- "I Am a Clean Whirlwind from the Far Seas":Biddy Jenkinson's Conversation with the Romance of Mis and Dubh Rois
Since her debut collection of poems Baisteadh Gintlí in 1987, the Irish-language writer Biddy Jenkinson has maintained a strong presence in the Irish literary scene.1 She has published five volumes of poetry, two detective novels, one collection of short stories, and two books for children; she has also authored two plays.2 Yet, although her oeuvre is substantial, Jenkinson is not widely recognized among contemporary Irish poets. Only a handful of her poems have been translated into English, which is the poet's explicit wish; she is an outspoken advocate for the place of the Irish language in contemporary Irish culture and she underscores its singular importance by insisting that her work not be translated into English in Ireland. She calls this preference "a small rude gesture to those who think that everything can be harvested and stored without loss in an English-speaking Ireland."3 The absence of readily available English translation of her work undoubtedly limits Jenkinson's readership.4
Despite her relatively narrow readership, Jenkinson's poetry has gained some scholarly attention. More than twenty years ago, Peter Denman deemed Jenkinson's poetry essential to understanding present-day literature in Irish. In "Rude [End Page 58] Gestures? Contemporary Women's Poetry in Irish," Denman contends that Jenkinson's poetry "could serve as a bench mark for contemporary poetry in Irish."5 In addition to setting up a high artistic standard, as a poet who writes in Irish, Jenkinson stands apart from the English-speaking Irish literary culture; at the same time, Denman writes, she confronts an overwhelmingly male poetic tradition and the status quo by bringing in a singular female perspective on both modernity and tradition.
Máire de Búrca contributed a chapter about her to Filíocht Chomhaimseartha na Gaeilge (2010), a collection of essays dedicated to contemporary Irish poets. Using a few of Jenkinson's poems as an example, de Búrca reviews some of the traces recurring in Jenkinson's poetry, including the poet's engagement with Irish literary tradition and folklore, as well as with other literary traditions.6 Last year, University College Dublin accepted a doctoral dissertation by Caitríona Ní Chléirchín that examined Jenkinson and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's work, titled "An Cholainn agus an tSíce bhaineann i bhfilíocht Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill agus Bhiddy Jenkinson: An Ceangal nó an Bhearna idir Mothú agus Briathra" (The Female Body and Psyche in the Poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill: The Connection or the Lacuna Between Language and Emotion). Although still unpublished, it will surely provide a great insight into Jenkinson's oeuvre.7 Elsewhere, Ní Chléirchín has written a number of articles on women's poetry in Irish using Jenkinson's works to show how female poets "transcend the limits placed upon them by a male-dominated canon."8
Other scholars have written on individual poems. Máire Ní Annracháin, for instance, examines Jenkinson's poem "Gleann Moiliúra," which appears in Dán na hUidhre. She shows how, by placing a woman as a speaker of the poem, Jenkinson exploits and modernizes the elements of bardic panegyrics and women's lament.9 Ní Annracháin underscores what other scholars have noted: that the most striking and enriching element of Jenkinson's poetry is her profound and innovative engagement with Irish literary tradition. As Ní Annracháin puts it, [End Page 59] "Jenkinson is . . . a poet of exceptional creativity with a particular sensitivity to the tradition in which she writes, one who recasts the literary tradition in a manner that defies the often traumatic effects of the entire post-bardic period."10
Though she is a writer who acknowledges, cherishes, and draws upon Ireland's long literary tradition, Jenkinson's poetry is not merely archeological; she joins the ranks of Irish-language poets who reach out to the repository of the Irish idiom and its tradition, but her approach to the tradition is far from isolationist. Her intention is not to nourish the past. In fact, Jenkinson adamantly refuses inclusion in...