Doireann Ní Ghríofa
The bold and arresting title of Dorieann Ní Ghríofa’s latest collection - Lies- tips the reader into a quiver of questions before she has opened the book. Is the poet confessing that these poems are all lies? Is Ní Ghríofa being tricksy? Playing some kind of wily game to keep the reader off balance? Should the reader suspend her disbelief and if so by how? Which poems tell the truth and which are outright fictions? The poet has used the word ‘Lies’ in such an uncompromising way that it would be neglectful to not consider its opposite. Even if the poems are fictitious, can’t fiction also be true as long as it expresses essential truths about human existence? Doesn’t the fact that the poems exist, wrested from the imagination and presented in a book in tangible form make the fictions true? Peculiarly, poetry seems to be the only art form where readers often assume the ‘I’ in a poem must be referring to the poet’s own biographical voice.
What is the truth anyway? Fact and truth aren’t necessarily the same thing. What about the relativity of truth - a kind of truthiness - is that what’s at play here? The reader becomes convinced ‘play’ is something of an operative word here. She suspects the poet has got her tongue firmly in her cheek. The back of the book itself asks: “When does a poem tell the truth? When is it a lie?” A guess would be that the notion of authenticity is worth considering. On opening the book and encountering a quotation from the American poet Lucie Brock-Broido - “Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, even if it’s a lie” elucidates things. Knowing also that the poems have been translated into English from the Irish originals by the poet herself, the reader wonders what has been lost - or more accurately deliberately distorted - in translation.
This tension between what is and what isn’t recedes to the background on reading the poems. They are filled with razor sharp wit, pathos, wonder, so many surprising turns of phrase that the veracity of their provenance is emphatically not the biggest priority. They embody the transmutation of the personal into the universal and back again via tattoo removal, Irish history, travelling in South America. This is a poet that is so curious about the world that no subject matter is off limits. The energy and vitality of Ní Ghríofa’s poetry enables to the reader to see everyday things and events in startling new ways - a short poem like Static Electricity about something as seemingly mundane as doing the laundry is so suffused with acute emotion that it seems to carry the history of motherhood within the gaps of its small frame.
On Ní Ghríofa’s website there are links to some pieces that defy categorisation (they are mostly recognisable as poems even though the poet writes prose too) but showcase the poet’s cross-disciplinary collaborative practice with visual artists, dancers, musicians. Mandible, for instance, with its otherworldly soundscape, delves into the past and retrieves a remnant from Irish antiquity. It links the poet, who sits reading in a very modern setting breastfeeding an infant, to perhaps another mother, a whale, whose mandible once formed the gateway to a long decayed mansion. It’s written as prose but it resists its formal confines to become part ode, part personal history, part history of Ireland. All hybrid reflection. It feels like reader is listening in on the poet’s private thoughts or at the very least, reading her journal. Whatever they are, Ní Ghríofa’s poems shed light on the depth and breadth of complex emotions. Thematic approaches often contemplate weighty subjects - desire, regret, loss, motherhood - masquerading behind the light touch of titles like Jigsaw, Suburbia, Selfie with Lines.
Ní Ghríofa’s is a poetry highly attuned to language and in interview has called herself a “linguistic nerd”. On a superficial scan, the diction is simple, plainspoken, not at all embellished with unnecessary ticks and tricks. The assonance and consonance of the poems laden with unobtrusive internal and end rhymes in English, the sheer lift and tilt of the music in them, makes the reader wonder, as a non-Irish language speaker, about the sound of the Irish originals of the poems that sit side by side with their English counterparts. Again, on the poet’s website, some of the film-poems are recited in the original Irish but helpfully captioned in English. It has a slight Scandinavian burr to it and makes the reader can’t help but to try reading along to the Irish anyway. The collection would be impressive in just one language but maintaining a practice of writing in both Irish and English has enabled Ní Ghríofa’s poetry to reach a wider and more diverse readership. It’s the kind of poetry that’s so warmly human and unafraid to wear its bruised heart on its sleeve that it’s the ideal gift to give to someone who is convinced that they don’t like poetry.
/ While Bleeding
In a vintage boutique on Sullivan’s Quay,
I lift a winter coat, with narrow bodice,
neat lapels, tight waist, a fallen hem.
It is far too expensive for me,
but the handwritten label
brings it to my chest in armfuls of red.
In that year, someone drew a blade
through a bolt of fabric
and stitched this coat
into being. I carry it
to the dressing room, slip my arms in.
Silk lining spills against my skin.
