Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Boys of Bluehill is a masterly, muscular work that views personal history through the matched lenses of scholarship and imagistic description. Everything described here is dead, or dying. Everything described here is being reborn. In Ní Chuilleanáin’s hands, the skin is peeled back from commonplace life and beneath it is revealed the bloody, beating heart of myth.
‘The Burden of Cloth’ is set in a theatre. The title is a nice double-play, referring to both a literal burden, a load of cloth, and a term for taking religious orders. The phrasing reveals acting as a sacred vocation. A play is stitched together from many parts; at one point the narrator indicates that it is difficult to tell who is more important; the director, the actors, the playwright. In the end all visible roles pale beside the unseen costumer who appears to tie the play together with bolts of cloth:
– But who can it be, and is it because of the colours,
ghosts of burgundy, pale roses, that misted white,
that he stands there, shuddering like a flame wedded
to its candle, guarding greyness at its core, waiting,
which is why it seems so difficult at last to handle and stack
the whole folded history balanced on two bone shoulders.
In those last two lines, the costumer transcends the priestlike role of actor (‘the one playing the Cardinal is attended / by troops of acolytes to carry the loaded train’) and transforms, instead, into an avatar of Christ. As such, the metaphor accompanying him is an image of death-in-life; the ashing wick of a candle that dies to burn.
These images of death-in-life (and life-in-death) are threaded through Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, but they are rarely simply – or obviously – done. ‘The Knot’ features an image of incredible symbolic complexity that must be carefully unpacked:
after twenty-one years the hanging glass butterfly
that I bought in the December market slithered away,
lost itself, loosed the knot and fell into its freedom.
The butterfly has long been an image of the resurrection. The bright, new-winged imago emerges, wet and new, rom the coffin-shaped chrysalis and a state like death. It flies, delicate but sure, through the gusty spring air. The butterfly in this poem is different. Its winged state (still, hanging) has been its stasis – and stasis is a synonym for death. Its ‘freedom’ comes when the knot which binds it slips, when the glass shatters and the old form (the form of our theology) perishes, when it stops being what it seemed.
In dreams the symbols of lives we think we know shift and slip into new bodies. When Ní Chuilleanáin writes about dreams they suddenly acquire new mass and weight, beyond the chemical-flash of fired synapses. In ‘The Sentence’ dreams serve as judge and jailer for a conscience laden with guilt. The convict is required to ‘sleep for ten years’, locked in painful images:
where you will spend hours in odd company,
where the dead are awkwardly present, and the estranged
are close but do not explain their savage letters,
while the child you forgot to fetch from school
goes alone on dark bus journeys along the boulevards.
If, when s/he wakes, she finds the grass grown long, the world moved on, and herself (like briar rose) unchanged in an altered space where ‘no crouching orphan waits by your door’ s/he will be free; released to live.
This is a thorny, difficult book. Reading it requires care, and effort. That is praise. Sweet berries, bright flowers, bloom between the brambles (fed on blood) and it is worth it to pry the boughs apart to pluck them.