Tag Archives: Irish poetry

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Majella Cullinane

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Majella Cullinane, originally from Ireland, has lived in New Zealand since 2008. She graduated with an MLitt in Creative Writing from St Andrew’s University in Scotland and her debut collection was published by Salmon Poetry in Ireland. She has received a number of awards including the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University and the 2017 Caselberg International Prize for Poetry. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at Otago University. She lives in Port Chalmers.

Otago University Press has just released Majella’s second collection, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing. It is a terrific read that furnishes a sumptuous bridge between homes, contemplations and experience – with luminous detail, undercurrents and themes. To celebrate the book’s arrival, we embarked on a slowly unfolding email conversation.

 

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The conversation

 

I too find myself in a bedroom now, the reflection of myself in the window,

only the line of my torso, my arms in a white woollen jumper.

Below me the neighbour’s house; behind that a tree stripped by winter.

I am neither idle nor riveted by my eyes, but at this moment

the letters race to catch each other across the space; the sound

in my ears is the piano keys and the slow stretch of bows against strings.

It is the day before the shortest day of the year.

The sky is grey; it has started to rain.

 

from ‘Winter Solstice’

 

 

Paula: The first line of the first poem, ‘Winter Solstice’, stalled me: ‘In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with.’ Is this how it is writing a poem at times? You are writing into the light from the dark? Or the exact opposite?

Majella: I think what I meant is more practical in that I hadn’t opened the curtains. The opening line of my poem is specifically a response or answer to Kinsella’s poem (epigraph) which begins:

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain… (Kinsella)

and I’m saying/opening with:

In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with…(Me) 

 

Paula: Yes! I love the way you set up a conversation. The line is a perfect entrance into the poem itself but, as I stalled on it, I began to think about all the different ways to come to writing a poem. I love the way poetry can sidetrack you and then return you to the heart of a poem. My thinking got quite twisty because I was thinking I write into both dark and light when I begin a poem, always with jolts of surprise as the words hit the page. How is it for you when you write a poem?

Majella: How I come to write a poem varies widely. Generally I tend to let ideas and images simmer or gestate for quite a while first, or I might write a line or two and leave it and then return later. I’m a great believer in free-writing or writing down the page and letting words spill out unhindered, unedited.  I suppose it’s my way of discovering what the poem is about and what it is I want to say. I need to write my way in.  If something is not quite working I often like to move stanzas around. At some point I think there is, as you describe, a kind of jolt of surprise when you see that the poem is taking shape and you know what it’s trying to say.  Rarely, and it’s like a beautiful gift, I will get a poem fully formed, one that doesn’t need too much tweaking. But this is very rare. It is the craft and close attention to each word that I really love about poetry, the way poetry has this magical way of making you stop and notice the seemingly small things in life. Also because I also write fiction I think poetry allows me to access the stiller, more reflective side of my personality.

 

 

III

I watch the slow tide one late February day,

stare into the grey whiteness of sky,

marvelling at the vagary of clouds.

If they could unshackle themselves,

I’d parcel them up with the mountains,

the inlets, the sea,

paint them on canvas,

carry them home under the nook of my arm.

 

from ‘Broad Bay’

 

 

Paula: Simmering and gestating are like the invisible threads of a poem. Stillness along with slow contemplation is such a captivating feature of your poetry. I am also drawn to the sumptuous detail in your poems: pungent, sharp, intriguing, scene building. I am always intrigued by the way details work and the various places it leads me as reader. What does detail do for you in your poems?

Majella: An attention to detail mostly helps me to reconnect with memory and place, and thereby conjure imagery associated with a particular time and place. It also enables me to explore language, and hopefully enrich the essence of a particular poem. The curiosity engendered by specificity or detail also allows me to discover new things. For example, I’m fascinated by NZ flora and fauna which is so specific and unique to this country, and am interested in connecting that uniqueness, which may be taken for granted if you grew up here, to my own experience of being an outsider/immigrant and to my sense of place in the world. Perhaps it is my attempt to root or anchor myself in familiar and unfamiliar landscapes, and for the present and past to coexist and play with or against each other.

