135. Man Watching a Woman: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The great Irish poet F.R. Higgins summed up the essence of Irish poetry in 1939:

Irish poets are believers – heretical believers, maybe – but they have the spiritual buoyancy of a belief in something. The sort of belief I see in Ireland is a belief emanating from life, from nature, from revealed religion, and from the nation. A sort of dream that produces a sense of magic; indeed there are few signs of the awful sense of respect for words which poetry demands.

Perhaps Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is one of the heretical believers; I’m not sure if being a feminist is considered heretical. I wouldn’t think so, but I’m not Irish and everything Progressive seems under attack these days.

Growing up around Boston, I never really understood St. Patrick’s Day. Having German heritage, the only association people had with my heritage when I was a kid was World War II and Hitler, and my mother’s family had long ago assimilated beyond ethnic celebrations–German was just something we were. But half of our town was of Irish heritage, but with enough generations between them and those ancestors born on Irish soil that it meant little beyond wearing green and rooting for the Celtics. In Andover, where I grew up, on St. Patrick’s Day everyone was Irish and wore green, even the Italians and WASPs.

In college, few people moved into any greater depth. Beer was added, but since every weekend included beer it was a holiday misunderstood and celebrated by others while my friends and I studied. A few people quoted Auden or tried a few pages of Joyce, but being Irish was either in your blood (in which case you didn’t need to wear it on your sleeve) or it was like a hat you tried on; bring on the bagpipes and dye the Bud green!

In short, St. Patrick’s Day is like Black History Month or National Poetry Month: An obligatory nod that is separate from daily life, except that people also see it as an excuse to abuse alcohol.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. I’ve dispensed with the Auden you might already know. My search for something that moves beyond tears in the raised glass leads me to her (is “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” a poem, or treacle, or both?). After reading through the centuries of Irish poets in search of something appropriate, I realized that I had not seen a woman’s name at all. In Wikipedia, a thin paragraph addresses them. While I have read a bit of feminist pieces of the woman’s plight in Ireland, they, too, seem a reaction to the stereotypical view of Irish men or the Catholic church of both.

I like this poem because it is a snapshot. As such, I recommend you have students draw that snapshot. My students have a hard time picturing any poem, and a few educators have suggested making comics or other visual representations of a poem before students leap into interpretation. So, draw it. What does the man see? You or your students or both then go line-by-line checking to make sure the drawing matches the narrator’s description. How much do we, the reader, put our own image into the work before us? Details! We need to be careful readers!

Then, have them figure out why the poem was written.

Support her work here:

See Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin here
See Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin here

Man Watching A Woman
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The sound of everything folding into sleep,
A sense of being nowhere at all,
Set him on his way (traffic far off, and wind
In tall trees) to a back gate, a dark yard.
A path goes past the bins, the kitchen door,
Switches to a gravel walk by the windows
Lit softly above the privet hedge.
He stops and watches. He needs to see this:

A woman working late in the refectory,
Sewing a curtain, the lines of her face
Dropping into fatigue, severity, age,
The hair falling out of its claps at her poll.
The hands are raised to thread the needle,
The tongue moves behind her lips.
He cannot see the feet or shoes, they are trapped
In toils of cloth. He is comforted.

He can move on, while the night combs out
Long rushing sounds into quiet,
On to the scene, the wide cafés –
Trombone music over polished tables.
He will watch the faces behind the bar, tired girls,
Their muscles bracing under breakers of music
And the weight of their balancing trays, drinks, ice and change.


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