For those familiar with the Irish literary scene, it is understood that describing a contemporary poet’s writing as divergent from ‘The Irish Poem’ is meant as praise. Eleanor Hooker turns this complaint on its head, making ‘The Irish Poem’ a creature entirely her own – an animal born in Yeats’ neighbourhood, which now roams the territories of Edgar Allen Poe, Phillip Pullman and Tim Burton. We are in rural Ireland in most of the poems, and there are indeed the familiar residents, but they behave in totally unfamiliar ways. There are oak trees that speak to you, cups of tea ‘strain[ed] . . . / through your deaf ear / . . . full of lies’ and new features to the landscape, like ‘Wind Turbines’ that resemble “Four silent angels / on the mountain.”
Eleanor Hooker is an award-winning poet and writer. She lives in North Tipperary with her husband Peter; they have two sons. Having begun her career as a nurse and midwife, she graduated with distinction from the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin, with a Master’s of Philosophy degree in Creative Writing. She was later selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions series, and her début collection The Shadow Owner’s Companion was one of four shortlisted for the Strong/Shine Award. Her work has been published and broadcast internationally and in 2014 the Ofi Press nominated her poem ‘Irrepressibly Bare’ for a Pushcart Prize. She is a founding member and Programme Curator of the Dromineer Literary Festival, as well as a helm and Press Officer for the Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat.
Childhood in all its myth, terror and magic features strongly in her debut collection. Often she uses a formal emphasis on rhyme and repetition, reminding the reader of nursery rhymes and children’s songs and the way that innocence can be underscored by something sinister.
One, two, three four five,
Once I caught a little fish alive.
It had three urns in its belly,
Inside of each an ask tree grew,
One had Granddad’s face on its trunk,
Another had Old Grandpa’s hands in its branches,
The third had Old Granny’s smile in its roots.
Six, seven, eight nine ten,
I had to let it go again.
Of the shadowy side to her work, Eleanor Hooker has said, ‘Poems are a safe place to put vulnerable, breakable things’. And, although the territory is dark, she directs the readers to the helpers and healers that will guide them on their way. There are cell phones (‘I cup your voice to my ear; / You hold my hand though you’re not here’); glow stones (‘Entrust me with that glow-stone love, to creel / For night the light of day, a moon-day’s steal’); and ‘Alethiometers’ (I swing it from a chain: my dowsing stone, my truth-seer’).
Her ability to address darkness and vulnerability earned her a shortlisting for Ireland’s coveted Strong/Shine Award for a first collection. The judge, Billy Ramsell, noted in his citation: ‘Such poems bring the clammy uncertainties of childhood re-seeping into the brain’s folds with a persistence I’ve not seen matched in recent years’.
As much as the dream world and childhood are featured, so is the sea and the element of water. The poet is also a helm for RLNI Lough Derg and has been seen to dash out to launch a life boat in between readings at the Dromineer Literary Festival, which she curates. In her heartbreaking poem, ‘Recovery’, the alarm is raised – ‘He’s overdue, that’s all we know’. Once the crew locate the missing person, ‘We break our gaze/ as overboard into this other scene we slide, / to gather up, tender to the last of rites’.
If there is one lesson to be gained from her debut collection, The Shadow Owner’s Companion, it is that it is impossible to avoid dangerous places. Witness is a virtue, as is survival, and those that can help others through darkness are angels. Despite the ghosts, the biting pike, the raging seas, ‘I have always known my way home, / And have learned to breathe beneath the water’.