Part autofiction, part literary study, and part keen-eyed examination of domestic labour, Doireann Ní Ghríofa's strange, intense, and beautifully written A Ghost in the Throat (Biblioasis) is impossible to categorize. But that didn't discourage the Irish and UK media from hailing it as the triumph it is, in which Ní Ghríofa uses one of Ireland's most iconic pieces of literature to tell her own story.
"Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire" is an 18th century poem (specifically, a "keen", an Irish form of spoken poetry) written by Uí Laoghaire's wife–who, legend has it, drank handfuls of his blood when he died–as a way of mourning his murder. Ní Ghríofa's obsessive interest in the piece and in its author, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, is the lens through which she tells her story of motherhood, her own childhood, and more.
This ambitious genre-bending take on memoir is the first prose offering from Ní Ghríofa, a decorated poet. Thanks to her Canadian publisher, Biblioasis, we're proud to share an excerpt from A Ghost in the Throat today. This section sees Ní Ghríofa as she loses and finds herself in the fog of early motherhood and her quest to track down every translation of "Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire".
Excerpt from A Ghost in the Throat:
Months passed the way months will, in a spin of grocery lists, vomiting bugs, Easter eggs, hoovering, and electricity bills. I grew and grew, until one morphine-bright day in July my third son made his slow way from my belly to my chest, and I found myself in the whip exhaustion of night-feeds again. Throughout those yellow-nappy weeks, when everything spun wildly in the erratic orbit of others’ needs, only the lines of the Caoineadh remained steadfast.
In falling into the whirligig of those days, I had stolen from myself something so precious and so nebulous that I wasn’t myself without it. Desire. After the birth, every flicker of want was erased from me with such a neat completeness that I felt utterly vacant. To fulfil all its needs for intimacy, my body served and was served by the small body of another. I still experienced powerful physical urges, but they were never sexual. I was ruled by milk now, an ocean that surged and ripped to the laws of its own tides.
Sex was a problem. It hurt and hurt. For months after the birth, it felt as though some inner door had slammed shut. All I sought from life was to drag myself and my animal exhaustion through the daylight hours until darkness eventually led me to bed and into another night of fractured sleep. How quickly desire had abandoned me, its evaporation a swift invisibility, as a puddle gives itself back to sky. I was not myself. I was a large, tattered jumper, my seams all fretted and frayed, and yet this garment was so comfortable, so soft and so easy, that I wanted nothing more than to immerse myself in its gentle bulk forever. I was bone-weary, yes, but I was also mostly content. However, I found such abstinence too much of a horror to inflict on the man I loved so much. Whereas my husband insisted that all was well, and that he would happily wait until the exhaustion had passed and I wanted him again, I found that I could not accept this gentle gift. So I lied. I made of desire another chore to suffer, an unwritten item that hovered invisibly at the foot of my lists. Whenever I forced myself through the motions, I was choosing both a literal forcing, because it hurt so much for me to shove that locked door open, and an emotional forcing, because he is a good man, and I was intentionally deceiving him. As for the sex, it hurt and hurt until the pain made me bite the sad skin between my thumb and finger. Days after those teeth marks faded, a pattern of bruises still punctuated the skin. I convinced myself that it must be good to endure such pain if it facilitated the pleasure of another. Only now do I see that I was making his body another item on my list of responsibilities, and that I was doing so without his consent. I was so ashamed of my failings – both of honesty and of the body – that I tried to hide this calamity. I said goodnight early instead. I made excuses. I slept at the edge of the bed. There, I kept the Caoineadh under my pillow, and whenever I stirred to feed the baby, Eibhlín Dubh’s words broke through my trippy, exhausted haze. Her life and her desires were so distant from mine, and yet she felt so close. Before long, the poem began to leak into my days. My curiosity grew until it sent me out of the house and towards the only rooms that could help.
Look: it is a Tuesday morning, and a security guard in a creased blue uniform is unlocking a door and standing aside with a light-hearted bow, because here I come, with my hair scraped into a rough bun, a milk-stained blouse, a baby in a sling, a toddler in a buggy, a nappy-bag spewing books, and what could only be described as a dangerous light in my eyes. I know that I have a six-minute window at best before the screeching begins, so I am unclipping the buggy, fast, faster now, and urging the toddler upstairs. ‘No stopping.’ I peek into the sling where tiny eyelids swipe in sleep, plonk the toddler by my feet and – eyes darting around in search of the librarian who once chastised me – I shove a forbidden banana into his fist. ‘Please,’ I whisper, ‘please, just sit still while Mammy just – just –?’ I tug a wrinkled list from the nappy-bag, my fingertips racing the spines. Just two minutes, I think, just two. The sling squirms and the baby rips an extravagant blast into his nappy. I smile (how could I not?), and yank the last two books from the shelf. I am grinning as I kiss the toddler’s hair, grinning as I hoist my load sideways, step by slow step down the stairs, with one gooey banana-hand in mine, and a very familiar smell rising from the sling.
