Lifesaving Poems: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s ‘Swineherd’

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I came across ‘Swineherd’ in quick succession via friends, workshops, anthologies and even newspaper columns, towards the end of the Nineties. As one of a series of poem-posters produced by the Poetry Society, and thanks to the generosity of Siân Hughes, it now sits on the wall of my office at work.

Being aware of a poem’s popularity or ubiquity has never been a good reason, in my book at least, to suddenly disown it. In the case of ‘Swineherd’, though I look at it most days, I am no nearer to guessing the veracity of story it tells, nor uncovering its every layer of meaning. Long before I read Ruth Padel’s consummate reading of the poem in The Independent, I felt the poem nagging away at me with its combination of slushy consonants chiming off each other (‘special’/’polish’), and the curtness of its ‘c’ sounds (‘skills’, ‘coffee’, ‘fox’, ‘cream’, ‘crawling’).

This push-and-pull sense of being teased was present all the way through the poem: What are the ‘skills’ which are so ‘special’? Who is the ‘Portuguese lay-sister’? What breed of ‘yellow’ fox are we talking about? Where (and why) does it get dark early in the summer? After a thousand readings, I still don’t know.

The joy of it is that I don’t need to, either. I have decided to savour the poem instead, to let it work on me as pure imagination. I allow it to create a space in which those possibly endangering ‘special skills’ (informer? torturer? bomber?), albeit retired, have come to rest in a place of order (‘straight lines’) which is itself threatened with the unexpected and the exotic (‘yellow fox’, ‘navy- blue trunks’). The poem could be the all-time great riddling poem of The Troubles. Or it might be an answer to the dogmatic need, in all of us, for an ‘answer’ in the first place. It might be an argument for the primary function of art to create and then exist on a plane of its own logic and making. It might be all three.

Swineherd

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

Lifesaving Poems

5 comments

  1. Fiona Quilty

    Hi Anthony, Just read you blog post today. I remember the Lay sisters who worked in the convent laundry at my own school in England . They were women who wanted to become nuns but were often too poor to pay the dowry. Some lay sisters were those who were probationary sisters-learning if they had a vocation to become nuns and take their vows or sometimes they were local girls who worked in the home for a while before they became novices or left. For many girls-to become a lay sister meant somewhere to live – where they had a chance to be independent from home. The memory is very evocative-wax sawdust, the smell of the laundry and the crisp white cuffs they wore to protect their sleeves. The Lay sisters I remember always seemed so lonely and shy-often set to do the hard work in the convent before they could ‘earn’ their dowry to become nuns… All the best Fiona

    All the best Fiona

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thanks so much for your kind comment Fiona. This is a revelation to me. It adds another layer of meaning/mystery to the poem. Why would the speaker retire to a place populated by people of lowly status and income? It doesn’t feel so ‘special’ suddenly… or maybe this is a deliberate choice, one made out of necessity, like going into hiding? Like the cream crawling to the top of that jug, the plot thickens…
      With thanks again
      Anthony

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  2. Gwenllian

    What a remarkable poem – thanks for sharing it Ant. I am not concerned with the mysteries, but i identify with the longing for the ordinary, everyday stuff: time to learn to make a decent cup of coffee, clean the brass, appreciate the stillness. This is ‘mindfulness’. I love it.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      So pleased you like this one Gwenllian. That is exactly what I love about it too. Mystery in ordinariness. XX as ever Ant Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere

      >________________________________

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