The wise woman overlooking Ballycrovane Harbor, Beara Peninsula, County Cork, Ireland
I met Leanne O'Sullivan on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork in May of 2008. That's her home. I was staying at Anam Cara, a retreat for artists and writers, and Leanne's family members were basically hosting me until the retreat's operator returned from a quick trip to London.
I soon learned Leanne is an accomplished poet, early in her career but already lauded in Ireland. Her first book, Waiting For My Clothes, was on the shelf in the reading room, and so I read it. Intense poems. Authentic poems, the kind that do not ask permission.
I was working on a book at Anam Cara and Leanne explained that she was right at the cusp of delivering her latest manuscript to her publisher, Bloodaxe Books. We talked briefly about the whole process of making a book of poems and I mentioned that I would look forward to reading her book.
Just today, a copy of that book, Cailleach, arrived by post and I've spent the afternoon reading it.
Already, I've found favorite pieces that I'll go back to in coming days. "Rapture" begins Part IV of the book with a a vivid run of images that spark the mind's eye of anyone who's ever visited the Beara:
I dreamed that when I turned from the strand
I saw a furze bush shivering up on the hill.
And the bush itself a moving calm;
when I crawled beneath it I found your hands,
trembling together, dusted gold with the fallen petals
The poem moves on in quintets—a 20-line lyric, elusive and deeply sensuous. As with any fine poem, it's irreducible. The speaker searches out the landscape for the strewn segments of a body, "the grooves of your knuckle buds" and "the gift of your lips, brought to my face like a cloth," reassembling this into the whole person.
When I had pieced you together you were still
and I lay with you, pressed the soft clay of my flesh
into your hollows, as if we were not separate.
I wrote to Leanne a couple months ago requesting permission to use her poem "Children of the Cillinach" in a literature course I teach. I'd read it first in an anthology of contemporary Irish poets, and it appears in Cailleach. I forgot to ask the poet the pronunciation of cillinach, an Irish word for a unique and moving feature in the Irish landscape, a graveyard where children are buried. I found myself at two different times in Ireland standing amid a scattering of grassy hummocks in a field, which I might have mistaken for mere earth had I not read the poem.
In this poem, the speaker addresses her bereaved mother from the small mound of her grave:
Mother, I've known your weight
and the length of your soft hands
bent over this rugged, unworked soil.
I've known you by the forgetful daisies
strung with blue and red twine.
I open my eyes; you are watching me.
If ever I am allowed a voice
you will know me when I speak
Here it's helpful to know that the "Hag of Beara" is, as O'Sullivan's book mentions, a local legend. "A large stone rests on the ridge overlooking Ballycrovane Harbour, which is said to be the petrified body of the Cailleach," a mythical wise woman who "has several lives, beginning each life with a birth from her stony form—and returning to stone at the end."
The poems in this book evoke layers of a voice, so it makes sense that writer is tracing the movement of this figure, from mythic past to present incarnation—and that's the right word. I've already said I just read the book through upon its arrival; I've had no time to process the imagery, but I can certainly remark that it's alive in my head. Subsequent readings promise more.
It's a pleasure to travel and meet writers who so vividly evoke the places they live. I found the Beara a remarkable place, and have written from the stranger's perspective about it. But here's a poet who knows the place in her bones.