Little Witness, by Connie Roberts, Arlen House, 96 pp, €13, ISBN: 978-1851321155
Witness poetry has always been associated with the articulation of extreme experiences of events like war, dictatorial regimes or political persecution. In 1983, the poet Czesław Miłosz wrote that, due to the “extraordinary and lethal events” that occurred in eastern Europe in the twentieth century, people from that part of the world “tend to view [poetry] as a witness and participant in one of mankind’s major transformations”. But Connie Roberts’s aptly named debut collection of poetry, Little Witness, alerts us to the fact that in Ireland, “lethal events” also took place within the private sphere, that barbarism occurred in people’s homes and in institutional settings.
A preface explains that she, her mother and her siblings were subjected to violence at the hands of her father. She was admitted to an industrial school at the age of five, where she spent most of the rest of her childhood. Thus she fell victim twice to Ireland of the late twentieth century, where Irish family law statutes, which had not changed since the nineteenth century, treated domestic violence as a private matter and where the industrial school system, the abuses and cruelties of which have recently been exposed, were still in operation. Little Witness is a testimony from that era of Irish history; to quote Carolyn Forché, who coined the phrase witness poetry, these poems “bear witness to dark times”.
Poems about Roberts’s experience of living in an industrial school depict that world in all its cold, uncaring reality. In “Omphalos”, “a pigeon-grey orphanage yard [is] / clotted with kids: see-saws, pissy knickers … / and along the cloister, two-seater barn red swings / that we ride like horses till Miss Carberry’s Supper! Supper!” “Not the Delft School” describes children in a dormitory, searching each other’s hair for lice – “scores of wingless / insects, like grains of ground pepper” – while “the housemother douses some heads / with paraffin oil” and “overhead, a fluorescent light flickers”. Even rare moments of happiness come to a bitter end; in another poem, a beautiful depiction of the unusual delight of eating an orange in bed ends with “next morning: awoke to the smell of / my sister’s pissed-in oilskin bed”.
This is a world that seems to get by without love. In “Altar”, “Sundays we walked / through the town like a herd of goats, / farmer-nun goading us on”. In “A Modest Proposal”, a Mother Superior suggests that, instead of showing love to the children, the nuns should, at best, treat them as favoured pet dogs; “children,” she says, “would make terrific dogs”. “The Screamers” depicts a nun being physically violent; the poet’s six-year-old self wakes to the sounds of “two caterwauling girls / being beaten for smoking”. She watches the “barrel-chested nun – tongue protruding from the side of her mouth – threshing bare flesh with / a wooden spoon”.
If the world of the industrial school emerges as loveless and cruel, poems about her earlier childhood in the family home show one of shocking barbarity. One poem begins with a detailed depiction of a photograph of convent children standing beside a nativity set. While at first glance this stanza may appear to be depicting a pleasant Christmas scene, certain details sow clues to a darker reality. One child’s head is likened to that of a dog, an animal that brings associations of cowed behaviour, of ill treatment. Another is “nutcracker straight” – a strong image but also one suggestive of violence – of something strong breaking something weaker than itself. Then, in the midst of this Christmas scene, come the lines:
innocent, headbanded Maureen, a world away
the beatings, self-mutilation, murder.
The stanza returns to its description of the scene by describing the poet herself there – “in patent leather shoes and white knee socks, / thumbs hooked in woollen coat pockets”. But its taut surface has been ruptured by the above lines, and the second stanza takes us to a very different stable: the poet as a child, with her siblings, hiding in a neighbour’s barn so as to protect them from their drunken, violent father. Across the “God-forsaken fields”, the children watch “his murderous rage”, “hear the borrowed dishes crashing / to the flagstone floor”.
In another poem, a deep sense of anxiety is evoked as the same children make their way home to wait with their mother for their father to return from the pub. The clarity and plainness of the language sometimes means that a disturbing detail might only catch up with you later; for example, how the lives of these children were so dominated by their father’s violence that they had such a finely attuned capacity to perceive danger, even before they had reached the family home:
As they rounded Conroy’s corner from school,
they sensed something was awry: the squat house
– dark, silent – sat on its haunches; its spool
of smoke missing.
The poem goes on to depict them waiting with their mother, “the clock / ticking loudly”, how when he did return they “ran like terriers”, hiding in the long grass where they say the Rosary for her until it is safe to return indoors. The mother has survived another horrific attack: “blood splattered the walls and floor … Mam, her back to us, cowered in the corner”. The last stanza shifts to the mother’s point of view, almost unbearable in its unsentimental depiction of the child’s suffering – “How my child / sneaked out of her father’s bed – an animal / gnawing itself from a snare” – and the mother’s suffering – “Only God knows / part of me died that night as she cleansed / the dried blood from my wounds and spoon-fed me tea. / Next day, the nuns took them away from me.”
Both of these poems are typical of the collection in their insistence on plain language, the strength and vividness of the imagery and a refusal to engage with figurative language when dealing with violence. (Another writes of a refusal to “tell it slant”; yet another refuses to “gussy it up / in Sunday-best similes”.) Indeed, throughout the volume, it is this rare combination of a clear-eyed gaze that hones in on strong, plainly told details, alongside a technical mastery and refusal to look away from the horror being depicted, that gives these poems such power.
By bearing witness to individual suffering, Roberts is also holding up a mirror to 1970s Ireland. The reflection is not a pretty one. Describing how her mother hid her and her siblings in a neighbour’s barn to protect them, the poet wonders whether or not those neighbours knew that this was happening. The final, devastating question of this poem resounds in the reader’s mind long after reading it:
Did they know mother roused us
before they awoke, shepherding us
home to our bloody pen?
If the answer is not made explicit in that poem, it is in others. In “Vignette”, for example, two men discussing the poet’s father conclude that “if he was to ate 50 pounds of the marble altar / beyond in that church, he’s still going to hell!” In another, a neighbour “passed by driving his cattle / home” while she and her siblings hid from their father “under barbed / wire in the long grass. Crouched there like curs / in a ditch till we got cold”. The neighbour sees them and says:
I’d help if I knew what to do.
God knows, it’s none of my business a leanbh.
He crossed himself, then cracked his ash-plant on
a cow’s broad back. Stared straight ahead; was gone.
The poem about the photograph of convent children beside a nativity scene extends this grim reflection to the whole of Irish society, simply by its title: “On Looking Into the Sunday Press Photo of Convent Children Looking into a Stable”. A national newspaper published this photograph presumably because of its festive relevance; a telling example of how a whole nation closed its eyes to clues of a darker reality behind the surface, behind closed doors.
Despite their refusal to “tell it slant”, these poems never collapse under the weight of their subject matter, always showing a technical mastery, a capacity to look personal suffering in the eye and through an act of great restraint transform it into art. In doing so, they show the unique ability of poetry to address human suffering through language. Theodor Adorno (famed for his claim that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric) himself acknowledged that, “it is … in art alone that suffering can … find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it”.
Little Witness illustrates this point, through its technical accomplishment and ultimate transcendence of suffering, which takes the reader beyond the facts and figures of the social injustices of late twentieth century Ireland and directly into both the experience of “suffering without knowledge of its own end” to quote Forché again, and of its aftermath – “a region of devastated consciousness of barbarism and the human capacity for cruelty”. It is not only the poet who is a witness; by reading these poems, the reader becomes one.
Liza Costello is completing a PhD on the work of Dermot Healy. In 2015, she was joint runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh award for an unpublished collection of poems.