The Narrow Way of Souls
Page Count: 74
Publication Date: Friday, May 18, 2018
Cover Artwork: Dermot McCarthy. “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Prayer is there for you in any language one cares to speak of.” www.dermotmccarthy.com - Photograph of cover artwork: Valerie O’Sullivan – www.ppai.ie/photographer/39/Valerie-O-Sullivan
About this Book
In Eileen Sheehan’s third collection, The Narrow Way of Souls, there is an ongoing investigation of the liminal spaces between speech and silence; between body and spirit; between question and answer. Often peopled by metaphorical avatars, these are poems that move through both negative and positive spaces – crossing, crossing over, and journeying; the reader is carried between the real and the surreal. Springing from conscious experience, from history and folklore, from the process of grieving and the experience of grief, these visionary poems light our mad dash along the road between life and death, and further yet.
These are poems that enact loss and console simultaneously … an imaginative fusing, through ameliorative storying, of difference and empathy.
Poems encoded in a rare triple helix of talent, passion and delicate attention to detail. Much has been made by critics of her word-craft: its earthy rhythms, its careful cadences, the evocative lyricality with which she explores the ancient and undying themes of love, family, domesticity, nature, death and myth. Yet her poetic compass frequently leads her beyond this well-trod ground, toward situations uncannily familiar or curiously surreal. Such moments are captured with consistently surprising metaphor in work that possesses a delightfully magnetic and multi-layered simplicity … Poems are steeped in a defiantly secular, perhaps even pagan spirituality, an aspect of her work designed to ground, humble and make a rougher concrete of the more dialectically Christian tenets that underpin much of the Irish poetic tradition.
She has a command of language, imagery and poetic imagination that places this collection in the forefront of what has been produced recently by contemporary Irish women poets who have, as Sheehan certainly has, learned their trade. There is nothing maudlin or sentimental here; indeed, strength and firmness of tone makes this a very muscular kind of poetry. … This is quite memorable work.
Lifts the veil on the ordinary, exposing all the gremlins and angels we’ve been living with, but ignoring … Something particularly strong in Sheehan’s work is how visceral it is. Body parts take on lives of their own, as fugitives, rebels or omens … Sheehan employs the subconscious lexicon of dreams, tapping directly into our most fundamental fears and desires.
She is not a poet of a single mood, tempo, or, indeed, song. Her poems, at times whimsical, but rooted in particulars of time, place, and personality, have distinct formal characteristics but are always distinctly hers … She is a poet of the proper kind.
There is a clarity of spirit – a searching spirit travelling childhood and old age, a realizing spirit traversing the boundaries between heart and creative intelligence. At times it touches on the Delphic.
Eileen Sheehan is from Scartaglen, in the Sliabh Luachra area of County Kerry. She lives in Killarney. She is the author of two previous collections, Song of the Midnight Fox and Down the Sunlit Hall (both from Doghouse Books). She has read at festivals in Ireland and abroad including The Shanghai Literary Festival; the ACIS Conference in Davenport, Iowa, The Cork International Poetry Festival and Writers’ Week Listowel. Anthology publications include The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets (editor Joan McBreen/Salmon Poetry); Best Loved Poems: Favourite Poems from the South of Ireland (editor Gabriel Fitzmaurice with photographs by John Reidy/Curragh Press); The Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit a Touchstone Poem (editors Eugene O’Connell & Pat Boran/ Dedalus Press) and TEXT: A Transition Year English Reader (editor Niall MacMonagle/ The Celtic Press). One of the poems from this collection is on the Leaving Certificate English Syllabus 2019 - 2022.
Author Photograph: John Minihan – johnminihan.blogspot.ie
Read a sample from this book
House of Recurring Dreams
Come and stay in my house of cats,
where the walls are whisper-thin.
The bed’s unmade, the door’s unhinged,
there’s scribbles in the dust.
Spiders work the ceilings,
the floorboards tend to speak;
the eyes in all the photographs
will blink while you’re asleep.
The stairs go up but also down,
the queen cat will lick your hand.
The TV wakes when no one’s home,
the windows all look out.
The door is open, the door is closed,
the address is Here Nor There.
I’ll serve you tea and pretend cake
in my garden of thin air.
The edge of a closed grave
is easier to stand by
the edge of a settled grave
is easier still
there are flowers,
a potted evergreen,
marble chippings that glint
charmingly in the sun
look Death, are you pleased
at how pretty we have made you?
do you like this calmness?
and I see down
past the marble chippings,
the layer of weed suppressant,
the sod, the clay, the sharp
flints of pencil, the wood,
the satin lining
to where she is,
mother, do you like this calmness?
do you like these yellow petals I hold
up here in a world that never loved you enough,
the world you would never
allow to love you enough
I slip through the V in the wall
earth, be kind to my mother
earth, hold her gently
Sexing the Eggs
As she had no use for a glut of cocks
she filched the new-laid eggs from underneath
the squawking fuss of hen. Slipped from her pocket
a wooden peg, threaded through with string.
