Irish poet looks back three centuries to find obsession and inspiration in another

A woman fell in love with a poem – a moan, a roar – for a slain loved one. 18th century Irish nobleman Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill composed “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire” after her husband was assassinated by a powerful British official. On arriving at the scene, Ni Chonaill, pregnant with their third child, drank handfuls of her husband’s blood. “My shining dove,” “my pleasure,” she called it in the poem, “my thousand wanderings” – why hadn’t she been with him? She imagined her blouse catching the ball in its folds.

For decades, “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire” has survived in the oral tradition. It is now recognized as one of the great poems of its time. Poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa was also pregnant with her third child when she fell under her grip, keeping a “scruffy photocopy” under her pillow. Where are Ni Chonaill’s bones buried? she wondered; where can we leave flowers? The grave is not marked. Ni Chonaill’s letters and diaries are all gone. His own son omitted his name from the family records.

The fiery and shapeshifter “A Ghost in the Throat” is Ni Ghriofa’s offering. It includes his translation of “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire”, as well as a hybrid of essay, biography, self-fiction, scholarship – and a daily account of life with four children under the age of 6.

“It’s a feminine text,” begins the book Ni Ghriofa. “It’s a feminine text, composed by folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow, as my hands perform countless chores. It’s a feminine text born of guilt and desire, sewn onto an original soundtrack of cartoon rhymes.

The book is all in the undergrowth, exuberant, tangled passage. It recalls the brilliant and original “Suite pour Barbara Loden” by Nathalie Léger: a biography of the actress and director who becomes a count of the obstacles to the writing of such a book, and an admission of the virtual impossibility of biography itself. “To study a feminine life marked by silence is to attempt a mapping of the fog,” writes Ni Ghriofa.

Credit…Bríd O’Donovan

Ni Ghriofa is embarrassed – an amateur, she repeatedly apologizes. She has no college degree, only her obsession – which is less the real woman, we feel, than the abundance of the poem, its mixture of sorrow, desire, revenge. She is suspicious in libraries, a baby strapped to her chest, a toddler by her side. She writes the book we read in the free parking lot while the baby is asleep, a stolen hour before dinner.

So intimidating at first, this work – the recreation of a life, the translation of the poem – begins to sound familiar. “In Italian, the word stanza means ‘room’, ”she notes. “I reassure myself that I am just doing housework, and that thought stabilizes me, because taking care of a room is a form of work that I know I can do as well as anyone.” She recreates Ni Chonaill’s life as if she were fixing a hem, preventing the story from unfolding further. She pauses to cram a child in a car seat, tighten a duvet in its cover, pick up pieces of pasta on the floor.

Ni Ghriofa is the author of several books of poetry, which she herself has translated, from Irish. “A Ghost in the Throat” is his first prose book. It has been read with enthusiasm, but not always with attention. I have seen grateful reviews of how the writer talks about the boredom of domestic life and the “depredations” of pregnancy on the body.

Except that’s not what Ni Ghriofa describes, not at all; not her who is a little embarrassed by how much she “enjoys her chore work”, she who looks at her body in the mirror – “my breasts, unbalanced and glorious; the sacred door to my quadruple Caesarean scar, my sagging stomach, rippled like a wick at low tide ”- and feeling“ no revulsion, only pride. This is a feminine text, I think. My body responds in its dialect of scars. And There you go! he seems to say, And There you go!”

The unfolding story is stranger, more difficult to tell, than these valiant tales of saving a woman writer “forgotten” from the erasures of history or the challenges faced by the woman artist. Ni Ghriofa, who spent 10 years pregnant or breastfeeding, who almost lost her fourth child (there is one heartbreaking chapter in the NICU), is immediately ready for another. Without a baby to occupy her, she wakes up trembling: “What will become of me, in the absence of this work, all this growth and this harvest?” She cannot abandon this “exquisite” pleasure of service, the purpose and the physical pleasure of looking after, feeding, and holding a little baby. Her husband begs her, asks if he can have a vasectomy (she thanks him for doing it in the acknowledgments – a first in my reading experience).

What is this ecstasy of self-denial, what are the costs? She documents this trend without shame or fear but with curiosity, even fun. She will re-educate her hunger pangs. “I could give my days to find hers, she said to herself, launching into the story of Ni Chonaill. “I could do it and I will. Or so she said. The real woman invoked by Ni Ghriofa is herself.

About Nell Love

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