Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s work does not want to be pigeonholed. Her short fiction is edgy, deliciously radical and potently brief. In her debut novel, You, Ní Chonchúir proved she could both sustain a lengthy narrative and show infinite tenderness toward her characters. Her poetry has its own broad range and any attempt to issue generalisations about the work in Tattoo:Tatú, Portrait of the Artist With a Red Car, and her latest collection, The Juno Charm, has the poems marshalling ranks, defiantly uttering: Just you try. This spirit of audacious rebellion is Ní Chonchúir’s defining and most engaging characteristic. Brazen and provocative, she endlessly offers up the unexpected; what unites her disparate work is the mercurial hand of a rare and trustworthy voice.
The Juno Charm annotates a life; many of the poems are way-markers of autobiography, bearing witness to significant griefs and joys. The collection opens with an appealing series about Ní Chonchúir’s second marriage, these are lively, colourful poems which neatly disprove De Montherlant’s maxim that ‘happiness writes in white ink on a white page’. The work moves on to explore ‘the years of strife and faith’ (‘A Sort of Couvade’) involved with conception and miscarriage that ultimately triumph in the coup de grâce birth of the poet’s daughter, Juno. This intimate world is never ordinary, amulets are called for and curses referenced while dread and miracles happen side by side.The second half of the collection voyages up and down on the exuberant waves of Ní Chonchúir’s lively mind; insomnia, the local butcher, the tattooed man in the post office, the name Olive, and a worn sofa ‘squat by a farmgate like a sneaky pisser’ (‘Sofa’), all set Ní Chonchúir’s pen in motion. You can imagine her agreeing with Eithne Strong’s edict that ‘everything is a possible/subject for a poem’.
A significant number of Ní Chonchúir’s stronger poems are inspired by works of art. ‘Yellow’ and ‘Sien’ are jaunty missives from the voice of Van Gogh, but in true egalitarian and recalcitrant Ní Chonchúir style, these loftier explorations of the art world are offset by the model’s voice speaking from ‘A Cézanne Nude’.
I stand as still
as a fruit on a plate.
My breasts are plums,
my behind a peach.
Monsieur says if I move,
he will pulp me.
So I hand him
and leave the door open
on my way out.
Stylistically Ní Chonchúir does not show off, but builds solid poems from strong ideas and precise images. Her language is usually pithy, exact, upfront. She writes about ‘fuck-me-please eyes’ (‘Mannequin Envy’), and ‘arse-shaped dinges’ (‘Sofa’), and in the classic ‘Dancing with Paul Durcan’ she tells Paul Durcan his poetry is ‘filthy with longing’. Cat-like, Ní Chonchúir pounces on phrases she bends to her own will, before leaping on to the close of a stanza, often abandoning words like ‘the’, ‘of’ and ‘and’ at the end of lines with a devil-may-care insouciance that also has her using commas, full-stops and line breaks as she pleases. If Ní Chonchúir gets away with all this it is because her poetry pulses with a dynamic energy and a sensual, flirtatious wit that stands up to many readings. Ripe with sexual frankness, the collection is underpinned by a liberal sexuality perfectly pitched between reserved good taste and unselfconscious longing.
Throughout The Juno Charm there is an unflinching feminist sensibility, a refreshing, unassailable spirit that rears up against subjugation, implanting in our minds unapologetic images of female power. Here is the poet herself as a pink skyscraper, ‘domineering and watchful/wanting to be all of Manhattan’ (‘Under This Painting, We Sleep’). In ‘The Juno Charm’, she is horizontal, a glistening pomegranate awaiting ‘erectile feathers’. And in ‘A Sort of Couvade’, Ní Chonchúir provides us with the unforgettable and triumphant image of the poet worn like a crown at the moment of her daughter’s birth.
Ní Chonchúir’s knack for such visceral, exceptional images is echoed in her striking poem ‘Guilt’.
Stuck like an oyster in my throat,
it is a choking, meaty valve
that sputters saltwater and
threatens slowly to drown me.
I will cough it up,
dislodge its fat rubber grip
and swallow easily again
only if I can forgive myself.
Like a lightning rod, Ní Chonchúir fuses quotidian experience to indelible image, and overall The Juno Charm turns that lightning on our black and white world, transforming it to technicolour, playfully investing the ordinary with sensate riches. In ‘Weather, East Galway’, swans jetting over a snowy M6, ‘are white arrows against zinc,/one is the seventh cygnet of a seventh swan’.
‘Guilt’ is one of a number of particularly striking poems in the collection. Similarly strong, but for entirely different reasons, are ‘Mute’, ‘Mistress’, ‘Dancing with Paul Durcan’ and ‘Frida Kahlo Visits Ballinasloe’. In ‘Mute’, Ní Chonchúir pins Leda and the swan to the page, delivering the rape with exactly the right amount of poise and horror, and consequently earthing the collection with invaluable depth. ‘Dancing with Paul Durcan’ and ‘Frida Kahlo Visits Ballinasloe’ are perfect examples of Ní Chonchúir’s ability to wittily reimagine the world and give it back to us better and brighter than before. Impossible now to stand in the Winding Stair without seeing Ní Chonchúir and Durcan dancing ‘breast to chest’ among the books, or to cross the Ha’penny bridge without walking through a tumble of their falling pages.
The poems mentioned above are so significantly good that they make pieces like ‘La Reine’, ‘Nineteen-Seventy-Two’, ‘Gull’ and ‘Over Water’ seem a little lacklustre. If there is anything unsatisfactory about The Juno Charm, it is the sense that sharper editorial teeth might have herded some of its less intense work back into a middle drawer. The presence of a number of weaker poems denies The Juno Charm the superlatives Ní Chonchúir’s strongest poetry demands, which is indeed a shame, for at her best Nuala Ní Chonchúir has few equals.