To Star The Dark, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Dedalus Press, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251867
This time last year, I reviewed Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat for the drb. It was a much praised debut prose volume, published by Tramp Press. Acclaimed not just in Ireland but in Britain, it was one of The Guardian’s books of the year; more recently, after a Canadian publisher issued it in North America, it was lauded in the pages of The New York Times. Ní Ghríofa returns in 2021 with To Star the Dark, her third poetry collection in the English language (two Irish language volumes were previously published by Coiscéim). The traces of A Ghost in the Throat are visible in this new book, most obviously in “At Derrynane, I think of Eibhlín Dubh Again”. A line from Caoineadh Áirt Uí Laoghaire, “Mo chara is m’uan tú”, is embedded at the heart of the poem. It forms an italic barrier that divides the dead poet, summoned in a girlish incarnation, from the living poet, in whose writing she has been so fully realised. This poem, like many of the others in the collection, demonstrates how Ní Ghríofa’s craft has been honed and perfected. Formally composed of nine couplets, the lines can be mapped onto each other through the ghostly line in Irish which bisects the poem and acts as a translation, in the geometric sense of the term. Hence, the foliage of the first section (bog myrtle, thickets, catkins, trees) is translated into absence and bouquet (“a fistful of myrtle stems”) in the second section. The vibrancy of nature is replaced by the aporia of Eibhlín’s missing grave, the immediacy of the forms of the present “a girl who laughs”, “I’m reading”) supplanted by the tentative nature of the conditionals (“If I could find your gravestone, / I’d bring no rose, Eibhlín”). The deliberate negative structure of this formulation summons Stéphane Mallarmé and his celebrated “Crise de vers”, where the performative « Je dis: une fleur! » [ I say a flower] and the concluding « l’absente de tous bouquets » [the one absent from all bouquets] seems to indicate that Mallarmé’s spirit hovers over the entire collection. The direct form of address to Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is also reminiscent of the heartfelt communion that characterised the relationship between Ní Ghríofa and Ní Chonaill in the prose volume.
Elsewhere, there are other connections between the two books. For instance, we find a poetic record of the birth of Ní Ghríofa’s youngest child, a compelling segment of A Ghost in the Throat, in a sequence entitled “Seven Postcards from a Hospital”. The prose poems are a compressed, tense account of a caesarean section and the sojourn of her new-born daughter in Neonatal ICU. Again, there is a geometrical attention to detail, a careful account of numbers: “Fourteen people in blue gowns and masks are working in my body”, the opposition between the baby on “Minus One” (and its attendant irony) coupled with the location of the poet-mother on “floor three”. Ní Ghríofa revels in the exactness of medical language “spinal morphine”, “drip, cannula and catheter”. The fourth section reminds us of Ní Ghríofa’s past as a student of science: “Diagrams learned for long-ago exams return to me.” Lived experience is mediated by literature: “When I descend to the basement, I find her in an incubator, sleeping on her belly, my Persephone.” While the natural world, a constant in Ní Ghríofa’s imaginary, is present, so too is the grit and banality of everyday life: “Here is Neonatal ICU. Here, a plastic chair. Here, my seeping unseen wound. Here, my baby and here my ache.” The anaphoric “Here” conjures up the space in which this drama occurs. It is also a demand for attention from the reader, to whom Ní Ghríofa has offered her collection in the dedication, “To You. Thank you for lifting these poems to the light.”
The original addressee of these neonatal postcards, we learn from the notes at the end of the volume, was Ní Ghríofa’s friend, the writer and artist Sara Baume. In a conversation at the West Cork Literary Festival in 2020, Ní Ghríofa credited Baume with her interest in the visual arts. This influence can be seen in the second epigraph to the book: “Has the day invented the night, or has the night invented the day?” attributed to the French artist Louise Bourgeois. This interest in art also informs many of the poems. It can be seen in the comparison of her daughter’s eyes to Francis Bacon’s studio, to “Craquelure”, a poem that responds to a technical term in painting, again explained in the notes to the volume. In a sense, though, what the Bourgeois citation intimates is the doubleness of everything ‑ a duality rooted in Ní Ghríofa’s exploration of language, as signalled in poems such as “A Jaw, Ajar”, which takes place in a dissection room. Here, through a quotation from a poem by Seán Ó Ríordáin, anatomy collides with the Great Famine, and with the language that became a ghost of its former self after that period. Like Seamus Heaney, in “For the Commander of the Eliza”, where the word “bia” is left untranslated, Ní Ghríofa offers an unexplained bilingual pun “corrán géill” [jaw] and “cur i gcéill”[pretence]; the written difference between the two terms is visible; however, even in the pages of accompanying notes Ní Ghríofa offers no explanation. The pun, that most playful of linguistic signifiers, remains a supplement of knowledge kept in reserve by the poet.
Noteworthy in this collection is the constant attention to the body, especially the female body. This is demonstrated in a poem like “Waking Again”, dedicated to Savita Halappanavar, “While Bleeding”, or “In Albumen, In Pixels, In Bricks”, a poem marked by the determination to connect human flesh to contemporary objects ‑ egg boxes, strings of tinsel ‑ and to episodes from the past; the third section of that poem muses on an old photograph, in a move reminiscent of Eavan Boland. It enables Ní Ghríofa to construct a link between the hyper-contemporary and the historical moment.
The volume is also characterised by a masterful demonstration of formal experiments. As readers, we are enthralled by the arresting circular “Dancing in the Demesne”, the visual variety of the four-part sequence “Maude, Enthralled”, dedicated to the self-educated marine biologist Maude Delap. However, Ní Ghríofa also asserts her command of more traditional forms in “Brightening”, a response to Austin Clarke’s “The Planter’s Daughter”. In this case, Ní Ghríofa reaffirms Clarke’s formal choices and echoes his use of the exclamatory “O”.
The collection is dotted with a number of spells. The opening poem, “A Spell in a Shed”, with its echoes of “Baa-baa black sheep”, is a dark, rhythmic incantation that leaves the readers in no doubt as to the tenor of what will follow ‑ moments of lightness followed by a stunning uppercut, leaving the reader bedazed, bewitched, and bedazzled. To Star the Dark is the work of a poet at the height of her powers.
Clíona Ní Ríordáin is professor of English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, where she teaches translation studies and literature. Her most recent book is English Language Poets in University College Cork 1970-1980.