Eileen Sheehan is, at the moment, perhaps one of Ireland’s most underrated poets.* Sure, she’s appeared in all the right journals, has a lovely blurb on the back of her book from Nuala Ni Dhomhnail (a leading Irish-language poet, for those who don’t know), and was recently a reader at some boffo Irish Studies conference or other in the U.S. But unfortunately, hers are not the books that tend to be reviewed in Ireland’s little magazines (those that even do reviews), much less in the Irish Times. This is a shame, because Sheehan’s publisher, the Tralee-based Doghouse, has published a list that, though uneven (a few of the offerings straying into the frankly godawful), includes fine poets such as John W. Sexton and Liam Aungier, as well as newcomers worth watching like Barbara Smith and Catherine Ann Cullen.
Sheehan’s second collection (Down the Sunlit Hall, Doghouse 2008 ) confirms her skill as a poet and her capacity to write seductively. These aren’t poems that give you a hard-on, exactly, but are rather the sort of poems that draw you from the enticements of other books clamoring for your attention. Sheehan can be funny, as in the opening of “upended to someplace”:
“Barefoot by lamplight, by curtained midnight. Slipped
in a puddle of dog piss. Landed straight
into the arse-end of tomorrow. Can happen
like that, revelations, things of that nature.”
Or solemn, as in the close to “Threat of Rain:
“we step back
at the sound of earth on wood
back to notice the living
back into our own
Or, in poems like “Needing to Be,” Sheehan is both at once. She is not a poet of a single mood, tempo, or, indeed, song. He poems, at times whimsical, but rooted in particulars of time, place, and personality, have distinct formal characteristics but are always distinctly hers.
One wishes that one could say the the same about more contemporary Irish poetry, which suffers from many of the same weaknesses of much contemporary American poetry–the rather bland anecdote rendered in lineated prose and thankfully generally over rather quickly. Sheehan’s free verse still feels like verse rather than a dullish paragraph hacked up with a berserk “Enter” key. She is a poet of the proper kind.
*Personal disclosure–I know the author and think she’s pretty nifty.