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IN BETWEEN ANGELS AND ANIMALS:

Doireann Ní Ghríofa reviews Emily Cullen's newest poetry collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

doireann ni ghriofaDoireann Ní Ghríofa’s poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally in France, Australia, Mexico, USA, Scotland, and England. Her Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim. The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her literature bursaries (2011 and 2013). In 2012, she was a winner of the Wigtown Poetry Competition, Scotland. Her short collection of poems in English, Ouroboros, was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK). Earlier this year, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA).

 

 

 

 

 

 

in between angels and animals

In Between Angels and Animals

Emily Cullen

(Arlen House, 2013)

ISBN-13: 978-1851320790

€12 paperback

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In Emily Cullen’s second collection In Between Angels and Animals, poems traverse diverse worlds. Here, we encounter subjects as varied as new-motherhood, mix-tapes, Google Earth, music, Sunday roasts. Everyday moments are cast in a magical light. The act of pushing a child on a swing becomes an exquisite moment rendered in amber. ‘Flight Paths’succeeds in capturing the wonder of sisters in a garden in contemplation of their diverging paths. ‘Galway Mould’is equally refreshing and captures the subject succinctly, without wasting a single word. Cullen’s skill as a writer lies in the precision of her descriptions of particular characters, whether a weaver in Afghanistan, a gang of Galway hipsters or a gardener at work. Her language is at its sparest and most beautiful when absorbed in these pen-portraits.

However, this is not a collection without its flaws, particularly an over-reliance on French phrases and an tendency to over-explain the poem. Any one of these issues might be merely frustrating and one could perhaps turn a blind eye if they occurred once or twice over the space of a book, but the issues in this collection are too pervasive to be ignored.

As I read this collection, I was often reminded of the words of Mary Oliver: “The poem is not a discussion, not a lecture, but an instance, an instance of attention, of noticing something in the world.” In these poems, the poet often succeeds in capturing that “instance of attention” only to be distracted by the compulsion to summarise with a pithy conclusion, as illustrated in the poems ‘A Mother Now’, ‘Rap Riposte’ and ‘Google Earthed’. This propensity means sacrificing the sense of wonder to tie all loose ends in a very tight bow, leaving little room for the reader.

In this collection, the pseudo-intellectualism of an over-reliance on French phrases becomes acutely cloying. An example or two might work well throughout a collection in an attempt, perhaps, to add a certain je ne sais quoi. Cullen chooses well, for her phrases are almost always ones that commonly occur in English. However it is inadvisable to attempt to do two things at once, to speak two languages in a single short poem, as in doing so one risks losing the reader’s attention. This inclination was also present in Cullen’s first collection No Vague Utopia (2003), where we find ten French words in a single poem (‘To an Aesthete’). The poem ‘The R & J Letter’illustrates the point. Here,the speaker takes exception to a man who handed the same love-letter to many women:

Now Spectator readers

are unwittingly treated

to your ersatz belle-lettres

in a public confession!

All those ingénues

who accommodated you

taken in by the ruse

of your billet-doux.

A second examplethe French phrase mise-en-scène is repeatedthrough this collection; one example occurs in the poem ‘School Run Fashionistas’:

When did the school run

enter the style lexicon

as a plausible mise-en-scène?

This poem in its entirety feels more prosaic than poetic, and wouldn’t be out of place in a magazine article (for example, in the closing lines: “Magazines market with phrases:/ ‘there’s no excuse to be a slummy mummy’./ Should we take them quite so seriously?”)

In Between Angels and Animals runs to 96 pages, far longer than a standard collection. One cannot help but wonder whether Cullen’s work might have been better served by a shorter selection, representing only her strongest work such as the wonder in 'Flight Paths' and the economy in 'Galway Mould'.

 

 

©2013 Doireann Ní Ghríofa

 

 

Author Links

 

Doireann Ní Ghríofa homepage

Poems by Doireann Ní Ghríofa at Poethead, A Poetry Blog

'Elegy for a City Tree': a poem in Burning Bush 2

 

 

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