Gloss / Clós / Glas.

Look at the scholar, he has still not gone to bed,
Raking the dictionaries, darting at locked presses,
Hunting for keys. He stacks the books to his oxter,
Walks across the room as stiff as a shelf.

His nightwork, to make the price of his release:
Two words, as opposite as his and hers
Which yet must be as close
As the word clós to its meaning in a Scots courtyard
Close to the spailpín ships, or as close as the note
On the uilleann pipe to the same note on the fiddle —
As close as the grain in the polished wood, as the finger
Bitten by the string, as the hairs of the bow
Bent by the repeated note —
             Two words
Closer to the bone than the ones I was so proud of,
Embrace and strict to describe the twining of bone and flesh.

The rags of language are streaming like weathervanes,
Like weeds in water they turn with the tide, as he turns
Back and forth the looking-glass pages, the words
Pouring and slippery like the silk thighs of the tomcat
Pouring through the slit in the fence, lightly,
Until he reaches the language that has no word for his,
No word for hers, and is brought up sudden
Like a boy in a story faced with a small locked door.
Who is that he can hear panting on the other side?
The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.

        –Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin

Via Stephanie Nic Cárthaigh‎’s Facebook feed. (“Two words” should be farther right, to the right of the dash on the previous line, but no matter how many nonbreaking spaces I add I can’t seem to get it there. [Fixed, thanks to JC.]) Peter Campion writes:

In “Gloss / Clós / Glas,” a poem originally published in The Girl who Married the Reindeer, and placed at the close of the new Selected Poems, the mystic material grows out of a traditional portrait. The poem portrays a scholar who, as he works in his study researching etymologies, experiences a kind of transformation. […] I love how effortlessly Ní Chuilleanáin collapses the usual divisions between intellect and imagination: she has the books turn animal, even while she develops the transforming simile, the dream transport, with studious and exacting care. Masterful sentence structure carries the whole passage: for instance, the participle “pouring,” which at first seems expressionistic and strange, becomes lucid and naturalistic when repeated. This ending depicts a moment when the delineating power of language fails, as opposites of age and gender approach one another in a near epiphany. And yet the whole poem itself is about the power of words.


  1. Isn’t every poem worth its salt (as this one certainly is) about the power of words.

  2. Indeed.

  3. John Cowan says

    What you want is not a non-breaking space, which just means that duplicates aren’t stripped and line breaks can’t be inserted (hence “non-breaking”). You want a fixed width space like & #x2001;, the EM QUAD, like this:

         Indented by five ems!

              Indented by ten ems!

                   Indented by fifteen ems!

                        Indented by twenty ems!

    There is also & #x2000; the EN QUAD, for finer control, and 2004, 2005, and 2006 give you three-per-em, four-per-em, and six-per-em spaces respectively.

  4. as close as the word clós to its meaning in a Scots courtyard

    Why Scots, when it’s (and she’s) also Irish? (I ask out of curiosity not for nationalist whatsits).

  5. What you want is not a non-breaking space, which just means that duplicates aren’t stripped and line breaks can’t be inserted (hence “non-breaking”). You want a fixed width space like & #x2001;, the EM QUAD

    It worked, and you have changed my life. No more fiddling frustratedly with nbsp! Many thanks.

  6. Why Scots, when it’s (and she’s) also Irish?

    For what it’s worth, when I think of closes I think of Edinburgh. (Up the close and doon the stair, But and ben’ wi’ Burke and Hare…)

  7. oxter! Related to axle axis etc. – one of the first IE etymologies I remember really blowing my mind back in the day.

  8. Burke an’ Hare both being Irish, of course.

  9. John Cowan says

    True. However, Knox (the boy that buys the beef) was as Scottish as could be. He paid a hefty £10,000 in modern money for it, too.

  10. AJP Crown says

    Apparently a close is an alley in Scotland, or sometimes an access to a housing block, but see also pend and vennel.

  11. We did vennels, gennels, and snickets here.

  12. “Close” is fairly commonly used in England as part of a street name, usually for cul-de-sacs and dead-ends or perhaps a side road that wraps around a small park then rejoins the main road. There were a couple near where I grew up, in Berkshire/Oxfordshire.*

    I don’t think I’ve ever come across a close in the U.S.

    *It was one small town but it moved from one county to another. The same thing happened to me in Takoma Park, Md, when I moved from Prince George’s County to Montgomery County without leaving my house.

  13. John Cowan says

    In the twin villages of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Herzog on the fractal Belgium-Netherlands border, some inhabitants can move between countries just by walking around inside their houses: they are exempt from the current border closure.

    The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, Vermont/Quebec, is probably the only library in the U.S. with no books (they are in Canada) and the only opera house in Canada without a stage (it’s in the U.S.) Formerly it was possible to enter from either country provided you left the same way you came in, but the Canadian entrance is now only used as an emergency exit; instead, Canadian patrons have free passage to and from the U.S. entrance without clearing customs and immigration on either side.

    There are about 20,000 volumes in the library, interfiled in French and English, but they are readily distinguishable because of the printing on the spine, which runs downward in English and upward in French. My mother’s working library was the same way with English and German books interfiled.

    The building is closed for the duration, but all digital resources are equally available to patrons of either the Green Mountain Library Consortium or Pretnumerique.

  14. A recent twitter thing about weird dialect words for alleys:

  15. per incuriam says

    The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green

    I get it: lock and green are both “glas” in Irish, pronounced like “gloss” in the title.

    Poetry readers must be good at cryptic crosswords.

  16. John Cowan says

    Ooh, nice!

  17. Yes, I’m glad you pointed that out.

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