Since childhood, I’ve led a vibrant, exciting reading life. Books have challenged and encouraged me, they have become my companions, my sustenance. Perhaps this should be no surprise to me, coming as I do from a family with a noted history of bibliophilia; my grandfather’s father spent a lifetime assembling his own library in a farm shed in rural Mayo.
Like all writers, I read widely and constantly, dipping in and out of various genres. In my reading, I stretch myself, and that allows me the courage to stretch myself in my writing life too. Now that my new collection of poems, Clasp, has been published, I find myself contemplating the debt of gratitude I owe to the books and writers that have nourished me all these years.
The book itself is divided into three sections – Clasp, Cleave and Clench – and in each section I chose particular glimpses of moments in life to explore various themes, grappling with issues of technology and disconnection, the joy and pain of birth and motherhood, love and desire. A significant theme that runs throughout Clasp is the sense of palimpsest, how the events of the past lurk always just below the surface, a persistent influence on our days, whether we perceive it or not.
The poems collected in this book also explore a diverse array of absences in order to examine how we choose to accept or deny absence as a presence in our lives. In writing these poems, I was interested in how we respond to the things that disappear – the erasures, the deletions, the missing things – our resilience, our grief, and the ways in which we collapse or persist when something or someone has suddenly vanished from our days.
One poem that encapsulates many of the themes that run through Clasp is the poem The Horse under the Hearth. This poem grew from my reading of the long poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, a lament by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill that called to me over many years. I was drawn to this poem for many reasons. As a speaker of both English and Irish, I was intrigued by the many poetic translations, my interest piqued by the intellectual excitement of comparing the ventriloquism in the various versions with the original. I was also drawn by the strength and authenticity of the female voice in this elegy, along with the fact that it was composed by a woman at a time where the poetic compositions of women were rarely recorded.
The fabric of the tale itself also sparked my interest in the poem. The poet elegises her husband Art – a dandy, a brave and bold fellow. A longstanding feud with an English magistrate led to the demand that Art sell his favourite horse for the insultingly low price of £5, in accordance with the penal laws. Art refused, and as a result, was shot in an ambush. Eibhlín’s caoineadh is a lament that captures the horrific aftermath of her husband’s death: when his horse returns home alone, she jumps in the saddle and is led to his body, where feels compelled in her anguish to drink his blood. The elegy itself makes for shocking and compelling reading: her impassioned, distraught descriptions of their life together, her worry for their two young sons and her pregnancy, the sheer depth of her grief, all these elements contribute to the immense power of this poem.
Beyond the lure of the text itself, part of what drew me to read and reread Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire was the deep sense of empathy I felt with this poet, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. I thought of her often as I waited to collect my eldest son in a rainy schoolyard, as I rocked a pram and held my son’s little hand as he splashed through puddles. I thought of her as I looked beyond the silver river of the motorway, out over the low hills that stood between me and the furze bushes of Carraig an Ime, the lonely place where she jumped from Art’s horse and wept over her husband’s crumpled body. The drizzle seemed to fade the distance between us.
My poems, in general, spring from the peculiar chemistry that occurs between the daydreams of my daily life and the fuel of my reading life. The key moment in the genesis of my own poetic response to Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire happened when I came across two lines in an essay by Eugene O’Connell in the Volume 13 of the journal Cork Literary Review:
“Though [Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire] castigates Eibhlín’s brother-in-law Baldwin… for handing the horse over to his great enemy after Art’s death, it’s known that she had the animal stolen back. The horse was later shot and had its head buried under the flagstone in the parlour of Rath Laoi House.”
Aha! I thought, I had never before considered the ultimate fate of the horse itself. Suddenly my own poem began to write itself in me, a process that feels physically like a shock of static electricity. As always happens when a poem begins to gestate, I was bombarded by vivid images: the dead horse’s head cradled in a lap, the hearthstone hefted aside, the horse skull buried under rock… and very slowly, from these images, I began to construct my poem. The poem developed as a persona poem, with Eibhlín’s own voice emerging to give the poem an immediacy, a closeness to the reader.
As so little is known about Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s life in the aftermath of her husband’s death, I chose an open ending in an attempt to gift her some sense of control over the tragedy. In this poem, I longed to give her the ability to rewind to that liminal moment, when she and Art’s horse were still locked in momentum, suspended between suspicion and discovery, “galloping / and galloping and never reaching him.”
The Horse Under the Hearth
Quiet now, his stables. No clatter-hoof on the cobbles.
That morning: her saddle bloody, askew, and she
all stumble-legged, froth-flecked, nostril-blaze, trailing reins.
When her eyes found mine, I knew.
I took three leaps: the first over the threshold, the second
to the gate, the third to her back, then fast gallop
over boreen and trampled brambles to his spilled blood.
Everyone knows what happened then, I versed it strong
and spoke it often. But what of her?
Her neck, like mine, knew the rough stubble of his cheek.
I couldn't leave her with them. I sent them out, his men.
And so, her head came back, in a wet sack that leaked in my lap
and reddened my skirts. I pulled the burlap back, looked
Into her eyes - sunken, unseeing -
Her ear torn, a delicate nostril crushed.
sighed when the hearthstone was pried away.
The fire and I watched as they dug. No one spoke.
I rolled her head into the hole, watched them
shelter her in dirt and stone.
Now, when I watch flames consume wood, I think of her
slow change from muscle and mane to bone and dirt.
When the house grows too quiet, I stand on that hearthstone
and dance. Each ankle tap, each heel rap brings me back
to those fast moments before
we found him, and again, it is only
us two, and we are galloping
and galloping and never reaching him.
About the author
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an award-winning bilingual poet, writing both in Irish and in English. Paula Meehan awarded her the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary 2014-2015. Her newly-published book is Clasp (Dedalus Press, 2015), which will be launched at Triskel Arts Centre as part of Cork World Book Festival on April 23rd and at the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin on April 27th. She will also appear at Cúirt Literary Festival 2015 on April 24th at 6.30pm in the Taibhdhearc Theatre.
"There is a fearlessness in Ní Ghríofa's work: in the subjects she turns her keen gaze on, but also in the very music she lets play in the lines. A deep intelligence informs the strategies and approaches in the poems, and a generosity of spirit and openheartedness are signal qualities."
Paula Meehan, Ireland Professor of Poetry
Clasp is published by Dedalus Press