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Singing the Body Electric

Nessa O’Mahony

Clasp, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Dedalus Press, 74 pp, €11.50, ISBN 978-1910251027

Debut collections have rarely generated as much anticipation as Clasp, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s first English-language poetry collection. Ní Ghríofa is no novice; she has published two full-length volumes in Irish (Résheoid and Dúlasair, both with Coiscéim) and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart appeared from the well-regarded Smithereens Press, among whose stable are the likes of Tom French, David Wheatley, Christine Murray and Conor O’Callaghan.

But sad to say, many fine poets writing in the Irish language stay beneath the general radar unless their work is translated or if, more rarely, they venture into English-language publication. Not so Ni Ghríofa; she arrives well-garlanded with awards and recommendations. She was recipient of the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary 2014-15 and is the recipient of two Arts Council literature bursaries. So Clasp offers the first opportunity for many readers to discover why.

The first thing one notes about this collection is the directness and comparative plainness of its form and idiom. Much modern poetry strives to impress through linguistic cleverness or formal experimentation but the poems contained here don’t feel the need to draw attention in this way; they depend on the strength of a central image and on the power of the passionate utterance. That dependence pays off, to a large extent.

“harvesting vellum”, the opening poem in the first of the collection’s three sections, demonstrates Ní Ghríofa’s signature trait of reliance on one clear, central sustained image to carry the message that appears simple initially but which has more troubling resonances. She moves from the organic “peel away layers of skin” to the man-made “blue ink on flesh, blue ink / over skin and vein,” to the metamorphosed “fossil / of a first kiss.” The simplicity of the imagery belies the complexity of this piece; there are echoes of more sinister tattoos with the reference to “blue ink of a number” that makes one wonder about other legacies this poem is hinting at.

But answers only reveal themselves once the layers are carefully stripped back, often to cast a new light on old icons; in “The Horse Under the Hearth”, Ni Ghríofa subverts one of the most famous women of Irish poetic tradition – Eibhlín Dubh Uí Chonaill – whose lament for her husband Art Ó Laoghaire is a mainstay of Irish language verse. Tradition has it that the grieving widow first knew of her husband’s death when his horse returned to the house without him. In Ní Ghríofa’s version, which follows the original Lament closely in metrical structure but which departs ideologically by giving the heroine a far more dynamic role, the widow has the horse decapitated and then buries the head beneath her own hearthstone as a constant reminder of both what has been lost, and what has been regained (freedom):

When the house grows too quiet, I stand on that hearthstone
and dance. Each ankle tap, each help rap brings me back

to those fast moments
before we found him.

Elsewhere she brings out of the shadows peripheral figures in the lives of more famous women, as in the poem “Valise of Memories’” where Emily Dickinson’s Irish maid, Margaret Maher (coincidentally also the subject of Nuala O’Connor’s new novel, Miss Emily) gets the credit for rescuing her mistress’s poems, and poetic legacy: “I try to dismiss their wild whispers / but they hit their fists against the walls / and stamp their syllables.”

Artifacts are the focus of a number of the poems: Ní Ghríofa’s preoccupation is with the evidence left by previous existences, whether they be a poet’s manuscripts or the bone of a mute swan, fashioned into a flute. But like the palimpsest evoked in the opening poem, she is equally interested in what is left behind. Poems such as “Museum” introduce a more political note, allowing her as “curator of loss” to bring to our notice “the unravelled wool that was once a soldier’s socks” or “shrapnel pulled from wounds where children were shot”

Ní Ghríofa does not shirk the difficult subjects. The poem “Waking”, describing the aftermath of a gynaecological operation, is dedicated to Savita Halappanavar; “At Letterfrack” draws on the Ryan Report on Industrial School Abuse for its imaginative re-creation of life at that most brutal of places. The poem is positioned at the end of the collection’s second section, Cleave, whose focus is on more domestic subjects such as motherhood and one’s position within an extended family. But “At Letterfrack” turns the spotlight on those unfortunates abandoned by, or simply removed from, their families altogether and left to the brutality of the reformatory system:

They do not cry as they are dragged back, stripped of clothes,
pushed against the school wall their small feet sinking into snow.
There, they are beaten and sprayed with a hose.

Ní Ghriofa’s diction is stark, almost prosaic, as if there is no place for ornamentation or imagery when bearing witness to such hardships. We are reminded of Guantánamo, but there echoes too of Heaney’s Tollund Man: the boys “weep black bogwater tears”; those who survive, carry their experiences like “a scar silvers from a red welt”.

The final section, Clench, is an extended meditation on Ní Ghríofa’s adopted home town. “Seven Views of Cork City”, with its nocturnal wanderer ranging from empty car parks to pubs to hospital emergency waiting rooms, is a less dystopian vision of the “real capital” than Billy Ramsell gave us in The Architect’s Dream of Winter. The language she uses to render it is also less experimental.

You know, I would rewind the river to take us back there,
unrun the current,
unfork the island streams,
reverse through the sluice,
return over the weirs,
through Carrigrohane, Macroom, Inchigeelagh, Ballingeary,
up to the Forest at Gougane.

Perhaps she remains loyal to an older rhetorical tradition of her Gaelic poet predecessors, combining a modernist, unflinching eye with older rhythms. It’s an interesting combination.

1/7/2015
Nessa O’Mahony is a poet and teacher. Her Father's Daughter was published by Salmon in 2014

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