Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s The Astrakhan Cloak
The Astrakhan Cloak, published in 1992, is a collection of poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Several aspects of the book deserve notice from the reader, including structural and thematic elements that work to develop an overall sense of mystery, wonder, and loss. A significant theme of the poems in the collection is the dichotomy of the supernatural and civilized worlds, and the sense that there are forces in the world just beyond our perception and understanding. In general the poems presented are short, but the final inclusion is a longer poem divided into sections, each somewhat able stand on its own. Read as a whole the final poem underscores the central themes presented in the book.
Ní Dhomhnaill wrote the collection in Irish, but translations are provided on the facing pages. It is important to consider why the book was published in both languages. At the simplest level, the poet wanted people to read her work, and the market for poetry in English is larger than that in Irish. However, there are other considerations to keep in mind. First, the decision to print poems in both Irish and English brings to the mind of the reader some of the mystery inherent in other languages, especially the supernatural connotations of Celtic language. Viewing the poems in Irish reinforces the idea that some things are outside the realm of human understanding. Reading a translation is not the same as reading an original work; the reader
cannot help but wonder what meaning the foreign words might carry that is lost in translation. That constant reminder throughout the collection enhances the sense of there being something just beyond perception that is beautiful and mysterious. Many of the poems in The Astrakhan Cloak seem to carry the theme of a mysterious supernatural world just outside the range of comprehension.
The first three poems in the collection, Carnival, The View from Cabinteely, and I Fall in Love, do not overtly discuss the supernatural world. There are metaphorical images of the natural and supernatural worlds, such as the first few lines of Carnival that read: "When you rise in the morning/and pour into me/an unearthly music rings in my ears." (Ní Dhomhnaill 11) The "unearthly music" appears as the first reference to the supernaturally beautiful world. Only upon further reading do we discover that while the speaker experiences that "unearthly music", it is transitory. Later, in the third section of Carnival, the speaker and her lover are compared to Celtic gods or natural forces:
If we were gods/here at Newgrange--
you Sualtam or the Daghda,
myself the famous river--
we could freeze the sun
and the moon
for a year and a day
to perpetuate the pleasure
we have together.
Alas, it's far from gods
we are, but bare, forked creatures. (Ní Dhomhnaill 13)
These images and references serve as the first indication that there are forces beyond the ken of mortal humans.