I clasp the belt and draw a slow breath
as a cramp curls again,
where blood stirs and melts.
In glass, I am wrapped in old red –
red pinched into girl cheeks,
and smeared from torn knees,
lipstick blotted on tissue, scarlet
stains concealed in pale sheets –
all the red bled into pads and rags,
the weight of red, the wait for red,
that we share.
In the mirror, the old coat blushes.
This pocket may once have sheltered something
precious: a necklace, a love letter, or
a fresh egg, feather-warm, its shell brittle
around a hidden inner glow, held loosely
so it couldn’t crack, couldn’t leak through seams,
so it couldn’t stain the dress within.
Her tracksuit is pink velour,
her earlobes prettily golden-hooped,
and she shivers, as we all do,
in this dim bus queue.
At 5.56, some glitch, some distraction,
some finger twitch, slips the phone
from her grip and sends it smashing
into the pavement. We all flinch.
Soon, the bus moves us through streets
and suburbs and into the dark.
Night makes a mirror of the window
and makes me a spy. I sit behind her and pry.
I watch her fingers, fast over that fractured glass,
jabbing its lattice of cracks where digits progress,
still, splintered italics eclipsing her child’s smile,
his face grown suddenly lined.
A little ink begins to leak from the rifts,
and it grows dark. Oh, it grows dark
and darker. Take us back, driver.
Lurch this bus into reverse.
As a conservator rewinds the lines
from a painting’s tempera eyes,
bring us back. Let her lift her phone
from the path, unharmed.
Let her shiver, check the time,
sigh at her child's smile, then
slide the phone back in her pocket,
its digits slipping to 5.59.
/ A Jaw, Ajar
you hold a jawbone
so old, its chin has split.
The professor explains: derelict workhouse —
Famine-era — a mass grave. In his fist,
a plastic bag rattles a clatter of teeth,
a broken grin. He says,generous selection
of fragments, says incremental dentine collagen
analysis.For him, you must say when starvation set in.
So hold the bone, two neat halves, one in each hand.
Bring them together and see it, then: full, skinned,
a stubbled chin, a cheek that lived, was kissed, and hit,
a mouth that knew the speech and spit of only one
warm, wet tongue. Lift it to your ear, if only once, try
to lure his voice from elsewhere, spoken or sung,
rising up from a time when only Irish was spoken.
You wish you could return to it a word that once echoed
in its hollows, but your voice catches in your throat.
The professor approaches, smiling, says A fine specimen,
this mandible. What would you call it in Gaelic?
You stare, bones in hand, your jaw ajar.
You stutter, your tongue fails. You try to say
corrán géill,but the only sound
from your mouth is cur i gcéill.
cur i gcéill: hypocrisy, disguise, sham.
/ At Half Eleven in the Mutton Lane Inn, I am Fire, Slaughter, Dead Starlings
Though this pub is packed with bodies,
a shifting mass of limbs and laughter,
I feel your gaze on me. It burns.
I know what you'll say – you’ve said it before –
that you don't care about my silver ring,
that tomorrow morning, you want us to be
lying together still, in your attic room
up on the tallest city hill, where windows
tilt open and starling song flies in.
We have resisted long enough, you’ll say.
No, we can resist some more. If you come
closer, I'll keep my gaze on the floor; I'll say:
In 1622, on the last day of May,
a lightning cloud shadowed this city.
Its sparksflared on thatch and pulsed to flame.
People stumbled over each other
through narrow laneways, clutching children
to their chests, weeping, afraid.
Lightning and fire bloomed
along the paths where they ran,
and fell, and ran.
After that fire, those who survived
spoke of the omen of a fortnight before,
when two murmurations of starlings
clashed in the sky, flinging
themselves at each other, high
and wild, until small corpses
thumped into gutters by the dozen
and ripped wings cobbled the streets,
leaving the paths all bird-bloodied.
For hours, those birds' tiny magnet-hearts
jerked toward each other, as though
they couldn’t help themselves
in shiver and grasp and shatter, their bodies
swooning and falling, falling into each other
– a thousand small deaths –
except, listen, in those days,
they didn't call them starlings,
they called them stares.
So, you see, I will say,stares spark fires
that cannot be quenched, stares cause
children to weep, clutched tight to chests.
I will say.
Find someone else.
Jigsaw / Míreanna Mearaí
there was little I could glimpse
in your jumble of limbs, but a muddle
of shadows stirring under my skin.
