To Star the Dark by Doireann Ni Ghriofa | Poetry

By Josie O'Connor

Even before you open the book, holding it in your hands is a sensual experience. You want to stroke it, to trace your finger over the portrait of the faceless woman. The skin-like texture of the cover, the dark, elusive image – it has her distinctive style all over it. The attention to detail pulls you in close like a passionate lover, and then you become transfixed page after page, gazing at the beauty of carefully chosen words strung together in her lullaby voice.

I have heard her speak on the radio, if I were to record her and fast forward I imagine her voice would sound like a blackbird. Lilting and gentle, as if speaking to a slumbering child. There are so many recurring words and themes that jump out of her work – blood, particularly. She sees everything for what it is, and more – she sees the blood within everything – the life-force of everything that beats, that lives and trembles.

‘Waking Again’ is a poem dedicated to Savita Halappanavar. Ni Ghriofa embodies ghosts. She goes to that length, slips into the cold skin of one whose blood has drained away. Ni Ghriofa has a few lines explaining each poem in the note section of the back of the book. To describe ‘Waking Again’ she says ‘A recurring dream, this poem is a text that wished to be rewritten, as I wish this event could be rewritten.’ She does not say that Savita Halappanavar’s death in 2013 sparked nationwide outrage that fueled an ongoing conversation about the Eighth Amendment, which was removed from the Irish Constitution in 2018 and subsequently altered the course of history for the future women of Ireland. Instead she whispers in her own delicate way, a wish for this woman who came to represent an unstoppable movement. She whispers so quietly and so softly that we are brought to Savita’s bedside in a quiet hospital room scene, in a scenario where the fatal event never happened- “her hand lies limp on warm skin”.

It’s that trembling closeness to humanity that Ni Ghriofa brings us to – leading us gently in and out of scenes so raw and so real we feel humbled to be there. I am in awe of this mná – to reference one of the popular jumper slogans that were going around pre-referendum in 2018. REPEAL THE EIGHTH shouted badges and proud chests – Ni Ghriofa is no less a feminist than those who rallied and roared, than those who took to the streets with megaphones – Ni Ghriofa in her own quiet way gives women back their stories – she writes not only for herself but for all whose lives revolve around blood – and we feel her pulse, so constant throughout, encased in pale reflection.

Doireann breaks angular boundaries – ‘Dancing in the Demesne’ is a circular poem, and as I turn the book around and around in my hands I think of her delighting in this – in knowing that the book will be spun around by stranger’s hands, like a toy wheel. Her hand beckons us into the forest, into a clearing to look up at swaying Beech trees – “their blushing skirts all twirl and twirl” turning our faces up to the dappled light until we are dizzy from watching them.

In ‘Seven Postcards from a Hospital’ we are with her as the life of her newborn hangs in the balance – She brings us in and out, to moments where the breath is held and we strain with her to hear the baby’s heartbeat – “The word I hear the most now is blood – Blood Blood – Blood Blood – a steady thud that reverberates in my head like a pulse.” I think of ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath – Ni Ghriofa has herself quoted Plath on the subject of writing, in an article on (Writing through Windows, 2015) – “The Blood is Jet Poetry, there is no stopping it.”

To Star the Dark by Doireann Ni Ghriofa.
Published 2021 by Dedalus Press.

Review by Josie O’Connor

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