Catherine Ann Cullen, A Bone In My Throat (Doghouse, 2007)
It is rare enough nowadays in Ireland to see a first collection centred on metrical work published, but A Bone In My Throat by Catherine Ann Cullen (Doghouse, 2007) is such a collection. The first section of the book, titled “Taboo,” is based on a series of sonnets revolving around a series of mythological tales—Adam and Eve, Bluebeard (which is, properly speaking, a seventeenth-century fairy tale), Fionn mac Cumhaill, Finnegas, and the Salmon of Knowledge, Oisin and Niamh, and Pandora. The sonnets generally take the structure of dramatic monologues, with different characters giving their own versions of the events in the source stories.
Sometimes, these work, as in “Brother-in-Law” (from the Bluebeard poems):
His eyes were mouths that swallowed women whole
Those oyster-cool, those lovely, bone-white girls
Slipped down the dark, embittering his soul
He always tasted fish, expected pearls
Rumours like soot showered from a servant’s flue
Said childbirth wasn’t what had killed his wives
His hands were spotless, hearth and chimneys, too
Were scrubbed within a half-inch of their lives
He ate with relish, gave restraint no quarter
Fattened his pretty white geese for the slaughter
Not what you’d wish your sister or your daughter
We killed him, and our women’s tongues were freed
They dug for the truffle of his darkest need
And wolfed it down, as though they shared his greed
Although there are some metrical infelicities here (most notably, though the sonnet is in somewhat loose iambic pentameter, lines ten and eleven resolutely have four stresses), the vivid imagery and psychological acuity largely make up for this.
However, at other times, the material feels shoehorned into the sonnet form. Take, for example, this strophe from “Salmon”:
Those held no promise for Finnegas
(He thought you gift, but you were magus)
Unless there is a secret place
That’s reached by not achieving grace
The problems here are manifold. The tetrameter, interrupted only by a soft caesura and rhymed in couplets gives a thumpalong effect that’s less Andrew Marvell than schoolyard chant. And then there’s the word “magus”—as in the magi, Zoroastrian priests who famously visited Jesus—throws a whole different set of mythological resonances into a poem with a pagan Irish setting… to no particular purpose.
And these poems often feel like an exercise, an at times fluent, often pretty exercise, but an exercise nonetheless. (And indeed, as Cullen herself notes, they were the result of a classroom project at Trinity College Dublin.) And while Cullen’s work is unusual in the Irish context, for those of us who have some familiarity with the American New Formalist scene—where the sonnet monologue from the mouth of some canonical figure or other has been done ad nauseam—the first part of A Bone In My Throat has a “been there, done that” feel.
The second part of the book (called simply “Part Two”) feels like the collection Cullen should have published. There are still a lot of sonnets, but the lack of a set requirement to work in the form means that the sonnets feel more organic, like they need to be sonnets. One in particular, “Thaw,” kicks the snot out of anything in the book’s mythological first section. Other poems show Cullen as a capable writer of free verse, and “Meeting at the Chester Beatty” is a genuinely affecting love poem.
The book closes with “The Children of Lir Quintet,” based on the canonical legend. Though the poems here do not repeat the all-sonnet shtick of the opening section, they nonetheless suffer from some of the same problems. The loose villanelle “Aoife” feels rhyme-driven (a common problem with the repetend-heavy form), and with the exception of the lovely final poem, “Winter Solstice,” the poems don’t quite pass the “so what?” test. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that they hew so closely to the source material that they fail to really rise above it, but rather tell the readers a story that they may or may not already know—in verse, true, but without really adding anything.
Though this is an uneven collection, it is nevertheless an intriguing one for contemporary Irish poetry, and we can look forward to seeing Catherine Ann Cullen’s distinctive voice rising, as it does at times in A Bone in My Throat, above the din of the sometimes overwhelming canonical tones that too often overwhelm and distort it. Cullen’s work shows promise, and if she can more organically match form to subject, as well as engage more imaginatively with her subject matter and trust her own voice, she will be a poet of real significance.