This is how a woman in my situation comes to chase down every translation of Eibhlín Dubh’s words, of which there are many, necessitating many such library visits. Such is the number of individuals who have chosen to translate this poem that it seems almost like a rite of passage, or a series of cover-versions of a beloved old song. Many of the translations I find feeble – dead texts that try, but fail, to find the thumping pulse of Eibhlín Dubh’s presence – but some are memorably strong. Few come close enough to her voice to satiate me, and the accompanying pages of her broader circumstances are often so sparse that they leave me hungry. Not just hungry. I am starving. I long to know more of her life, both before and after the moment of composition. I want to know who she was, where she came from, and what happened next. I want to know what became of her children and grandchildren. I want to read details of her burial place so I can lay flowers on her grave. I want to know her, and to know her life, and I am lazy, so I want to find all these answers laid out easily before me, preferably in a single library book. The literature available to me, however, is mostly uninterested in answering such peripheral curiosities. Still, I search, because I am convinced that there must be a text in existence, somewhere, that shares my wonder.
Once I exhaust the public libraries, I set to asking favours of university friends, stealing into libraries under assumed identities to make stealth-copies of various histories, volumes on translation, and journal articles, each source adding a brushstroke or two to the portrait of Eibhlín Dubh that is growing in my mind. I use them to add new words to my stashes of information, tucking copies under our bed, in the car, and by the breast-pump. My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink.
I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh. Reading balances the strange equation of such moments – it always feels pleasing to sit and give a little more of myself away, especially if I can simultaneously take in a little more of her life. Once the receptacle grows itself a liquid lid, I switch off the pump, mark my page, then sigh and set to work again. I lift the pump to the worktop, tap the last droplets into a sterile bottle, screw the cap tightly, and write the label by hand: DOIREANN NÍ GHRÍOFA – 03/10/2012 – 250 ml.
It was through a mother-and-baby group that I first heard of the milk bank. When I googled it, I read that the stomachs of premature babies are tiny and delicate, and that exposure to formula milk may result in gut problems like necrotising enterocolitis or cardiovascular collapse. Sometimes, I read, the trauma of a premature birth can diminish a mother’s supply, leaving her with little or no breastmilk to feed her baby. It was impossible to read of those horrors without making contact with the bank myself. The necessary fastidiousness of the routines came to assume a pleasing importance in my days: the sterilisation, the suds and the steam, the scrubbed skin, the pristine engine. I knew that my milk would soon be absorbed by premature and sick infants, so I was always particularly careful to maintain optimal conditions, chilling each bottle in the fridge before freezing it.
Now, I check the readout from my freezer thermometer and note the digits carefully, initial my chart, then settle the newly cooled bottle alongside eight identical bricks in the freezer, the yield of a good week. At a certain time every morning, my kitchen resembles a lab – here is the temperature chart, here, the steriliser spewing steam, here, the dismantled components of my machine, here, the tired woman, and here, the line of sterile containers. Here, every day is the same.
Once the freezer is so full that I have to wrestle a bag of peas to fit it in, I ring the milk bank at Irvinestown, and they send a polystyrene box so large that it fills the postman’s arms. I slot in as many bottles as I can, sign the forms and tape the box shut, looping thick brown tape around the lid. Once. Twice. Now the baby must be anoraked, kissed, clipped into his buggy, and pacified with a teddy. His brother must be enticed away from a Duplo tower, zipped into his coat, and offered the bribe of a lollipop to coax him into town. The box is both bulky and heavy, so the only way I can carry it is by perching it above the buggy handles, balanced clumsily between chin and elbow while straining to hold the toddler’s hand too. It takes twenty minutes to negotiate what is otherwise a ten-minute walk to the post office. The ordeal leaves me exasperated in the queue, promising myself that I will ask my husband to post the box next time.
At the counter, I find my favourite postman behind the glass. I’ve grown fond of his fuzzy grey hair, his wonky glasses, his nicotine smile, and how he always calls me love. He comes to the side door and I watch him stamp labels on the parcel – Express Post, Next Day Delivery. He passes me a receipt for reimbursement of postage costs, the sole exchange of money involved in these transactions.
I will never suckle the distant baby who will be next to swallow my milk, nor will I ever nestle his warm limbs close, but I do know the path my milk will follow on its way to him. I’ve googled Irvinestown, County Fermanagh, to see the village with its pretty park, three schools, a pub called The Necarne Arms and a chipper called Joe 90s. In a neat terrace, among boutiques and a hair salon, a discreet sign indicates the NHS’s Western Trust Human Milk Bank. Here, my box of bottles will make its tiny contribution towards the many litres of human milk sterilised, pasteurised, and dispatched to Neonatal Intensive Care Units all over the island every year: a liquid echo.
