By Carmine Starnino
Poetry Media Service
The Fifty Minute Mermaid, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Tr. by Paul Muldoon. The Gallery Press.
Hands up, anyone who knew that the merfolk's language was "pelagic"? I certainly didn't. Much remains unknown about these mythic creatures, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's new book can help. A bluffer's guide to those from "Land-Under-Wave," The Fifty Minute Mermaid is based on close imaginative contact with its citizens, their history, and the trauma that "left them oddly out of the swim."
Merfolk are mermaids; or, more specifically, they are an Irish species called "merrow" who have the ability to assume human form. According to Ní Dhomhnaill, merfolk were driven to land two centuries ago, a race on the run. Why they fled "the warm bosom/of the ocean" has never been explained, and the mermaids themselves are mum on the subject. Were they victims of "some sort of ethnic cleansing"? Casualties of a Paradise Lost cataclysm that now leaves them struggling "to climb back again/to the place from which they first fell"? It's a mystery. But whatever happened, there's no going back: they've renounced water, their gills long defunct. Aquatic refugees in dry diaspora, the merfolk seem cursed. Worse, the general population they live among, while fascinated, can't muster much in the way of sympathy--as Ní Dhomhnaill says, "anyone with so much bad luck and misfortune following them/must have done something to deserve it."
The tragedy of the merfolk--namely, that they are a people cut off from their own legend--can also be said to define Ní Dhomhnaill's poetic project over the last twenty years. The Fifty Minute Mermaid, her fourth book in English, is translated by Paul Muldoon. This is because Ní Dhomhnaill writes exclusively in Irish, a once-suppressed language she loves for the way it effortlessly incorporates "quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological." As it happens, the description captures the magic of her English voice, just as merfolk--who use words "still imbued/with the old order of things"--capture the proud exile of Ireland's Gaelic speakers.
The half-human "morph" of the merfolk as a metaphor for the act of translation is something else Ní Dhomhnaill is exploring in The Fifty Minute Mermaid. The book provides facing originals, but the accuracy of Muldoon's work will, for most North American readers, be hard to judge, even while his quirky embeddings are unmistakable ("I don't give a hoot," "to scare the living daylights," "discombobulated," "thingammies"). This, however, isn't our first look at Ní Dhomhnaill. She is already known--via earlier distillings by Michael Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, and Medbh McGuckian--as a compulsive storyteller. And Muldoon's version jibes with her celebrated billing. In their English skin her poems are hugely playful, practicing a subversiveness just fractionally above unclassifiable. Ní Dhomhnaill is a nuts and bolts poet: she puts her ideas and subject-matter right up front, while somewhere in the background extraordinary meanings assemble:
Whatever you do don't ever mention the word "water"
or anything else that smacks of the sea--
"wave," "tide," "ocean," "the raging main," "the briny."
She'd as soon contemplate the arrival of frost in the middle of summer
than hear tell of fishing, boats, seine or trammel nets, lobster pots.
She knows such things exist, of course,
and that other people
have truck with them.
She thinks that if she covers her ears and turns away her head
she'll be free of them
and she'll never hear again the loud neighing of the kelpie or water horse
claiming its blood relation with her at the darkest hour of the night,
causing her to break out in goose pimples and having sweat lashing off her
while she's fast asleep.
--From "The Mermaid and Certain Words"
Ní Dhomhnaill's mode isn't exactly satiric or surrealistic, but derangedly reportorial. The poems are filled with fascinating crypto-anthropological details: the merfolk susceptibility to disease, their difficulty holding a tune, their antipathy toward breastfeeding. It's tongue-in-cheek scholarship that eventually runs to the horrific: a chilling mention, at the end, of merfolk returning to "Land-Under-Wave" to find Auschwitz-like "heaps of gold teeth" and "old garments in garment-piles." Ní Dhomhnaill always works this way--allegorically, she goes deep. There is rarely a point-for-point match, yet her major targets are impossible to miss: colonialism, female sexuality, the Catholic church. But The Fifty Minute Mermaid, constructed out of two parts, is significantly darker than her previous books. The first part is merfolk-free but discontent-rich. It closes with a seemingly autobiographical narrative where the poet, during a drive, replays a series of grim memories: a dying friend, news of Serbian atrocities, her husband's recent six-day coma. She is readying herself for the ultimate "task"--"to take it all in, to make room in your heart without having your heart burst."
Here, then, is the heart-bursting genius of this book. Ní Dhomhnaill's merfolkian epic--part two of the collection--is the alternate reality of a woman trying to "take it all in." The frantic fabulating, with its deadpan exaggerations, suggests a desperate wish-fulfillment. Like The Decameron, The Fifty Minute Mermaid explores the way our lives are constructed of fictions--fictions that both shelter us from painful facts and allow us to face up to them. It is a tale told in crisis, and a must-read.
Carmine Starnino's newest book of poems, This Way Out, is forthcoming from Gaspereau Press in spring 2009. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.
© 2009 by Carmine Starnino. All rights reserved.