Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poems have appeared in many literary journals in Ireland and internationally, most recently in France, Mexico, USA, Scotland and England. The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her a literature bursary (2011 and 2013). She was a winner of Wigtown Gaelic poetry contest, the Scottish National Poetry Prize in 2012, shortlisted for the Jonathan Swift Award and Comórtas Uí Néill both in 2011 and 2012. She was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. Doireann’s Irish collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim. Her pamphlet of English poems Ouroboros has recently been selected for the longlist of The Venture Award (UK). http://www.doireannnighriofa.com
It was dusk when I arrived
to a house of strangers
who say they are my people
their grasping hands,
their screeching fiddles,
their squawking accents.
I soon backed away
closed the door on their merriment.
I lift my poor possessions
from the trunk
push aside blankets and clothes
and lay each small treasure
on the cupboard
one by one:
I pull the pins from my hair
raise the brush
unravel each tangled strand.
I place my palm
on the fogged wall mirror
in this foreign home
of forgotten foremothers.
Beyond my reflection,
startled starlings explode
from the branch of a tree
like feathered shrapnel
soaring towards me.
The past is a cloud
from which my soul rained.
Who might I be, if here
she had stayed?
They stand on the windowsill now, long empty
Three tall jam jars, their labels yellowed, faded by sunlight
the careful curlicues of a stranger’s hand no longer legible.
The neighbours still talk of their arrival from America
when I was a child. They describe the jars clean, clear, then
brimming with jams and jellies. They tell of that strange sweetness,
the texture on the tongue. They recall the strange names of fruits
that grew under a faraway foreign sun, were stewed in sugar there,
preserved and packed and travelled across oceans to be tasted here.
Iwatch them shake their heads in wonderment.
Alone, I hold a jar to the light and imagine the glow
of those faraway fruits and berries, pushing their childish
cheeks to the glass, peering out at this new world.
I press my lips to the glass, breathe, and push my fingertips
to that fogged frost to write the letters that spell my name.
Sometimes, I whisper my secrets into their open mouths,
and screw the steel lids on tight to trap my breath inside.
They preserve my imagined memories in their emptiness.
Even as a boy in his father’s currach,
He knew. He knew that the sea
would someday grasp him in her terrible teeth, destroy him,
drown him in her salted grief, her embrace wet and wide
as the slow dawn of death in the eye of a fish.
He knew. He knew it as he built the currach, as he
curved each slender rib of wood and covered it
in canvas as bleak and black as a mourning gown
pulled over slender shoulders. He knew
that someday it would buck like a colt
and hurl him into dark water. He knew.
Even as he married me, loved and laughed
and poured a baby into me, he knew.
He knew as he surged through sea-swell,
seeking to fill his nets with silver.
He knew, and still he refused to learn to swim,
for the struggle against his lot could only prolong his agonies.
He knew. He knew our lives together could never be long.
That by the time our child was born he would be long gone.
He knew. He knew. He knew.
An Echo of Ocean
A dark November evening
in the house of my grandmother
sharp skeletons of trees
scraped and creaked,
scratching window panes.
Folded within her old shawl,
I sat by the range, turf glowing red
behind the black—toothed grimace
of the grate. Around me, they murmured,
weaving the endless web of scuffles, scandals,
schedules of funerals, of news from those
in Australia and America
and the lives of locals, of old friends and enemies,
centuries of our blood mingled, mixed
in this rough, rocky soil.
I nestled further into my nook
pressed my cheek to her chest
until all I heard was the steady, sturdy
thump of her heart, the ebb and flow
of ceaseless tide, an echo
crashing through cliff caves.
This little thimble was never worn to work,
so why did you insist that I keep it with me?
Tiny shield of steel. I keep it in my pocket,
my amulet against hardship.
When things get dark, I bite my lip and slip
my finger into this silver shell. Sometimes,
I wonder if you wore it before you died,
whether your fingerprints might still be stitched inside.