Majella Cullinane’s Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is an extraordinary book and unexpected in the sense that it is a type of poetry rarely published in New Zealand now. Suggesting a strong awareness of earlier forms, the collection’s epigraph is, fittingly, a quotation from Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”. An Irish expatriate now resident in New Zealand, Majella Cullinane combines a romantic sensibility with a modernist sharpness. Her poetry has much very Irish (Catholic) imagery together with specifically New Zealand imagery. (The blurb tells me it is being published simultaneously in New Zealand and Ireland). There is much reference to a deep past. The whole section “The Hours” links the traditional monastic canonical hours with present day urban life. Much of the final section “Cut Away the Masts” (including the surging and terrifying poem “A Woman Was Seen”) is based on materials drawn from letters written in the nineteenth century. In the poem “Displaced”, it is as if Cullinane has inserted herself into the spirit of an immigrant from earlier centuries. Nature is numinous in the world depicted here. And it is easily anthropomorphised. There is “a gust throwing the eucalyptus on the hill into a quandary” in the poem “First Light”. Crows are portents of death in the collection’s title poem; or they are linked to the human skill of literacy, as in “the black letters on this page / as they move across the white space, which remind me / of crows stalking frozen trees” (in “Finale to the Season”). I do not wish to be reductive, but the general tone of this collection is a sense of longing. Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is fey in the original and non-pejorative sense of the word – it senses the presence of things not quite seen (see the poem“Seeing Things”). There is much mist, much fog, much sea-coast. Am I resorting to racial stereotypes if I say it is very Celtic? Yet it is also confessional. The whole section “As Good As” appears to refer to a miscarriage in mythological terms and includes the wrenching line “I would fashion the smallest gap you could sneak through” . I’m impressed.
Poetry collection Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is incredibly in tune with nature. The poem Winter Solstice exemplifies this. Here, Cullinane beautifully describes what the world is like on the shortest day of the year. Cullinane starts by telling us:
In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with. The curtains are closed
and dreams still drowse beneath our blankets.
This beginning perfectly captures the environment that envelops people and places in the middle of winter. The idea of dreams drowsing beneath blankets is a beautiful description of what life is like on these cold, winter days. Like we are all half-sleeping in winter, waiting for the sun to come out again. Even just these two sentences are enough to bring forward the image of slow days filled with grey.
Cullinane’s voice is beautifully lyrical and a perfect fit for the landscapes that she brings to life. The last stanza of the poem Learning to Breathe Again is a wonderful example of this, where she writes:
Better to consider
the small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world:
a snowflake flitting through the air,
swathes of blue and orange entangling the sky in their warm shawl,
glances to be tucked away like stones run smooth by rivers,
the shadows of our hands like wings, playing with the light.
Each image by itself is so clear and breathtaking. Placed together into a single verse, each image and sentence builds upon the last to help enrich the setting. By stacking up wonderful pieces of description in this way, Cullinane’s poetry tucks you into a stunning world. It feels like a world that has been touched by something magical, a world with a difference.
This way in which Cullinane lightly touches on the images around her makes her poetry so tender. Her poem Finale to the Season shows the world waking up from the winter landscapes that Cullinane had described in previous poems. Cullinane acknowledges:
We’re not there yet, but there are hints: in the pink-red clasp of sorrel,
the cicada easing a pitch lower, shedding its voice.
The subtle changes that come with the seasons is a wonderful subject that once again allows Cullinane to describe the nature around us so perfectly. She continues:
You are primed towards spring in the north, the light
drifting a little more each day like the black letters on this page
as they move across the white space, which remind me
of crows stalking frozen trees, or your breath hard and quick
as you sleep in the room we shared, each in our own narrow bed.
Cullinane’s reference to the poem on the page itself is excellent. The amount of light in each day grows incrementally with the onset of spring. Like this gradual change, the act of reading and moving across the page brings each word alive and into imagination.
Cullinane’s poetry style carries its own grandeur like the landscapes she describes. Her voice is distinct and clear. And in Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, this voice holds your hand, leads you through terrain, and points out details that you may have once missed.