 

Paula: Is there one poem where the detail particularly works for you?

 

We’re not there yet, but there are hints: in the pink-red clasp of sorrel,

the cicada easing a pitch lower, shedding its voice. The wind

changing direction like the act of entering a room and forgetting

what it is you came for. The sky tinged in blue-lavender,

spools of cloud whipping over the hills like wounds.

 

from ‘Finale to the Season’

 

 

Majella: I think most of my poems use detail to attempt what I discussed above. ‘Finale to the Season’ juxtaposes details from my past and present to explore the contrasting seasons –  New Zealand’s early autumn, with the reference to the cicada and the grey warbler in the southern hemisphere and in the Northern hemisphere early spring with ‘crows stalking frozen trees’ and also the memory of my parent’s house where my sister and I shared ‘our own narrow bed’. The contrast of the first and third stanza, between the here and there is suspended for a moment, or at least hinted at when I write ‘the season’s murmurings are breached.’ Perhaps what I’m trying to achieve here, at least imaginatively, is that the past and present converge somehow and it is through imagery and connection with place that a momentary connection is possible.

 

The birch collar box lying in the centre of his suitcase the day he had left.

And you wondered about it, whether or not it had been returned;

if he had ever worn such a neat, rigid, clean thing, knee deep in rain and mud,

with the boom of the guns deafening, the smell of the kitchen,

the stove’s heart miles away.

 

from ‘Op Shop, 1985’

 

Paula: Yes – I was really struck by the way some of the poems arc between here and there, New Zealand and Ireland. I was quite moved by them. Another poem that struck me was ‘Op Shop, 1985’. Rather than place, this poem animates people. Do you ever feel poems are a way of anchoring place and people when you have attachments in both hemispheres? Poetry is a way of being at home?

Majella: Absolutely. I’ve lived in New Zealand since 2008 and to be honest it took me a while to settle in. Although there are many similarities between NZ and Ireland there are many differences, and not just with the flora and fauna, which is the most obvious thing but culturally too of course. I am now a dual citizen of Ireland and New Zealand and feel very much at ‘home’ in both countries. I think a big part of that settling-in period, and eventual ease with having a foot in each hemisphere so to speak, was achieved by exploring my feeling and experience through poetry, and the realisation that it’s not one place that necessarily makes a home but rather the people that, as you suggest, animate it whether they be living or dead.

 

Paula: Do you still touch base with Irish poetry?

Majella: Very much so.  There’s a lot going on in Ireland in terms of poetry and fiction at the moment. Favourite Irish and Northern Irish poets include Vona Groarke, Michael Longley, Kerry Hardy, Sinead Morrissey, Eavan Boland just to name a few. But my reading is pretty wide. I also love Scottish and American poetry.

 

Paula: I got to hear Vona at AWF a few years ago. She is so good, and I have loved books by Sinead and Eavan. I also love the way Eavan writes about poetry. I will have to track down the other two! What about New Zealand poets? Are there any that you have really engaged with?

Majella: Rhian Gallagher, Emma Neale and Sue Wootton for their lyrical intensity, striking imagery and attention to form and craft.

 

Paula: Musicality is such a feature of their poetry, both on the page and when they perform. Do you write for the page or is reading aloud equally important? An early New Zealand poet, Eileen Duggan, with familial links back in Ireland, was shaped by Irish song. Not so much individual songs but the love of song, of women singing.  Has Irish singing influenced your poems?

