The Flesh and the Spirit

Emily CullenIn Between Angels and Animals

Emily Cullen

Arlen House 2013

ISBN 978-1-85132-079-0 (paperback)

This is Emily Cullen’s second collection: her first was No Vague Utopia (Ainnir Publishing, 2003). This new volume, therefore, contains the work of a decade: 84 poems, of which three are in Irish. Emily was born in Ireland and is a musician and scholar; she now lives with her husband and son in Melbourne. The title comes from one of the lyrics in this collection (‘Ode to Lost Poems’):

Just as Dante divines:

we hover between

angels and animals…

 The truth of the epigraph is found in the poems themselves – themes of the flesh and the spirit.

There are (to make a very broad distinction) poets of the inward and the outward eye: those whose subject is themselves – the mystery of their beings and their relationships to the world – and those whose subject is the wider world itself. Emily Cullen has something of both. Much of this collection has as its theme the personal, immediate, emotional response of the classic lyric – poetry of motherhood, conjugal love, family. The collection is structured in such a way that the reader advances from the introspective to the public world, finishing (like the migrant herself) in Australia, though in a progression which is semi-linear, almost circular, encompassing all the experience of importance to the poet: responsibility for and delight in another, the everyday disorder of parenthood, the landscapes of nature and the mind:

A mother now,

 my furniture’s dented,

beads are scattered… (‘A Mother Now’)

Here we have an essentially narrative voice, a recounting of stories – an alternative to that other (often academic) sensibility which makes itself known in a broken, allusive style, the angled, elliptical image. This approach has its place and its moment, but the poetry of narrative is older, and (one suspects) will never die.

The public poet shows herself at home in a genre with a long Hibernian lineage: satire, a spirited blow struck at social and literary expectations.

You urge me to write

 of that grittier life –

 some dirty realist doggerel

 of doggone streets of grime, –

 tie a tourniquet round my arm,

 shot up with anti-anodyne. (‘Rap Riposte’)

These lines illustrate as well as any the poet’s technical inventory, effectively used and including the (perhaps unfashionable) devices of rhyme and assonance. They are integral to the dance of the rhythm, to the sharpening of satire or reflection.

My dreams are latticed

 with blue lace agate –

 crusted with rocks,

tumbled and polished;  

minerals deeply deposited. (‘Rocks and Soft Places’)

The poems in Irish illustrate the directness of the language, its peculiar music, its power to evoke a history which seldom finds a voice in English. The best of them, in its economy and tenderness, is ‘Macasamhail’ (‘Likeness’):

A chomhthaistealaí

cuireann tú ina luí

ar m’intinn

gur féidir mo scíth

a ligint

is beidh réiteach

ar gach scéal,


ó chuile imní.

(Fellow wayfarer, you impressed on my mind that it was possible for me to rest; everything will have its solution, there will be relief from every anxiety.)

These poems suffer from the occasional typo, a flaw which will, one hopes, be absent from the collection of Irish-language poems which this poet is clearly capable of producing and which would be a welcome addition to this country’s small but growing literature in Irish.

All poets, all poems have a context. In the old world of Gaelic civilisation, centred in fields and castles,  the work of formal, official poetic utterance was left to men; to women was left the passionate, popular lament, the lullaby and sometimes the love song. The world changed, and changed again: now the poet is urban, sometimes bilingual and more often than not a woman. Emily Cullen has brought with her to Australia a new Ireland, but one conscious of its past: her new land is the richer for it.

Colin is a scholar of Irish language and letters.