‘You can find poetry in your everyday life,’ writes Carol Ann Duffy, ‘your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news … or just what’s in your heart.’1
For too long, what was conceived as ‘the everyday’ (e.g. the domestic and personal) was socially sanctioned as the preserve of women writers. To them were left the perceived crumbs of literature – the domesticated spaces, internal lives and constraints of social mores; those subjects permitted in fiction, for instance. Poetry, meanwhile, focused upon the important stuff: public discourse, big ideas, history, philosophy. In the process, female writers, their voices and concerns were marginalised. In the 1960s, Second Wave Feminist Criticism solidified the consciousness- raising of its First Wave predecessor and began to readdress the gender sidelining that had disregarded important female poetic voices like Felicia Hemans and Letitia Elizabeth Landon.
A peculiarly English literature issue? Far from it. In New Zealand in the late 1930s the rise of new women poets with their intermural, personal concerns – Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan, Ursula Bethell – was viewed as a cataclysm by some male counterparts:
The Menstrual School of Poetry is in the ascendant, and a mere male is treated with scant respect. I see we shall all have to turn hermaphrodites in order to do ourselves any good.2
Where, thankfully, this phobic irrationality regarding women poets has – for the most part – disappeared, the exploration of the everyday has contrastingly proliferated. So that today, the personal, domestic and ‘inner’ have become regular topics for poets, irrespective of gender – or, indeed, ethnicity and/or sexuality.
The new collection by migrant author Majella Cullinane, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, illustrates just how deeply mined the discursive and emblematic examinations of the everyday have become. Cullinane’s first collection, Guarding the Flame (Salmon Poetry, 2011), offered a series of poems which, buoyed by the poet’s arresting language and imagery, transformed the simple into the redolent. In the new book, the everyday is once again mediated by amazing imagery into the powerful. This evocative technique is seen in the early poem ‘Displaced’, which begins:
Hear the ghosts panning gold at sunset,
their calls and laughter snagging the earth …
Here the ghost represents the collective cultural concept of the deceased ancestors who we carry with us in the present, but also the unknown symbolic rotation of existence. Historic gold-mining is counterpointed, at the poem’s conclusion, by gilded moments of contemporary society such as the much deified game of rugby and the hedonistic street racer.
The authorial use of symbol – not as an addendum to poetic craft but as primary means, along with form and cadence, to tune into and bring fresh meaning to practical topics – is widely deployed elsewhere in the book. In early poems like ‘Op shop, 1985’ and ‘All that September’, the bygone and memory are refrains evoked by imagery and association, which the author returns to again and again.
Where the practical as subject matter supported by deft authorial use of imagery is manifest in the book, so too inquisitiveness and prodding. In the titular poem, for example, Cullinane expands on the passing of a grandparent, explored through the symbol of the crow, so that it becomes a self-reflective questioning of life:
When you look in on her a last time
do you see a face like your own gathering there?
Such deeper authorial questioning is also found at the close of ‘Displaced’, when the poet prompts us to consider how, divorced from understanding where we come from (ancestrally and/or geographically), we might find belonging:
If the stars could burn into our smallness,
our breathing, slide under the fractures
of our loss, our belonging,
what would they answer her?
It’s there too in the later spiritual and spirited ‘The hours’ sequence, where a meditation on religious rites, practices and experiences engages the reader in the mysteries of belief, belonging and symbol. Here, poems like ‘Matins’, ‘Lauds’, Vespers’ and ‘Nocturne’ explore, contrast and intersect issues of worship, iconography and purpose into an arrangement of deeply profound and enquiring works.
Domesticity, motherhood and personal trauma are also explored and enriched through the filter of this clever use of curiosity and symbol. In poems like ‘The little boy that got away’ and ‘Isla’, the result is a sense of cathartic release from suffering.
With its shrewd use of craft, imagery and musical language, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is a stunning book about curiosity, conscience and the revelation of the profound discovered in the seemingly commonplace.