Majella: I read everything I write aloud, both poetry and fiction. Sound is so essential when writing poetry so that each draft I write I’m reading and re-reading it as I go. As for Irish song, I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by Irish singing but I do listen to music while I’m writing/drafting mainly classical music and I love soundtracks. Mind you having said that I do love Irish ballads: Siúil a Rún, She Moved Through the Fair, Raglan Road, etc. so maybe I’ve been influenced subliminally. I certainly used to sing a lot as a young child and had singing and piano lessons. I’ve often said if I didn’t write I probably would have gone into music.

 

You called just after eight. I could hear the longing in your voice

as raw as the air two days earlier when the hills were dusted with snow

and temperatures plummeted. We wrapped your grandson in layers

vest, long johns, hat and gloves. I stayed in and cleaned, found traces of myself

in drawers and cupboards, in scraps of paper and old notebooks, piled

laundry on the bed and folded it.

 

from ‘Compline’

 

Paula: For me the joy of your collection lies in the multiple subjects that depend upon musicality and contemplative movement. The poems engage so intricately with people and place, but there is an emotional undercurrent that also hooks me. I love ‘Compline’, the poem for your mother that catches the ache of distance. There are the tender mother observations in ‘You Say’ and ‘The Little Boy That Got Away’.

In some poems, grief is measured and utterly moving – as in ‘There But For’. I am drawn into the width and depth of being human in your poems. How important is it to write as both mother and daughter? To write the tough experience along with the jubilant and the wonder?

 

Majella: Well, when I first started writing I was a little hesitant to use the personal in poetry, which is why I wrote quite a few dramatic monologues, especially in the first collection. It is a form I still love as it allows me to explore another I and perhaps connect with the latent thespian in me. There’s quite a gap between the first and second collections. In a way that gap mirrors the experience of being both here and there, of becoming a mother in New Zealand, and consequently knowing what it is to be a mother, and how my own mother feels about distance, especially as I’ve been coming and going from Ireland since I was twenty and haven’t lived there since 2004.

Regarding writing about the tough, or difficult in life, well, the older I get I find I need to write about all aspects of being human as you suggest.  Even in the most difficult situations I have encountered, there is, if I look hard enough, and slow enough, a little wonder and hope to be found. I’m reminded of that phrase, the darkest hour is just before dawn. 

 

Paula: Can you pick one poem to post at the end? My collections often have poems that particular matter to me. Do you have one like this?

Majella: One poem that particularly matters to me would be Feather, inspired by Dickinson’s Hope Is The Thing With Feathers.  The idea that until we ‘know’ we can always hope, and even when what is hoped for is not possible we can still feel it to be real somehow – through the power of the imagination.

 

 

Feather                

If only everyday was as simple as listening to birds, their small voices

plucking the grey-blue morning, emboldened on this first day of spring.

We too might dare to hope that what has long been desired is not so far away.

Let’s suppose it is here already, as real as this room’s radiator

switching itself on and off; the thermostat of our longing unhindered

by a dial of hours. Rather it exists in a kind of elsewhere,

or takes form in the wanderer who crosses bridges and borders

without restraint. Better to loosen the tangle of our rough wishes,

of the could-have-beens and might-have-beens and know we had it all,

just for a moment. Beneath the clamour of sounds –

logging trucks rattle to and fro from the port, a dog barks at the passersby.

A friend writes a message, subvoce – imagine, imagine,

and the bird that sheds a feather without knowing,

is the one we might chance upon, pick up and carry home

 

©Majella Cullinane Whisper of a Crow’s Wing

 

 

Otago University Press page

 

 

 

 

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Monday Poem: Emer Lyons’s ‘Poison’

 

Poison

After Gwendolyn Brooks and Terrance Hayes

 

We

take to the drink, wanting real

life to dampen our tongues, cool

the shame we are forced to we-

ar with guilt built in, all left

to us from him. Dul ar scoil

to learn the church’s rules, we

learn to shut mouths, minds, legs, lurk

close to home, wait until late

in life to start living. We

protest against them. We strike

them down like they do us, straight

 

