The Books: The Water Horse, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry

The next book on my poetry shelf is The Water Horse, by Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.

Published by The Gallery Press (I wrote about that here), The Water Horse is a collection of Irish language poetry, with translations done by poets Medbh McGuckian (post on her here) and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill only writes in Irish. She says she can’t hear the poetry in English, although she has tried. She also waits for translators to come to her. If her poems don’t find translators willing to do the work, then they stay un-translated, and she is fine with that. Irish is her language. Her poetry is meant to be local.

“Irish is a language of beauty, historical significance, ancient roots and an immense propensity for poetic expression through its everyday use.” – Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

I saw her read at The Ireland House about 10 years ago here in New York. It’s a very small space, a house, and about 40 people sat in chairs in the little living room area. My friend Kate and I went. It’s one of those events that stays with you, for whatever reason. She herself was wonderful, and funny and articulate – I could have listened to her talk about how she wrote, and why she wrote, for hours. She was open about her struggles with postpartum depression and how the depression meds messed up her verse: “Prozac puts wallpaper over the abyss” is one memorable phrase I will always remember. I remember her also saying that once she was put on medication, her poems evened out, in terms of what they looked like. Her poems often have jagged line-endings, but once she was medicated, her poems became little boxes up and down the page. Fascinating. She’s a real artist. It was a beautiful night. I bought my copy of The Water Horse there at the Ireland House that night, and Nuala signed my copy.

She didn’t grow up in a solely Irish-speaking household. Her mother wanted her to learn English, and speak English. But she was drawn to the Irish language (spoken mainly by her father in the house), and has devoted herself to it. Her poems are spiky, personal, and funny. She was part of the group of Irish-language poets who came to full flower in the 1970s, a hearty group who support one another and translate each other’s work. Like many Irish poets, (or, I suppose, many poets in general), she is drawn to myths and how they inform us, speak to us. Ireland is a land dominated by its myths, and while Ní Dhomhnaill does not only write about Irish myths (she has poems about Persephone, Daphne and Apollo), you get the sense that when she looks around her landscape she sees things others do not see. Her imagination is amazing. She married a Turkish geologist, and lived in Turkey and Holland for some time, and now she lives in Dublin. She speaks 6 or 7 languages. She has 4 children. She writes exclusively in Irish, despite pressure to do otherwise. Her work would have more “appeal”, blah blah blah. She does not care. She has followed her own talent.

When she read at The Ireland House, most people in the audience obviously understood Irish. She also read each poem in English after the Irish, but it was so wonderful to hear the sounds of listening and laughter from the Irish audience. How wonderful to hear your language again. It’s a beautiful-sounding language (Youtube clip of Ní Dhomhnaill reading her poem “Father” at the bottom of this post), guttural and yet light at the same time. She talked a lot about how translation can be a problem – you have to get the right translator, someone who can imagine themselves into your poetic landscape, and find the perfect equivalent words in English (or whatever language). She talked about her relationship with McGuckian and Ní Chuilleanáin, and how good their translations were. A translation will never be A to B, because languages are all different. You have to maintain the rhyme scheme and meter, the flow of the verse, and yet find the right words to convey the meaning of the original. She had some great examples of problem-solving done by her two wonderful translators, and how innovative they were.

Here is one of her poems I love. It shows her funniness, her anger, and her incorporation of myth and fantasy into the everyday. Posted in Irish, with English translation below.

Bean an Leasa mar Shíobshiúlóir

Do shuigh Bean an Leasa
isteach in iarthar na cairte
is do dhún sí an doras.
‘Féach i do dhiaidh ort’
a dúirt sí lem’ fhear céile
a bhí ag tiomáint abhaile
tar éis lá crua oibre san oifig.

D’fhéach sé is chonaic
an bóthar lán suas d’earraí:
fístéipeanna, ceamaraí,
ríomhairí is rudaí,
‘Cad chuige iad seo?’ ar sé.
‘Sin iad mo cholpa spré dhuit.’
‘Gan tú mhórligint dom,
tá mo dhóthain agam cheana acu.’

‘Féach i do dhiaidh ort,’ ar sise arís
is nuair a d’fhéach sé thar a ghualainn
bhí an bóthar lán de chapaill mhóra,
capaill ráis is capaill oibre.
‘Seo mo cholpa spré dhuit
is an dtaitníonn siad leat?’ arsa mo bhean.
‘Ní thaitníonn siad ná tusa ach chomh beag,’
is do choinnigh sé a shúile scamhaite
ar an roth tiomána.

‘Feach i do dhiaidh ort,’ ar sise
is dhein bean chomh breá dhi
gur thit m’fhear céile
i ngrá léi láithreach.
D’imíodar den mbóthar
is n’fheacasa ó shin é.
Bíonn sé ag tiomáint juggernaut
tré bhóithre iarthar Chorcaí
is an diabhal de dhalladh faoi.

Is dúirt bean liom go ndúirt
bean léi go mbíonn sé ag gabháilt timpeall
na tíre i dteainc mór groí,
na mionnaí beaga is na mionnaí móra
á stealladh aige deas is clé,
ag rá i measc rudaí eile go maróidh sé
mé fhéin, is na leanaí is a Dhaid
is Uachtarán na Mac Léinn.

Bhuel, tá mo lámhasa glan air.
É féin an leaid.
Deineadh sé pé rud ar bith is áil leis.
Táim saor air, by deaid.
Níl ach aon rud amháin le rá agam
is é á rá agam gan stad:
gurb í siúd atá á ghriogadh
chun na n-oibreacha seo ar fad.

The Fairy Hitch-Hiker

The Queen of the Fairies
Sat into the back of the van
And closed the door.
‘Look behind you’
She said to my husband
Driving home
After a hard day at work.

When he looked he saw
The whole road full of stuff:
Videotapes, cameras,
Computers and all,
‘What’s this for?’ says he.
‘My dowry to wed you.’
‘Not to offend you,
I have enough of them already.’

‘Look behind you,’ she said again
And when he looked over his shoulder
The road was full of great horses:
Racehorses, ploughhorses.
‘More of my dowry
And how do you like it?’ she said.
‘I don’t fancy your dowry or you,’
He said, and kept his eyes
On the steering-wheel.

‘Look behind you,’ she said
And became so beautiful
That my husband fell
In love with her on the spot.
They turned off the road
And I haven’t seen him since.
He’s driving a juggernaut
On the roads of west Cork
And he’s the devil to drive.

And I heard on the grapevine
From a woman in the know
That he’s raving around
The roads in this huge tank,
Cursing and swearing
Right and left
Inter alia that he’s going to
Do for me, the kids and his old fella
And the President.

Well, I wash my hands of him.
He’s the lad,
He can do what pleases him.
I’ve cleaned my slate.
All I have to say
Till the cows come home
Is that she’s the one that started
The whole affair.

Here’s Ní Dhomhnaill reading her poem “Father”, in one of a series of short films featuring Irish-language poets:

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