Wake: Up to Poetry
A Lil Bit of Lit Crit…
In his November 2010 review of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Sun-fish, William Logan of The New Criterion commented that
“Ní Chuilleanáin loves this stillness the timelessness of Ireland both passing and passed—stately, measured, the poems unfold in their own time, making very little concession to the reader. They’re full of material things, things with density but not specificity, as if she dealt with the Platonic cat, the Platonic milk, and the Platonic grandmother.”
Recently, I found that this quality of Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, the idea of a poem unfolding in its own time, is most noticeable in her poem “The Copious Dark” from The Sun-fish, which was reprinted in The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry this past fall. Throughout the poem, Ní Chuilleanáin beautifully traces through the journey of her subject by marking changes in time and space with variances in light imagery rather than using actual references to linear time.
The poem begins with the image of darkness. Then, once the subject begins to move through the town, Ní Chuilleanáin introduces the image of “a dim light,” an image that destabilizes the initial uniformity of darkness and allows other sights and scenes enter. However, it seems that the reader must work through the poem to gain full access to the subject’s most illuminated visions. Logan puts this aspect best when he says that “[s]ometimes her miniature worlds are pregnant with mystery; yet, even when they’re a puzzle box no one could open, they don’t wheedle or ply, [they’re] never bristling with … privacy … [h]er poems invite being read, while seeming not to care what the reader makes of them.” Towards the middle of the poem, we gain more access to what the subject is seeing, but these images of intense illumination and interiority are counteracted by “shutters” and “odd light”:
Every frame of a lit window, the secrets bared—
Books packed warm on a wall—each blank shining blind
Each folded hush of shutters without glimmer,
Even the sucked-sweet tones of neon reflected in the rain
In Insomniac boulevards where the odd light step
Was a man walking alone: they would all be kept,
Those promises, for people not yet in sight.
It is only towards the end of the poem, after moving through a varied journey of images with our subject, that the reader gets to fully see what the speaker has seen all along: “The back rooms of bakeries, the clean engine-rooms and all / The floodlit open yards where a van idled by a wall, / A wall as long of life, as long as work.” Logan brings up an interesting point that one can definitely sense at the end of this poem in that it seems Ní Chuilleanáin’s “poems love being inconclusive” as a “conclusion would violate anxieties never laid to rest.” While we don’t know who this subject is or where she is going, in the end, we know the struggles she witnesses each day by working with her through alternating scenes of light and darkness.