A reading of a Leaving Cert Poem is always just one interpretation.
Here is just one interpretation of the mysterious poem ‘Street’ by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Open the text of the poem in your poetry anthology.
Does this poem contain clues to a love story or is it just typical of the passing glimpses one gets of lives on a street?
Is it a glimpse of shy, everyday infatuation in the first stanza followed by the poet’s quirky imagining of the drama in the second stanza?
Or is it some other scenario? What do you think? Do you find the poem cinematic?
Do you see the following as a possible summary? A troubling young man, with an apparent fascination for blood, has fallen for a beautiful butcher’s daughter and one of them does harm to the other! Has one of them got a fatal craze? Is the poet sure either way?
A Reading of the poem
This lyric offers an intriguing mixture of love, temptation, violence and mystery.
Street opens in third person narrative. The opening states that a young man has fallen in love with a butcher’s daughter. How deeply? Does she realise? Does she reciprocate his feelings?
What identity do the characters have? No names, just like strangers we pass on a street. Yet there is a suggestion of local knowledge, ‘butcher’s daughter‘, so the teller should have the complete story. What does that convey though? Is it likely that she works in her father’s shop or that she kills in the shambles for him? Or is it merely that she belongs to the family of the local butcher. But the word ‘butcher‘ links to the images of the knife, blood and the shambles and this pattern creates an impression that links the girl to killing.
The narrative detail about her appearance is specific in in the opening stanza: ‘When he saw her passing by in her white trousers, Dangling a knife on a ring at her belt’. The word ‘dangling’ may be more than physical. It also suggest something playful; that is, teasing, enticing—like a promise or even a threat. Then out of nowhere dark, shining drops are mentioned-but there is a gap. Did something happen; are they blood drops? Are they meant to be part of the narrative.
As the second stanza unfolds, it is clearly another day. It seems the youthful woman, probably a teenager, leads the young man to a place as he follows her. On the other hand, it may be that he follows her, unknown to her, like a stalker.
The place they go is ‘slanting‘. This suggest a gradient in a painting rather than in a real place. It may hint at an alternative reality, a fictional place that the poet ponders in a whimsical manner.
Her shoes, the stairs and the door are definite images, but incomplete. They suggest an event occurs, but it’s a riddle. So these images need a fuller context, to fit them in to a narrative. Incomplete as they are in the poem, they provide intrigue and become symbols in the reader’s mind of an entrance to the strange world of the girl, The shoes parked neatly on the bottom step invite speculation. Where do the steps go to?
Have the two characters become lovers or is there some violent drama afoot?
The pure white garment generates contrast for both the drops and the knife, a possible source of the drops, probably red, on the paving stones. But there is no certainty and the knife may be just ornamental. The young man’s absorption with the vision before him has a dark hint of danger to it.
Is the setting of the second stanza, the lane to the ‘shambles’ or a separate house that is located on the lane, a place of romance or crime? The question is raised: why would the young woman remove her shoes, in an apparently ordered manner, and leave a trail of red stains with her heels? There may be a narrative gap between the first sentence of the second stanza and the rest of it. So, could the young man have left the shoes there? If the ‘red crescent‘ is a blood image, why crescent? Why does it fade? Where does the blood originate?
Does the young man secretly follow this girl, dressed in white, down a street that once held a shambles, a slaughter house for farm animals for butchers? Is the unknown story that arises from the sparse detail innocent or macabre?
The poem raises questions: did he harm the girl or endanger himself? Did he chase her into the shadows beyond the top of the stairs? Did she lure him on? Is the Shambles a separate place where she brought him, before she entered the door and went up the stairs? The image of the half open door may suggest haste; ‘red crescent’ suggests the girl had stepped in blood and that her heels left blood coloured shapes on the steps. These marks thus hint at violence.
That there are possible narratives arising from the sparse details is beyond doubt. The poem cannot be said to be insubstantial, given the amount of visual detail. Yet it is deliberately short on detail. The reader is left dangling, like the knife in the first stanza. We are gripped by the secrecy, evasions and revelations of the poem: ‘fading to faintest’. Ni Chuilleanain seems to suggest a house can be a story book and that it’s up to us to expand this snapshot and write the full story as our imaginations might please. Will it end murderously or erotically? That’s up to the reader.