Caitríona Ní Chléirchín won first prize in the 2010 Oireachtas competition for new writers for her first collection of poetry Crithloinnir, published in July 2010. She writes reviews, academic and journalistic articles and has published poetry in Poetry Ireland Review, Comhar, Feasta, Blaiseadh Pinn, Cyphers, an t-Ultach and An Guth. She is an Irish-language lecturer at University College, Dublin, and is completing a doctorate on the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Biddy Jenkinson. She spent a year in Lyon, France, studying a masters in French literature. She is originally from Emyvale in Co. Monaghan.
“Loving is a journey with water and with stars,” wrote Neruda (translation Stephen Mitchell), and in her début collection Crithloinnir (Bright-tremor) Caitríona Ní Chléirchín echoes much of his romantic-erotic lexicon of stars, flowers, skies, waves, moonlight, night, sea. Her poems are delicate, airy constructions, sparse, intimate. This is a world of amour fou, of passion, of sensuality. It is almost a self-enclosed world, a secret world – again and again Ní Chléirchín uses the word ‘rúnda’, or secretive. It’s worth remembering that in Irish ‘rún’ can mean a secret or a lover. We have “réaltai rúnda” (secret stars), and in ‘Cathair Rúnda’ (Secret City), her lovers wander through an anonymous spectral city; they are ‘dall’ and ‘bodhar’, blind and deaf to all that is urban – people, cars, traffic – and see only “féar, duilleoga,/ is linnte” (grass, leaves/ and ponds). She frequently uses the word ‘bladhm’ – a flame, a blaze, a splash of sunshine. Like the compound word ‘crithloinnir’, it summons the “shivering blaze” of love. Her best love poems are those which contain notes of tension and darkness, the sense that love might be fleeting or deceptive. In ‘Nóiméad ar maidin’ (A Minute in the Morning), she watches a lover iron his shirt, smoothing out creases, wryly hinting that all may not remain blissful:
Tá súil agam go mbeidh cúrsaí eadrainn
chomh réidh sin, a stór.
‘Scáil’ is, for my money, the best poem in Crithloinnir. It’s a poem of self-doubt – “d’imigh na focail ó mo chroí / gan cheol” (words came out of my heart without music). She sees her words as hollow, empty, herself as a shadow, she is “gan guth, gan teanga” (without voice, without language). It’s a subtle play on the hackneyed slogan “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” (land without language, land without name). Here, language loss, or a feeling of being able to express oneself, is a personal rather than a national issue. “Look at my shadow, there’s nothing here of me,” wrote Marina Tsvetaeva, and there are more than a few echoes, intentional or otherwise, of the spectral romanticism of the Russian Silver Age. Crithloinnir is an unashamed collection of love poems; they are clear, open, deftly lyrical. It will be interesting to see what Ní Chléirchín is capable of once she moves to new thematic territory.
This article originally appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 104.