Observing the Lilt of Life

Poetry Review by Meg McNena

Majella Cullinane: Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, Otago University Press, Dunedin, New Zealand and Salmon Poetry Ireland, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-98-853122-9

RRP: $27.50

Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, Majella Cullinane’s second poetry collection, is a lyrical reflection of the everyday: a father’s starched collar, ‘the creak of floorboards like a child chastised’ ‘the seasons’ murmurings’. Throughout, this inhabitant of islands (born in Ireland, living in New Zealand) runs the sea through her lines: ‘an old sea dog marooned to this room’… ‘algae-pocked coats of seawater … listen/ as waves / talk among themselves’… ‘the relish of brine. Know what it is to untangle/ light from the tooth of a roving wave’.

In these evocative images the poet’s role emerges: sensing what is, transmuting the experience to written form; acknowledging the canon of poetry in epigraphs and references to other lyrical poets like Emily Dickinson, Walter de la Mare, Shakespeare, or a modernist like Wallace Stevens, or distilling the essence of a woman’s aesthetic like the Irish poet, Eavan Boland; or chronicling seasons and the sting within them like Dubliner, Thomas Kinsella. Cullinane tenderly observes the lilt of life, the rise and fall of light and tide and .’every small thing a sign seemingly full of import’.

There is much listening in the poetry, as the title implies, and in the lines of De La Mare and Stevens that open the book, listening to the almost, the maybe, nature’s stirrings. Use of lyrical first person in many poems adds intimacy and authenticity. Blackbirds, tui, heron, cormorant, thrush and seagull appear but it is the portent of the crow flying close that gives title to the book and a poem within it. Themes of the ethereal, of passage and consequence drive finely wrought poems. The book’s four sections: Seeing things, As Good As, The Hours, and Cut Away the Masts, contain signature poems and a variety of subjects drawn from the near-at-hand, from memory and ancestral ties, a rich collection.

However, for a reader not versed in Maori vocabulary, a glossary would have been useful. Some lines, even on re-reading are not immediately apparent from context: ‘and onto the beach/ where her light is as much a surprise/ to a sea-weary põhutukawa/ whipped up by some switch and toss of wave’. As each word in poetry generally carries more weight than prose, it breaks the rhythm and concentration for me to turn to google to translate Maori words, then read back to regain the poem and the impact of this word within it. This is a small criticism of an otherwise beautifully presented book.

Meg McNena