Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Born in England and reared in the Irish-speaking areas of West Kerry and in Tipperary, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is praised as one of the most gifted living poets in the Irish language tradition. All four of her collections of poems in Irish have won the Seán Ó Ríordáin Award. “Shape-shifting, from Gaelic myth. . . to some less romantic or quirkier emblem of the present, is a constant resource of Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry; and it’s one of the ways she has rescued the Irish language from its association with the pedantries of the past.” (Times Literary Supplement)

Ní Dhomhnaill is three-time winner of the Arts Council Prize for Poetry and recipient of the Butler Award from the Irish American Cultural Institution. Her irreverent, exuberant poems are translated into English by such distinguished poets as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, and Medbh McGuckian, and published here in bilingual editions: The Pharaoh’s Daughter, The Astrakhan Cloak, and The Water Horse.

Ní Dhomhnaill has held the Burns Chair of Irish Studies at Boston College and is the contemporary poetry editor of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. One of her current projects is the translation from Turkish to Irish of a book-length poem by Nazim Hikmet. Ní Dhomhnaill, who lives in Dublin, spent several years in Turkey and returns there regularly with her Turkish husband and four children.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2001

Nine Little Goats

It’s a cock’s foot of a night:
If I go on hanging my lightheartedness
Like a lavender coat on a sunbeam’s nail,
It will curdle into frogspawn.
The clock itself has it in for me,
Forever brandishing the splinters of its hands,
Choking on its middle-aged fixations.

Since the pooka fertilized the blackberries,
The year pivots on its hinges, breathing
Wintry gusts into our warmth.
Our bones grate like an unoiled
Rusty stable door,
Our teeth get pins and needles
As Autumn’s looming tide drowns
The endless shores of Spring.

Darkness will be dropping in
In the afternoons without an appointment,
A wolf’s bite at the windowpane,
And wolves too the clouds
In the sheepish sky.
You needn’t expect the wind
To put in her white, white paws
Before you open the door,
For she hasn’t the slightest interest
In you or your sore throat:
The solar system is all hers
To scrub like a floor if she pleases,
She’s hardly likely to spare her brush
On any of us, as the poison comes to a head
In the brow of a year
That will never come back.

So we might as well put in a match
To the peat briquettes
That the summer gave the grate,
And draw the sullen curtains tight
On the Family’s bad luck,
And sit with a library book,
Half-dozed by the television news,
Or roused by a game of chess,
Or a story, until
We are our own spuds,
Roasting in the embers.

Translated from the Irish by Medbh McGuckian
From PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER (Wake Forest University Press, 1998)


The long and short
of it is I’d rather see you nude —
your silk shirt
and natty

tie, the brolly under you oxter
in case of a rainy day,
the three-piece seersucker
suit that’s so incredibly trendy,

your snazzy loafers
and, la-di-da,
a pair of gloves
made from the skin of a doe,

then, to top it all, a crombie hat
set at a rak-
ish angle — none of these add
up to more than the icing on the cake.

For, unbeknownst to the rest
of the world, behind the outward
show lies a body unsurpassed
for beauty, without so much as a wart

or blemish, but the brill-
iant slink of a wild animal, a dream-
cat, say, on the prowl,
leaving murder and mayhem

in its wake. Your broad, sinewy
shoulders and your flank
smooth as the snow
on a snow-bank.

Your back, your slender waist,
and, of course,
the root that is the very seat
of pleasure, the pleasure-source.

Your skin so dark, my beloved,
and soft,
as silk with a hint of velvet
in its weft,

smelling as it does of meadowsweet
or ‘watermead’
that has the power, or so it’s said,
to drive men and women mad.

For that reason alone, if for no other
when you come with me to the dance tonight
(though, as you know, I’d much prefer
to see you nude)

it would probably be best
for you to pull on your pants and your vest
rather than send
half the women of Ireland totally round the bend.

Translated from the Irish by Medbh McGuckian
From PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER (Wake Forest University Press, 1998)

The Language Issue

I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant

in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,

then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river

only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh’s daughter.

Translated from the Irish by Medbh McGuckian
From PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER (Wake Forest University Press, 1998)