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A Ghost in the Throat
by doireann ni ghriofa
Biblioasis, 224 pages, $19.62

THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT” is the first line of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. And the last line, too: “This is a female text.” The book is a double female text, Ní Ghríofa's account of her efforts to track down every scrap of evidence about Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, poet-heroine of the eighteenth-century Irish classic Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (“The Keen for Art O’Leary”). Ní Ghríofa intends to rescue both texts—her story and Eibhlín's story—from a history overshadowed by men.

Ní Ghríofa’s own female text is remarkably traditional. She’s a poet, a mother of four, a homemaker devoted to making lists of household chores and erasing each as she accomplishes them (“Tick. Tick.”). She nurses her babies, washes clothes and dishes, kneels while cleaning as an act of domestic worship. She finds joy in “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 . . . three small heads of hair washed to a shine.” 

Though she hates U2, “give yourself away” is her life’s soundtrack. In pregnancy, a woman’s body “becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium . . . that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant.” A female body is designed to serve another body “by affecting a theft upon itself.” Examining the stretches and sags of her naked maternal body before a mirror, Ní Ghríofa feels pride: “This is a female text, I think.” 

Her generosity extends beyond her family. When she’s not nursing, she pumps breast milk for preemies in the NICU, and she cuts her daughter's ponytail to donate to cancer patients. She and her husband come across a drunk woman rolling and screaming in the street on a rainy night, and she can’t stop herself from rushing to the woman’s side. Scrubbing items from her to-do lists, she thinks, “my work is a deletion of a presence,” yet the book is the rescue operation: Her intimate portrait of motherhood and homemaking restores a female presence, deleting the deletion.

Since her school days, when she was bad at sums and sports and good only at staring out windows and day-dreaming, Ní Ghríofa has been haunted by Eibhlín Dubh, whose poem was appraised by Peter Levi, erstwhile Oxford professor of poetry, as the greatest poem written in Britain during the eighteenth century. “Keen” is Eibhlín’s lament for her husband, Art O'Leary, a swaggering Irish soldier who served with the Hungarian Hussars of Maria Theresa of Austria and was gunned down in Ireland by an English magistrate, Abraham Morris, on May 4, 1773. No one is sure how the conflict began. Morris claimed Art tried to kill him and stole Morris’s gun. Art claimed he brought a complaint to the magistrate “in a very modest and respectful manner,” but Morris flew into an inexplicable rage. There’s evidence that Art whipped Morris and challenged him to a duel, which Morris refused. Yet the outlines of the story are clear enough: Bad blood, then murder, followed by a flailing attempt at revenge by Art’s brother.

What first beguiled Ní Ghríofa as a girl was the macabre Eucharistic image of Eibhlín rushing to her husband’s bleeding body to drink his blood. As Ní Ghríofa renders the scene in her own translation:

I found you before me, murdered
by a hunched little furze,
with no Pope, no bishop,
no clergy, no holy man
to read your death-psalms,
only a crumbled old hag
who’s draped you in her shawl-rag.
Love, your blood was spilling in cascades,
and I couldn’t wipe it away, couldn’t clean it up, no,
no, my palms turned cups and oh, I gulped.

A Ghost in the Throat is a lyrical ode to motherhood and housekeeping, but Ní Ghríofa’s endeavor to undo female erasure produces its own act of erasure. She loves her husband, desires him, depends on him. Yet he never comes into full focus; he’s never even named (nor, for that matter, are her children). Near the end of the book, he decides ten years of pregnancy and nursing is enough and tells his wife he’s having a vasectomy. She protests, calls him selfish, but finally realizes he’s “snipping me free too.” Having stood by through her four C-sections, he turns the blade on his own body. As he limps toward the car after surgery, she reflects: “If altruism may be interpreted as prioritizing others’ wellbeing over one’s own physical comfort, then I am watching it in motion now, pure and holy, sidestepping an empty crisp packet, grimacing towards me.” Just when her husband takes on features, Ní Ghríofa gives us only a blurry reflection of her own selflessness: “And you give, and you give, and you give yourself away.” It’s almost as if she could say of her husband’s body: “This too is a female text.”

Eibhlín, by contrast, is present through her passion for Art O’Leary. In the first stanza of the poem, she writes, “how my eye took a shine to you, / how my heart took delight in you.” She catalogues his fashions and the movements of his body, his “hat with the gold trim” and his “swagger so menacing / it set enemies trembling.” Art is her “bull calf,” her “steady companion.” As she wails over Art’s corpse, she tries to will him back on his mare, “then on to Inchigeelagh and back / with a wine bottle in hand.” She commands him to rise to resume his lost honor:

Dear horseman of the bright sword
rise up now,
pull on your uniform
of noble, bright cloth
and the dark beaver-skin,
then tug on your gloves. . . .
Your mare waits beyond.
Hit that narrow road east
where each tree will kneel for you. . .
and all men and women will bow for you.

Unless Art returns, “this grief will never be eased,” sealed in her heart “so tightly / as a lock clasps a chest / whose golden key has been lost from me.”

The female texts of A Ghost in the Throat diverge. In the one, Ní Ghríofa praises female domesticity but nudges her husband into the shadows. In the other, Eibhlín’s voice is unmistakably female just because she unabashedly finds her fullness in a man, “my love and my darling.” Ní Ghríofa never quite brings the two texts into conversation, much less into harmony. Their divergence is the pathos of contemporary femininity.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.

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