So often, we speak of Woolf’s assertion that writers require a room of one’s own. A room of one’s own, yes, and in that phrase, we can immediately imagine the glorious solitude, the scratch of pen on paper, the words flowing, the long hours of sustained concentration…. but glorious though it may sound, a room of one’s own isn’t essential to building a life in writing. Despite the absence of a room of my own, I still write. Every day, roomless, I write.
I write and write in my small moments, in those little islands of silence that appear and disappear, those slivers of silver sand in the silken egg-timer flow of each day. Recently, it struck me that in my own experience as a writer, this Woolf quote has been turned inside-out. Rather than seeking out a room of my own that would allow me to write, the process of writing itself has gifted me… a window. Yes, a window. An invisible window, at that. A window that I carry with me as I go about my days.
It’s a strange old window, admittedly, and oddly, it changes from day to day. Sometimes, it is a tall wooden-framed window that gifts me a slice of rooftops crowned with tall, clear sky, a window that lets me throw open a sash and smell the scent of fresh bread on city air. Other times, it’s the narrow, grimy window of an attic garret that opens only a crack, and even then only to let in choking lungfuls of black chimney smoke. It’s the narrow crack in castle walls, designed only for an archer’s eye. It’s the rickety, cracked pane in a derelict country shop. It’s a car windscreen framing blurred brambles where a grey road unravels itself into the distance. And the glass, oh the glass in this window is forever in flux. Some days it is warped or broken, others it becomes the flecked, patterned glass of a shy bathroom window, it is the thick darkly-tinted glass of a car window, or the rose-tinted glass of cliché.
Writing given me this strange quirk, of discovering potential windows framing everything I see. These windows and the process of gazing through them is what gifts me my poems. When I sit down to write, I rest my head on the sill, I get so, so close to the glass that I can see the song my breath sings there, and I peer at the poem that lies beyond the window. Through looking at what lies beyond the glass, I create a poem from what is hidden within.
In writing my newly-published book, Clasp, I peer through a multitude of windows in an attempt to explore a multitude of absences. In these poems, I was interested to see whether I could speak about an absence by describing what remains. It’s a strange paradox, but similar to the idea of trying to describe a silence using words, in order to create a sense of absence, one must sketch all the things that remain, the edges that define the hole, if you will. By seeing what’s through the window, you can also see what is not.
These poems explore different absences and examine how we choose to accept or deny absences in our lives: a photograph, a horse, a child, a tongue, a sound, a taste, a memory. The sense of the varying views that poetry can provide is perhaps best reflected in my long poem Seven Views of Cork City. This poem, one of the most ambitious I have attempted so far, peers through a multiplicity of windows, and speaks through seven very different voices, including those of a little boy, a teenage graffiti artist, drunken students, cadavers in a university morgue, a night-shift supermarket worker, a woman labouring along the endless corridors of a maternity hospital.
The only problem with becoming a writer, a seer of windows, is that there is no turning back. Once you begin to see windows everywhere, it becomes difficult to close the curtains. Writing is a dangerously addictive habit. In the words of Sylvia Plath,
“The blood jet is poetry
There is no stopping it.”
I am custodian of this exhibition of erasures, curator of loss.
I watch over pages of scribbles, deletions, obliterations,
in a museum that preserves not what is left, but what is lost.
Where arteries are unblocked, I keep the missing clots.
I collect all the lasered tattoos that let skin start again.
In this exhibition of erasures, I am curator of loss.
See the unraveled wool that was once a soldier’s socks,
shredded documents, untied shoestring
knots — my museum protects not what is left, but what is lost.
I keep deleted jpegs of strangers with eyes crossed,
and the circle of pale skin where you removed your wedding ring.
I recall all the names you ever forgot. I am curator of loss.
Here, the forgotten need for the flint and steel of a tinderbox,
and there, a barber’s pile of scissored hair. I attend
not what is left, but what is lost.
I keep shrapnel pulled from wounds where children were shot,
confession sins, abortions, wildflowers lost in cement.
I am custodian of erasures. I am curator of loss
in this museum that protects not what is left, but what is lost.
(First published in literary journal The Shop, Winter 2014)
(c)Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an award-winning bilingual poet, writing both in Irish and in English. Paula Meehan awarded her the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary 2014-2015. Her newly-published book is Clasp (Dedalus Press, 2015), which will be launched at Triskel Arts Centre as part of Cork World Book Festival on April 23rd and at the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin on April 27th. Doireann will also appear at Cúirt Literary Festival 2015 on April 24th at 6.30pm in the Taibhdhearc Theatre, Galway. http://doireannnighriofa.com/
About the book:
Clasp is award-winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s first English-language collection of poems. In three sections entitled ‘Clasp’, ‘Cleave’ and ‘Clench’, Ní Ghríofa engages in a strikingly physical way with the world of her subject matter. The result is by times what one poem calls ‘A History in Hearts’, among other things an intimate exploration of love, childbirth and motherhood, and simultaneously a place of separation and anxiety. In one poem set in the boys’ home in Letterfrack, a place of undeniable terror, we see how, in the name of religion, “The earth holds small skulls like seeds”. The final section of the book comprises a single poem, Seven Views of Cork City, which, swooping in and out of personal history, paints a convincing if sometimes unsettling portrait of the poet’s adopted city, and of urban life’s ubiquitous restraints on “our dream of speed”.
Buy the book: http://www.dedaluspress.com/