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The Female Figure in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Poetry by Patricia Boyle Haberstroh (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 18. Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2014
pp. 154-156 | 10.1353/nhr.2014.0013

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Much acclaim was offered in the last few decades of the twentieth century for the growing body of work emerging from a number of Irish female poets. Such authors as Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin were celebrated for their collective contribution as female writers to what had been a male-dominated tradition and for their individual visions and styles. Although Boland's work is often relatively straightforward, much of the work of these writers brought significant interpretive challenges. The poems were complex, idiosyncratic, elusive, and sly. Part of their allure was their mystery and their originality, their new angles of vision, and the language they created to impart these qualities. Reading them, despite their rewards, was hard.

Perhaps no poet represents this mystery and challenge more consistently than Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, whose work throughout her several decades of writing often invites such responses as "enigmatic," "visionary," and "liminal." A critical study of such a poet risks creating an equally challenging critical response, but Patricia Boyle Haberstroh offers a clear and straightforward analysis and discussion of Ní Chuilleanáin's work through her focus on the "female figure" in the poet's now long career.

Haberstroh's book does not proceed chronologically, nor does it structure its arguments on a series of abstract theoretical readings. Instead, the book provides six chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion, on such topics in Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry as "Imagining Women," "Fictive Women: Myth and Folklore," "Place and Presence," and "Women and the Sacred." Each of the thematically focused central chapters offers a window through which to see more clearly what Ní Chuilleanáin is up to in her poetry, what visions we might ourselves enjoy—if only we look intently.

Haberstroh, who brings an extensive familiarity with Ní Chuilleanáin's work to her project, follows a consistent tactic in each of these chapters: provide an epigraph from one of Ní Chuilleanáin's poems, introduce the chapter topic with a page or so of general comments or a theoretical discussion, and then consider numerous examples from Ní Chuilleanáin's poems that illustrate or exemplify the subject of the chapter. Each chapter is suffused with examples and quotes from the poet's work as a way to develop or support its topic. The chapters proceed with one close reading after another, showing both the intensity of Haberstroh's attention and, when she relates one poem to another, the logic of her thematic structure.

"Beginnings," the first chapter, may be the one that holds together best as a unit. The chapter amounts to a primer for the poetry of late twentieth-century Irish women, and it offers both historical context to and aesthetic appreciation of their works. Readers seeking a good source for an introduction to the topic of Irish women's poetry would do well to look to this chapter. It is ample without being dense, and clear without being condescending.

The many advantages of Haberstroh's encyclopedic and straightforward approach to her topic, however, also introduce their own weaknesses. The central chapters, in the intensity of their series of close readings, do not make for the same kind of engaging reading as the first one; their best service, after each of their introductions, is probably to lead readers (with help from the index) to critical insights of individual works. The readings of the works as pieces of evidence to justify the chapter's thematic structure, although obviously necessary, are not as interesting as how each reading affects our understanding of individual poems.

To her credit, Haberstroh carefully avoids critical obfuscation. Nevertheless, some more intense editing could have helped with the transitions that hold everything together. Sometimes a full sentence is used when a phrase will do, or even when the connection to the topic is implicitly clear in the interpretation. For example, in the discussion on "The Married Women," Haberstroh writes that "Ní Chuilleanáin's poem might be contrasted to Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan' in terms of its portrayal of the female figure." Although both true and relevant, the contrast with Yeats that follows—and which, really...

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