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by Majella Cullinane

Poems that chronicle 'the inhuman, uncanny experience of losing someone at huge distance'.


Majella Cullinane’s third collection of poetry, Meantime, chronicles not only the loss of her mother to dementia, but the simultaneous eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, making distances between each other, particularly between countries, impassable. Cullinane, who was stuck in Aotearoa and unable to be with her mother in Ireland, reaches out in these poems, painstakingly recording moments from childhood, the inhuman, uncanny experience of losing someone at huge distance, and the gaps in her knowledge of herself and her mother that will now never be filled.

In Meantime, the natural and concrete strands of the world often work in tandem with the poems’ human rhythms and desires. In ‘The believer’, an early poem in the collection, the speaker’s son’s voice ‘keep[s] time to the path’s unfolding melody’ as she carries him on the back of her bike. Later in the poem, the speaker recalls her mother believing ‘the hum of the telegraph wire’ was her own mother’s voice. These poems are in communion with what’s tangible; there’s a harmony between how the speaker feels and what she witnesses outside herself.

But though much of this book indulges in nature’s loveliness and finds solace in the fixedness of the concrete, in the collection’s title poem, the pandemic and the mother’s death share the same frame, and the speaker is for once at odds with the natural world. Its softness cannot placate her. She finds ‘no relief’ in autumn’s ‘cool air’. Nature is even unsettled in its own rhythms: ‘The rhododendron’s pink blush brightens the garden,/but it has come too soon./It will not survive early winter frosts’. Trees are not trees, but ‘dark green dresses swaying in the wind’; the speaker’s eye turns a wild object into a domestic one rather than embracing its wildness. All is not well in nature, and this discomfort and wrongness echoes the strange way the pandemic—a new force the world was reckoning with at the time of Cullinane’s writing—upended our expectations and forced us to relearn the rules of safety and society. Though anger and confusion don’t often bubble to the surface of these poems, they’re evident in these moments of subtle discord.

Cullinane is often a straightforward poet, and her commitment to clarity leaves little room for doubt. She builds sentences whose meanings are instantly transmitted, and indeed it’s often the clearest of these that cut closest to the bone. Take the poem ‘A breath away’ as an example, which opens like this:

I’ll never know what your first word was.
I don’t even know mine.
Did I ever ask you?

These short sentences, each their own line, illuminate the cruel truth of having lost someone who was central to one’s life—it’s a loss that is not only painful in itself, but for how it reshapes a griever’s identity, reframes their childhood, and reveals questions they might not have thought of asking if not prompted by grief.

Yet in some places, when Cullinane makes a real effort to be as clear as possible, she sacrifices rhythm and immediacy. This tendency towards transparency emerges, for example, in her reference to Celtic mythology in ‘Cut-throat’: ‘If I cut the tree I might invite misfortune./Wasn’t it hawthorn that marked the door to the underworld?’ There is, perhaps, room for the reference, but not the prosaic explanation. And the word ‘grief’ springs up several times in Meantime’s poems, a kind of redundant summary of itself when its unannounced presence was already so clear.

Happily, other poems in this collection reveal Cullinane’s ability to say just the right amount. ‘Ghosts’ is one perfect instance of this – a collection of distinct moments and recollections, ending not with any summary statement but with an image of a fox in the speaker’s dream:

It stalked outside my window,
scratching the frame
and snarling,
desperate to find a way in.

It’s bold to end a poem with an image of something unfulfilled – to resist the urge to organise more obviously, to tie up the ends. In doing so, Cullinane gets at the untidiness of grief, its unanswerable endlessness, and its language that is often ugly and surprising. When she chooses to remain in that untidiness, her poems tap into an exciting frequency, as when ‘The kind of place’ ends with the speaker picturing her mother’s ghost sitting in her front porch: ‘Can I be sure it’s really you?’

Indeed, this collection is full of questions, and in that poem as in many others, they’re brave and frightening ones. Other questions, however, are asked on behalf of a very general collective: ‘How long does it take to learn that we are all broken?’ or, ‘Is it any surprise we have so much locked inside us?’ Though these may be attempts to warm or console the reader, or the poet herself, their lack of specificity makes them sound a little hollow.

Meantime is devoted, above all, to memorialising Cullinane’s mother. It treats memories as precious, which is a tendency of grief, yes, but is perhaps partly also an act of defiance against the dementia which robbed the poet’s mother of her own memories in her final years. Cullinane curates these memories gently and reverently – the speaker is often a quiet one, stepping out of the way to let the image shine, as in ‘The wedding ring’:

My sister removed your grandmother’s wedding ring, gripped
your calloused palm, took your cold hand in hers,
the same hands that held us, the arthritic fingers
that once kneaded bread, the long fingers that never glided
across a piano keyboard, never strummed the strings of a guitar.

In this short poem, Cullinane chooses to address her mother directly – to say ‘you’ rather than ‘she’. It is as if her mother is still in the room, and she’d rather talk to her than about her. This is an earnest attempt to bridge the divides of time and space between the speaker and her mother, but sometimes readers may feel left out of the conversation, as if we aren’t privy to the core of the poem.

And yet when the collection closes, as the speaker stands at her mother’s gravestone and addresses her with the sentence, ‘Only you know what was said’, that privacy becomes a small spectacle. We, as readers, are not part of this relationship. Despite all these poems, we cannot truly understand it – but we never doubt how much the speaker treasures it.

The mother’s ghost bridges the wide space between Aotearoa and Ireland, and the impossibly wide space between the dead and the living, as do several appearances of her in dreams. She is never there to do anything particularly dramatic ­– in one dream she’s sitting in a shopping mall, opening a gift; in another, she’s making soda bread – and her presence tends to be a comfort for the speaker, rather than a shock. It’s in poems like ‘Winter recipe’ that a reader could begin to suspect that the mother’s appearance is more a form of self-soothing for the poet than any spectral existence in itself. The mother, in these dreams, reassures rather than reveals, continuing the speaker’s conversations with herself without derailing them:

                                                The other night
there was a blood moon, the first in forty years,
and it got me counting. Will I be here for the next one?
You chuckle at my question, tell me I think too much,
that I’ve always thought too much, that I have no faith.

But hiding amidst this pleasant softness is the disarming poem, ‘Something to say’, which wrestles with the question of whether the poet should be recording her mother in this way at all. In this poem’s abrupt final section, an imagined exchange between speaker and mother, the mother rises off the page not through direct description or remembrance, but through an exchange of dialogue, full of brusque idiom:

Didn’t I tell you not to? Didn’t I say I’d haunt you
if you wrote about me?
You did, but you always said I was disobedient.
Never a truer word.
Still, you’d have me write a few words about you—
something to say you were here?
I might and I mightn’t. If I said no,
would it make an iota of difference?
How many times have I told you?
You’re not to be telling people.

 The rhythms of speech in this section of the poem are electric and alive. And ending the poem here is the clearest possible retort. It is the best way this poet has of saying, ‘I wrote it anyway.’ But Cullinane did not write Meantime to spite her mother. These poems, gracious and kind and warm, are a powerful way of holding onto her – and, at the same time, of properly bidding her farewell.


by Majella Cullinane

Otago University Press

ISBN: 9781990048807

Published: May 2024

Format: Paperback, 83 pages

Sophie van Waardenberg

Sophie van Waardenberg is a poet from Tāmaki Makaurau. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in upstate New York, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of Salt Hill Journal. Her debut chapbook, does a potato have a heart?, was published in AUP New Poets 5. She lives in New York City.