*

 

up get wasted. Hear our we-

ary mothers try to sing

songs that might free us from sin –

A-ma-zee-ing Grace. They we-

ep for us their kin grown thin

from not giving a shite, gin

our favourite perfume. We

think to join in, feel that jazz

of life again but them June

days are made for drinking, we

mute their sound, they turn to die-

ts of rosaries, T.V. Soon

 

*

 

we join the rest like us, we-

lcomed we are into the real

darkness of the pub, scrubbed cool

colours paint the walls, but we

don’t look at the walls, eyes left

downcast for fear that some school

friend’s dad be holding up we-

t edges of a stool, lurk-

ing for some young wan’s time. Late-

r when we’ve spent our lot, we

goes to the likes a him, strike

up some talk with tits out straight

 

*

 

under their noses, they we-

ak them eejits, we be sing-

le, we’re not patrolling sin-

‘s committed by men, we

too busy with our own thin-

clad secrets, like how the gin

at home is watered down – we-

eks of stealing dat took! Jazz

oozes from the jukebox, June

fades outside the window, we

stay until it starts to die

down, already Sunday, soon

 

*

 

Mass be starting, not that we

bother anymore, found real

religion that don’t play cool –

you’ll get what you’re given. We

grab the bottle’s neck, get left

in pools of our own sick, school-

ed to mind ourselves – coz we-

‘ve no time for all dat! Lurk-

ing Larry’s hide in the late

afternoon shadows to we-

t us between the legs – strike

all ya want girls! We walk straight

 

*

 

passed them, they keep trying. We

see some other girls get sing-

led out, get pregnant, the sin

dripping off them, we look we-

ll away when they be thin-

king to look at us. Begin

to think about things that we-

‘ve been told, listen to jazz

music in our rooms with June

next door shouting how we owe

her some peace – go way and die!

Her gob shuts as the bassoon

 

*

 

roars the devil’s music. We

develop our taste buds, real-

ise wine looks classy, the cool

kids be drinking it, so we

form fists around the stems, cleft

our insides, move like a school

of fish, joined at the hip we

be, until we go home, lurk

through our own front doors, dilate-

d pupils in heads, too we-

ak to take d’mother’s strike

against our faces, lie straight

 

*

 

down on the carpet. There we

sleep dreamless until the sing-

ing birds move our bleary sin-

ged bodies to mirrors. We-

igh ourselves (no shoes on) – thin

girls don’t hang onto virgin-

ity long. The fella’s we-

dge between us, shove their jazz-

ing hands down our skirts, the June

heat hot against our heads we-

lded to the wall, us die-

hards wanting it over soon-

 

*

 

er rather than later, we

don’t look into their eyes, real-

ly we’d rather catch the cool

stares of other girls, a we-

llspring of poker faces left

to drown outside of the school

system, taught us nothing we

could use against filthy lurk-

ers, or what to do with late

periods, or how come we-

‘d never be wealthy – strike

us down for we have strayed straight

 

*

 

off the path most chosen. We

won’t marry any man, sing

children to sleep or get sin-

gled out for promotion. We

will live backed against walls, thin-

king of dreams we had of begin-

ning again, all along we

knew we’d never see a jazz

band, another clear blue June

sky or hear our mother’s we-

ak, how sweet the sound. We die

soon.

 

©Emer Lyons

 

 

Emer Lyons is an Irish writer who has had poetry and fiction published in journals such as TurbineLondon GripThe New Zealand Poetry Society AnthologySouthwordThe Spinoff and Queen Mob’s Tea House. She has appeared on shortlists for the Fish Poetry Competition, the Bridport Poetry Prize, the takahé short story competition, The Collinson’s short story prize and her chapbook Throwing Shapes was long-listed for the Munster Literature Fool For Poetry competition in 2017. Last year she was the recipient of the inaugural University of Otago City of Literature scholarship and is a creative/critical PhD candidate in contemporary queer poetry.