Dorieann 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.