She held it still, above each egg in turn,
until it told, through movement, what she
was there to learn. Clockwise circles marked an egg
as female, a straight line back and forth condemned
an egg as male; if the peg held firm,
unmoving in the air, the egg was dead.
She tossed the cocks and gluggers to the brace
of hounds that waited eagerly outside:
their glossy coats and sparkling eyes
were admired the parish wide.
All poems © copyright Eileen Sheehan 2018
Review: Colin O’Sullivan reviews The Narrow Way of Souls for The Blue Nib (March 2019)
In this her third volume of poems, The Narrow Way of Souls, Irish poet Eileen Sheehan presents us with another superb collection. This is a poet whose work never fails to thrill and delight in equal measure, and as she grows in stature (one poem here is part of the Leaving Cert English school curriculum 2019-2022 in Ireland) readers have the pleasure of journeying with her, following her on the tantalizing twists and turns she likes to take, and growing, glowing in wisdom alongside her.
Eileen Sheehan’s poems reek of the earth, that’s earth and Earth – one poem even has the title “Earthed” and could be an alternative title for this wonderful book. Nature abounds and sucks you in to its teases and torrents, as Sheehan writes of “globs of shorn blossoms pooling on the road”, “windborne seeds”, “dandelion clocks” burrows, buttercups and birdsong; and of course this being Ireland there are plenty of “weeping skies” “torpid clouds” “cloaks of cumulus” and even a garment that “reeks of rain.” (I’m quite aware that I have used the word “reek” in this paragraph twice, as many times I have lifted my nose from the book having the sense of real life odorously presenting itself between these fine pages).
As well as being about the earth/Earth the poems feel fashioned of the earth (“she had earth on her feet / Earth between her fingers / In the supermarket we left a trail of earth down every aisle” ), as Sheehan brings her typically deep sensuousness to every line, whether it is about young girls playing shop, or how “love conducts itself in waves from skin through skin” or “salt waves washing me / he was wind caressing me”; Sheehan is as unafraid of writing about the body, its beauty, its decay (and inevitable death, see: “At Scartaglen Graveyard” , “Pre-emptive” and “My Father, Long Dead”) as she is of “the grass and the leaves” , “rose hip and haw”. In fact it is unfair to label these rural or nature poems; there is far more than that going on as Sheehan can just as easily bring us a poem about Zeus and his “lightning bolt”, the Foreman vs. Ali fight in Zaire, and some kind of cryogenic facility in Moscow – she also mentions Twitter (“Trending on Twitter”) in case you think that this is not a poet of the Now.
This is a poet who knows how to put together a bunch of poems that are varied and complement each other in every regard, and she is wise enough and as likely to move between pronouns (a confessional “I” or “you”) as she is to a “he” or “she” or a narrative that always seem to have full and satisfying closure (and often disclosure).
Sheehan also has the nails to be able to scratch beneath surfaces, and is, in my opinion (and to use one of her own phrases): a “reliable witness” to this world. She is unafraid to provoke when necessary, as the final line of “Crawthumpers” attests to (no spoilers here, you’ll have to discover that feisty one for yourself) and if I can borrow further, from the second last line of that same poem: “Wielding, without understanding”; I am inclined to think of this masterful poet as one who manages quite the opposite, she wields, with a full and impressive understanding of who and where we are.
The poems are punctuated by intermittent haikus, and while personally this reviewer is no fan of the haiku form in English, here they provide welcome and reflective pithy pit-stops as the reader makes its way through the remarkable collection.
If there is a fault with these kinds of slim volumes of poetry, it is only ever that they are too short: I could easily have read on and on, and for this exceptional poet to keep feeding my hunger for their craft and tact. For now though, I will simply go back to the start and enjoy these terrific creations again (and more likely then again), and also return to her first two collections: Song of the Midnight Fox and Down the Sunlit Hall which I have used and perused on many occasions, and look forward, with a keen, if not downright greedy anticipation, to what she has to offer next.
About the reviewer: Colin O'Sullivan is an Irish writer living in Japan. He is the author of three acclaimed novels: Killarney Blues (winner of the Prix Mystere de la critique 2018), The Starved Lover Sings and The Dark Manual (soon to be a TV series), all published by Betimes Books. His novels have been translated into French and Russian. His poetry and short stories have also been widely anthologized.