Untranslatable: my swollen middle
suddenly punctuated by the nudge
of knee or ankle, perhaps a small
knuckle rolling past fast as a marble,
maybe the cryptic twist of a heel or hip,
but once dawn drew you
from that dark world,
I spent months piecing
this jigsaw together at last, I saw
how the arch of your foot fit the hollow
of my palm, how your head nestled
into the curve of my neck. I knew it: we fit.
Then you grew, little stranger, and I grew to know you.
Ar feadh i bhfad,
ní bhfuair mé ort ach spléachadh:
scáil a scaip
faoi chraiceann teann;
mo bholg mór
poncaithe ag pocléimneach –
gluaiseacht glúine nó uillinne,
cos, cromán nó mirlín murláin
sa mheascán mistéireach a d’iompair mé.
Le breacadh lae, phléasc tú
ón domhan dorcha sin,
is chaith mé míonna milse
ag cuimsiú píosaí do mhíreanna mearaí,
á gcur le chéile, á gcuimilt:
Trácht coise i mbos mo lámh,
cuar cloiginn i mbaic mo mhuiníl.
Chuir mé aithne mhall ort, a strainséirín.
First Date on Azul Street / An Chéad Choinne, Sráid Azul
The smell of coffee sends me from this kitchen
to a morning in the distance, in which I light
a cigarette as your breath flies over dark liquid.
Our smoke and steam rise into the sky.
A pair of scarlet
butterflies wing by.
Monarchs, you sigh. You lean to me,
say that they will fly 3,000 miles
to reach Mexican fir trees.
I think of the Aztec people
who looked at butterflies and saw souls
floating through silent skies – enemy
warriors, women who died in birthing –
wounds turning to red wings.
I don’t know what to say. When I open
my mouth, my tongue flies away.
Sa chistin, seolann boladh caife siar mé
go maidin eile, i dtír eile, i bhfad uainn,
áit a lasaim toitín is tú ag séideadh ar do chaife.
Imíonn gal is deatach le haer,
péire féileacán tharainn.
Monarchs, a deir tú. Cromann chugam
le míniú go n-eitlíonn siad 3,000 míle slí
go crainn ghiúise Mheicsiceo.
Smaoiním ar phobal na nAstacach
a shamhlaigh na féileacáin ina n-anamacha
ar foluain trí spéartha ciúine – ba naimhde marbha acu iad,
nó mná a bhásaigh is iad ag saolú linbh – a gcneácha
tiontaithe ina sciatháin dhearga. Níl a fhios agam
céard ba chóir dom a rá. Nuair a osclaím mo bhéal,
eitlíonn mo theanga uaim ar an ngaoth.
Call / Glaoch
No slender thread,
no telephone cord
binds us anymore.
Now that our computers call each other,
press your voice to my ear.
No longer can I hear you breathe. Now, we are bound only
by a weak connection
and we break up
and break up
and break up.
aon chorda caol,
aon sreang theileafóin sinn níos mó.
I réimse na ríomhairí,
ní thig liom
do ghuth a bhrú níos gaire do mo chluas.
Ní chloisim ag análú thú. Anois, is í an líne lag seo
an t-aon cheangal amháin atá eadrainn
as a chéile
Tattoo Removal / Le Tatú a Bhaint
I thought they would simply delete you,
as a child might find an error in homework,
frown, lift a pink eraser, and rub it out.
I was wrong. Everything’s worse now.
To take your name from my skin, lasers
split it into a million particles of pigment.
My flesh bled, absorbing that broken ink,
letting your name fall deeper still. Sink.
Sink. Sunk. Now, you’re stuck
in there, wedged somewhere in my innards’
disarray, between my arteries, my shame,
my quivering veins, and I, I must live
with your syllables, smashed, astray.
OK, OK. If you’re inside me now, lost,
invisible, it’s my fault. I’m sorry,
it was me who made us indivisible.
Shíl mé nach mbeadh ann ach go scriosfaí thú
sa tslí chéanna go gcuirfeadh gasúr grainc air féin
ag breathnú dó ar chóipleabhar breac le botúin,
á shlánú in athuair lena ghlantóir:
bhí dul amú orm.
Nuair a baineadh d’ainmse de mo chraiceann,
bhris na léasair an tatú ina mílte cáithníní líocha.
Shúigh mo chorp do dhúch scoilte, scaoilte. Anois,
is doimhne fós ionam siollaí d’ainm, táid daite im’ chealla;
táim breac leat.
Tá tú laistigh díom anois – caillte, dofheicthe.
Mé féin is tú féin, táimidne do-dhealaithe.