In donating my milk, I want to help families in distress, yes, an urge sparked by empathy, but I suspect that something else is also involved: an immature, westernised idea of karma. At some level, I believe that the more helpful I can be to others, the more protection I might be acquiring for my own fledgling family. In addition to this crude notion of karma, and my sympathy for imagined babies and their imagined families, there also lurks something else: an illusion of control. There is so much in my life that I cannot hope to control. I can’t control all my nights of broken sleep. I can’t control the terrors that my mind chooses to review just as I close my eyes – the repetitive carousel of meningitis, comas, cars swept into oceans, house fires, or paedophiles. I can’t control our landlord’s whims, whether – or when – his voracity might lead to us moving house again. I can’t control my children’s chances of securing a place in the local primary school, whose enrolment policy (like most Irish schools) is predicated upon membership of the Catholic Church. I can, however, control the ritual of milk production: the sterilisation of the bottles, the components of the pump slotted in their correct order, the painstaking necessity of record-keeping, every procedure that I choose to perform carefully and correctly.
I pay into this insurance policy every day, and once a month a note arrives, an A4 sheet of paper folded in four and decorated with Clip-Art, on which I find handwritten details of the nameless infants who received my last batch: twins whose mother suffered post-birth complications, perhaps, a tiny girl with necrotising enterocolitis, or a baby in Crumlin recovering from a heart operation. Inside the card, a number of coins are always sellotaped, precisely matching my postage costs. When I slide them into my purse, their residual stickiness makes them cling to everything, so that every time I hand one to a cashier in Aldi, or the fishmonger’s stall, I remember that somewhere, a small sick baby has my milk in his mouth. I have turned myself into a wet nurse, my connection with strangers’ infants mediated by machines, by engines, and by distance.
My months fill themselves with milk and laundry and dishes, with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, with split grocery bags, dented tins, birthday parties, hangovers, and bills. I coax many small joys from my world: clean sheets snapping on the line, laughing myself breathless in the arms of my husband, a garden slide bought for a song from the classifieds, a picnic on the beach, three small heads of hair washed to a shine, shopping list after completed shopping list – tick, tick, tick – all my minuscule victories.
Every day I battle entropy, tidying dropped toys and muck-elbowed hoodies, sweeping up every spiral of fallen pasta and every flung crust, scrubbing stains and dishes until no trace remains of the forces that moved through these rooms. Every hour brings with it a new permutation of the same old mess. I sweep. I wash. I tidy. I am one of The Many whose working day does not have a clocking-out time. Anyone whose days revolve around domestic work knows the satisfaction that can be found in such labour, in defining and listing the numerous components of a mess, each easily resolved by a series of well-defined manoeuvres. There is a peculiar contentment to be found in absenting oneself like this, subsumed in the needs of others: in such erasure, for me, lies joy. I make myself so busy chasing lists that I never need to look beyond the rooms through which I hurry. A child’s sorry smile as vanilla gloop seeps into the carpet sends me running for the scrubbing cloth. Night fevers shake me from sleep to sprint for thermometer and medicine. As soon as my children wander away to play elsewhere, I scurry in to scoop up their blocks. I don’t examine the face reflected in the mirrors I polish so hastily. As I clean, my labour makes of itself an invisibility. If each day is a cluttered page, then I spend my hours scrubbing its letters. In this, my work is a deletion of a presence.
My third son begins to walk, begins to talk, and I continue to dash through my hours, singing to him over a shoulder while distracted by the stewardship of another load of laundry, by typing new poems, clearing out cupboards, or kissing his brother’s bumped head. The milk bank prefers donations from mothers of younger babies, so I slowly reduce my time at the pump until I could post my final box. Tick.
Once the burden on my breasts diminishes, my inner clockwork clicks back to its usual configuration, bringing with it a hormonal swerve I hadn’t expected. Desire returns, slamming open the door. Desire flings me to my knees, makes me tremble and beg, makes me crawl and gasp in the dark. Desire leaves me sprawled over beds and over tables, animal, throbbing, and wet. Every time I come, I weep. I missed it, desire, blissful and ordinary. I can’t remember a time when I felt so relieved, or so happy.
Too soon, the landlord makes it known that a relative requires a place to live, and sends us on our way with yet another exceptional reference. I set to work immediately, finding what will become our fifth home in as many years. Weeks after we move out, a friend sees our old house advertised online at a much higher rent. I don’t care. I find myself pregnant again, joyful and dusting, painting and decluttering. I can’t imagine how, with four children under six, I will find time to brush my teeth, to read old poems or drink my morning tea, let alone donate milk to the babies of strangers. Twice, I lift my bag of pumping paraphernalia and consider giving it away.
Twice I put it back again.
Just in case.
In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium, for example, that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant on her behalf, leaving her own system in deficiency. Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual writer whose books explore birth, death, desire, and domesticity. Doireann’s awards include a Lannan Literary Fellowship (USA, 2018), a Seamus Heaney Fellowship (Queen’s University, 2018), the Ostana Prize (Italy, 2018), and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature (2016), among others. She is a member of Aosda´na and this is her prose debut.