Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill translates immortal themes.

Poetry In Emotion 

Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill translates immortal themes.

Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill grapples with "the biggies." The 49-year-old poet (whose name is pronounced NOO-la Nee GO-nal) says life, children and death are among "the big ones, the all-time immortal themes, the parameters of human existence."

In her highly suggestive poem "Blodewedd," for example, Ni Dhomhnaill takes on another, very American, biggie: sex. At the least touch of your fingertips/I break into blossom, she writes, my whole chemical composition/transformed./I sprawl like a grassy meadow/fragrant in the sun;/at the brush of your palm, all my herbs/and spices spill open/frond by frond, lured to unfold/ and exhale in the heat;/wild strawberries rife, and pimpernels/flagrant and scarlet, blushing/down to their stems.

For Ni Dhomhnaill, a poem emerges in stages, and she gradually grows to understand its meaning through a searching process, a process of worrying it out on paper. "Rhythmical structure will emerge, then images; lastly the meaning will emerge. If I knew what it meant I wouldn't write it as poetry," she says. "If I knew what it meant I'd write it in prose in English....When it's something that's beyond my comprehension that's trying to break into meaning, then poetry is the form it takes for me."

Right away there's a problem, however. Since Ni Dhomhnaill writes entirely in Irish, American readers can never really know her work, being stuck with the imperfect science of translation. A truly interpretive art, translation is as much a work of the translator's prejudices, whims and moods as it is a nexus to another language. It's a problem Ni Dhomhnaill knows something about -- she's spending this semester as the Heimbold visiting professor in Irish studies at Pennsylvania's Villanova University, teaching two classes in Irish literature with translations. But she'll spend this Friday night in Kansas City, heralding the arrival of St. Patrick's Day with a reading of her work for Rockhurst University's Midwest Poets Series. Poetry enthusiasts will be treated to selections from many of her books including poems from The Pharaoh's Daughter, The Astrakhan Cloak and The Water Horse, as well as some new translations that have not yet been released in book form.

Ni Dhomhnaill's influences come from a stable of Irish poets she grew up with and whose work she inspired as well. The tricky names trip off her tongue: Kieran Ciaran, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Medhbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon. "It's a sort of camaraderie of equals," she says. "We really do influence each other."

Her next project is a young adult novel -- but, she's quick to stress, it won't be from "the Harry Potter school. It's more The Catcher in the Rye." That seems appropriate, given that Ni Dhomhnaill describes coming up against a good poem as being "as painful as stubbing your toe against a big stone. A good poem in itself is the most alive form of language that you can imagine. It just leaps up out of the page and really grabs you. There's an ontological security that's as solid as a rock.

"It does change your life," she adds. "It often expresses something that you have refused to admit before, but it embodies it so totally that you can't be in denial anymore." And that's another immortal theme.

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