Review of Eileen Sheehan’s The Narrow Way of Souls (poetry)
Reviewer: Colin O’Sullivan
In this her third volume of poems, The Narrow Way of Souls, Irish poet Eileen Sheehan presents us with another superb collection. This is a poet whose work never fails to thrill and delight in equal measure, and as she grows in stature (one poem here is part of the Leaving Cert English school curriculum 2019-2022 in Ireland) readers have the pleasure of journeying with her, following her on the tantalizing twists and turns she likes to take, and growing, glowing in wisdom alongside her.
Eileen Sheehan’s poems reek of the earth, that’s earth and Earth – one poem even has the title “Earthed” and could be an alternative title for this wonderful book. Nature abounds and sucks you in to its teases and torrents, as Sheehan writes of “globs of shorn blossoms pooling on the road”, “windborne seeds”, “dandelion clocks” burrows, buttercups and birdsong; and of course this being Ireland there are plenty of “weeping skies” “torpid clouds” “cloaks of cumulus” and even a garment that “reeks of rain.” (I’m quite aware that I have used the word “reek” in this paragraph twice, as many times I have lifted my nose from the book having the sense of real life odorously presenting itself between these fine pages).
As well as being about the earth/Earth the poems feel fashioned of the earth (“she had earth on her feet / Earth between her fingers / In the supermarket we left a trail of earth down every aisle” ), as Sheehan brings her typically deep sensuousness to every line, whether it is about young girls playing shop, or how “love conducts itself in waves from skin through skin” or “salt waves washing me / he was wind caressing me”; Sheehan is as unafraid of writing about the body, its beauty, its decay (and inevitable death, see: “At Scartaglen Graveyard” , “Pre-emptive” and “My Father, Long Dead”) as she is of “the grass and the leaves” , “rose hip and haw”. In fact it is unfair to label these rural or nature poems; there is far more than that going on as Sheehan can just as easily bring us a poem about Zeus and his “lightning bolt”, the Foreman vs. Ali fight in Zaire, and some kind of cryogenic facility in Moscow – she also mentions Twitter (“Trending on Twitter”) in case you think that this is not a poet of the Now.
This is a poet who knows how to put together a bunch of poems that are varied and complement each other in every regard, and she is wise enough and as likely to move between pronouns (a confessional “I” or “you”) as she is to a “he” or “she” or a narrative that always seem to have full and satisfying closure (and often disclosure).
Sheehan also has the nails to be able to scratch beneath surfaces, and is, in my opinion (and to use one of her own phrases): a “reliable witness” to this world. She is unafraid to provoke when necessary, as the final line of “Crawthumpers” attests to (no spoilers here, you’ll have to discover that feisty one for yourself) and if I can borrow further, from the second last line of that same poem: “Wielding, without understanding”; I am inclined to think of this masterful poet as one who manages quite the opposite, she wields, with a full and impressive understanding of who and where we are.
The poems are punctuated by intermittent haikus, and while personally this reviewer is no fan of the haiku form in English, here they provide welcome and reflective pithy pit-stops as the reader makes its way through the remarkable collection.
If there is a fault with these kinds of slim volumes of poetry, it is only ever that they are too short: I could easily have read on and on, and for this exceptional poet to keep feeding my hunger for their craft and tact. For now though, I will simply go back to the start and enjoy these terrific creations again (and more likely then again), and also return to her first two collections: Song of the Midnight Fox and Down the Sunlit Hall which I have used and perused on many occasions, and look forward, with a keen, if not downright greedy anticipation, to what she has to offer next.
The Narrow Way of Souls by Eileen Sheehan is published by Salmon Poetry (Ireland) Price: €12.00