The Poison Glen, Annemarie Ní Churreáin: A Review

The Poison Glen, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, The Gallery Press, 2021, ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 814 7, ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 815 4, €12.95 – €19.50

Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s new collection, The Poison Glen, is something of a natural continuation of here earlier Bloodroot. In the latter, Ní Churreáin’s focus was mainly on the experiences of mothers, particularly unmarried mothers, at the hands of a society that consigned them to ‘homes’ that were essentially prisons and treated their babies as, at best, a commodity to be sold at a profit. Here, she turns her attention to the lost children produced by that same society by writing about not only the Mother and Baby Homes, but also industrial schools and St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra. She also brings us back to the 18th century roots of many of these institutions in a long, powerful sequence about the Foundling Hospital in Dublin.

Despite this widening of range, this new book is more focused. Interestingly, Ní Churreáin seems to have turned back from the ‘moving on’ I felt was present in the final section of Bloodroot, but the result is a book that coheres more completely than that earlier collection did. At its core is the idea of fear, not alone the fear that the abused and neglected children that we, as a society, consigned to these institutions but, perhaps more pertinently, the fear that lay at the root of that abuse. That fear centres around the idea that sex and reproduction outside the limits and control of a strict ‘moral’ (in fact there is and was nothing moral about it) structure.

This idea is teased out by a series of poems concerned with the myth of Balor and his daughter Eithne. The myth tells that Balor would be killed by his grandson, so he locked his daughter in a tower, but she becomes pregnant, and despite Balor’s orders, on of her three sons survives, with inevitable consequences. The relevance of this myth to Ní Churreáin’s concerns is clear enough, but she calls out echoes in telling details:

I shudder at the shock

of the stone-cold air,

the sill’s curve within darkness, moonlight

dragging like a chain across the floor.

[from ‘Eithne’s Mother Speaks’]

He was whipped for three days and nights.

He was sent down to the dungeon

and chained to a log like a small boat chained to a rock

The implication of the Eithne poems is, as I read it, that this fear, and its attendant abuse, predates Christianity on this island and stems from something deeper in the Irish psyche.

The telling detail is a key part of Ní Churreáin’s approach to poetry and to linking apparently disparate themes. Take, for example, these lines from a poem set at the former industrial school in Letterfrack:

From the graveyard gates two small shoes hang

by the laces, like a pair of bells ringing,

Remember, remember, the horsewhip, the empty bowl

the act of kneeling to no mercy.

[from ‘To Hold in the Light’]

These shoes stand alone as a personal memorial and also relate to a wider tendency to use shoes as collective memorials to abused children. However, the image of shoes hanging by their laces also brings to mind the use of shoes over telephone cables to mark gangland territories, a common enough sight in Dublin and elsewhere.  This chimes with ‘The Palfium Heist’, a poem that references the activities of a 1970s Dublin gangland family, and which contains the line ‘Altar was a family word meaning fist, lock, whip.’ This closing of the circle that joins the criminal act of abuse with the question of wider criminality in the community opens up all kinds of interesting questions.

I can imagine that The Poison Glen will be widely discussed in terms of these themes as part of a wider societal exploration of the legacy of the institutions it focuses on. It is, however, important to remember that Ní Churreáin is not a journalist or sociologist, but a poet, and it is as poetry that I would rather read her work. And, despite some minor reservation (for instance, would the lines about the shoes lose anything by having the explicit ‘like a pair of bells’ removed?) this is very fine poetry indeed, and, as ever, it’s the music that makes it for me:

Summer’s end was in the air,

the unflamed skeletons of thorn and hazel

already knit.

[from ‘Eithne Confronts Her Father’]

The gentle but insistent assonance of the short ‘e’ and long ‘a’ sounds, the present but not overemphasised sibilance run through these lines as emphasis of the ordinariness of Eithne’s extraordinary situation.

Some of the most interesting work here is in longer lines than any of her previous work, and she handles them with assuredness and control, as in this passage that includes the lines from ‘The Foundling Crib’ already quotes, lines that have a personal resonance for the present reviewer:

Did Bridget’s girl cry out against the sour air?

Did she dream of distant bogs

beneath the oily watch of her keepers?

Often, the bread was old, the milk turned pale by clouds of water.

Hunger. Hunger. Hunger.

Was she told of William Mills who took a chance

and made a run for it? Of how the breath whirring,

like a wing inside his chest, betrayed the effort in his legs?

Weeping, he was brought back

to the House of Correction.

He was whipped for three days and nights.

He was sent down to the dungeon

and chained to a log like a small boat chained to a rock

in the middle of the ocean.

The Bridget here is Bridget Kearney, one of the few women to ever successfully reclaim her child from the Foundling Hospital and who was named earlier in the sequence. Her name is echoed here in the keepers, a mother’s love against the prisoner’s indifference, just as William’s is, more extensively, in the series pf ‘w’ words that run through the extract. Again, I wonder about the effectiveness, the necessity, of the final simile, but that’s a minor quibble when set beside the tonal control of these lines.

The question for Ní Churreáin, for any poet once a book is released into the wild, is ‘where next?’ It’s going to be interesting finding out.