When this is all over (send me a poem)

Well, hello again! And how nice it is to be back…sooner than planned, and the site has yet to be redesigned, but I’ve been self-isolating for 14 days, and I’m missing company. The garden and house have never been tidier, and I’ve got the time and the inclination. I was planning to do a bit of brick and stonework, but Wickes have just cancelled my delivery, so here we are. And I’m feeling ring-rusty, tongue-tied; I can’t quite remember how to talk in Cobweb. I can’t remember the rhythm. There’s nothing for it. Just do it.

Jane Clarke posted on Facebook this article from The Irish Times (29/03/20)

Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin wins Irish Times Poetry Now award

Former Ireland professor of poetry wins €2,000 prize for The Mother House

Eileán Ni Chuilleanáin. Photograph: Eric Luke

The winner of this year’s Irish Times Poetry Now award is Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin for The Mother House, published by Gallery Press. The winner had been due to be presented with the €2,000 prize at the Mountains to Sea festival in the dlr Lexicon in Dún Laoghaire today but the festival, like many other literary events was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The other poets on this year’s shortlist were: Jane Clarke for When The Tree Falls (Bloodaxe), Vona Groarke for Double Negative (Gallery Press), Medbh McGuckian for Marine Cloud Brightening (Gallery), and Paul Muldoon for Frolic and Detour (Faber & Faber).

The three judges included the current editor of Poetry Ireland Review, poet Colette Bryce, Jackie Kay, who has been Scotland’s national poet laureate since 2016 and is chancellor of the University of Salford, and anthologist, broadcaster and author of poetry text books for students, Niall MacMonagle. 

Speaking on behalf of the judges, McMonagle said that the panel had agreed that the poems in The Mother House “are rich and generous and rewarding. Reading them expands our understanding, they remind us of what poetry can do in terms of words and ideas. They sustain us.”

Describing the work in this, Ní Chuilleanáin’s 10th collection, he said it “explores those familiar themes of grief, loss, love and the past, a past both personal and historical; she writes of multiple lives, different lives, in richly-textured poems”.

Her words “come with insight, wisdom and a distinctive music all their own. These poems allow us enter worlds, worlds that reveal themselves slowly.”

MacMonagle quotes the words of President Higgins when speaking at Ní Chuilleanáin’s appointment to the Ireland Chair of Poetry: “Her poems have at their heart, an instinctive understanding of the importance of indicating the right of each individual mind to reflect on and see the world in its own way.”

Now, apart from my joy at seeing my poetry friend Jane Clarke in that sort of company, it was a delight to be reminded of one of my favourite poems (one of Anthony Wilson’s too..check out Lifesaving Poems). And here it is.


When all this is over, said the swineherd,
I mean to retire, where
Nobody will have heard about my special skills
And conversation is mainly about the weather.

I intend to learn how to make coffee, as least as well
As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen
And polish the brass fenders every day.
I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.

I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines
And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,
Where it gets dark early in summer
And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

It’s one of those poems that turns up so often as a starter/prompt at poetry workshops that you can almost forget to read it properly. You can think, because it’s familiar, that you know it. Anthony Wilson points out that it goes on and on asking unanswered questions. It haunts. I offer it in workshops to illustrate what Clive James meant by the moment that gets you in, or what Jane Draycott will call the ignition point..

“When this is all over”. Where are we? I’ve always imagined the swineherd waving his arm at a despoiled landscape of rooted ground, the snuffling of rough-haired pigs, everything churned and grey-brown; you might just think of him in the shed he lives in, lying on a pallet, staring at a plank ceiling, talking to himself, or…..

What the poem invites you to do is to imagine the ‘this’ of the swineherd’s world. What he dreams of, is presumably everything that it isn’t. His dreams are apparently small but particular and memorable.

I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines

You see where I get my picture of uprooted shrubs and splintered stems and churned earth? It’s such a simple line, it’s so surprising; I cannot figure out the voice. Wistful? Angry? Frustrated? Despairing? They’e all possible.

It’s a moment that gets you in, like the polishing of the brass fenders, or the wanting to making coffee in that particular way. Or the utter lovely uforgettableness of

I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.

And there’s this startlingly not-quite surreal image

And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks

which is so painterly, like a passage in a Van Gogh, or a Rousseau.

Quiet, colour, peace, orderliness, routine, untaxing conversation. So many things that are missing in the ‘this’ that he hopes will be over, sooner or later.

So here’s the deal. It would be rather nice to make an on-line/virtual anthology.

If you want to be involved, leave a message in the reply box. Just say :Yes please, I’ll send you my When this is all over, said the X,Y orZ poem

The rules are simple:

I send you a letter of the alphabet. So if you get A you choose to be an aromatherapist or an astrologer or…..

The title should be simply the name of the trade or occupation.

Minimum length: 14 lines

Maximum length: 25 lines

It can be in any form, rhymed or unrhymed, with stanza breaks or not, anything from blank verse to couplets.

Aim to describe the job/occupation of the narrator by implication…keep reading Swineherd to remind yourself how it’s done at its absolute best

Set yourself a simple criterion. Can you recognise at least one moment that gets the reader in, something memorable and right?

Treat it as a submission.

When I get your message, I’ll send you your letter of the alphabet, with some prompts, and also how to send me your poem. It’s first come first served.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin sets the bar very high; I thought I’d just finish for now by sharing one of mine that doesn’t cut the mustard. Yes, it was a workshop job, but it’s never been redrafted.

Lighthouse keeper

When this is over. said the lighthouse keeper,

I shall spend my days in shopping malls

bus stations,  airports. I shall pass the afternoons

with jostling strangers, never spend too long

in just one room, never buy a wedge of cheese

or a round cake. I shall hang pictures –

-Braques and Mondrians- use a spirit level.

I shall travel constantly, walk miles inland,

live  near motorways listening enthralled

to the thrum and buzz of tyres, the doppler

wail of ambulances,  fire engines. Relish

late night slamming doors, the sodium glow

of towns, the smell of burgers, onion, hot fat,

the scuff of litter. I shall paint my rooms cerise,

and violet, or amber, mustard, lemon,

emerald,  chartreuse. Anything but white.

What’s wrong with it, apart from line breaks that make no sense, or its tendency to confuse invention with lists? Basically, it hasn’t spent enough time with the world of the narrator. Read Tony Parker’s ‘Lighthouse and you’ll see what I mean. There is nothing concrete or particular or felt or memorable in it. I wouldn’t publish it. You are all infinitely better than this.

Send me your jugglers, your excisemen, your magician’s assistants and sagger-makers’ bottom-knockers, your milliners and tinsmiths, your screevers and dollymops. We’ve all got plenty of time.