awake, lay- sister/day/cistern; see/trees, lines/finds, allowed/bough) but this poet works by surprise. She gets a songlike clarity by juxtaposing apparently unrelated sounds, as well as concrete details. That syncopated break nearly at the end of the second line between the two long syllables (retire, where) marks musically the conceptual switch from real life (all this) to the longed-for future. Finally, though we do not know where we are, who this is or what the issues are, the actual movement of thought has a nervy clarity too. Structurally, the first seven lines hang on I mean, I intend: the voice begins in considering, planning mode. But the last half hangs on I want, I want; the voice has a mounting urgency, wanting the impossible, now. By hauling in that yellow fox and those navy-blue trunks as if we ought to know them - as the (ie, well-known) fox and trees - the voice creates in the reader some weird complicity, an assumption of shared knowledge: which leaves you with haunting sympathy for something you know practically nothing about; for a speaker simultaneously confidential and secretive, surrounded by eerie unspokeness, whose longed-for future is visually clear as crystal, but context-wise utterly dark.
c Ruth Padel, 1999
`Swineherd' is taken from The Second Voyage: Selected Poems (Gallery Press)Reuse content