A Book About Absorbing What We Love Until It Transforms Us

By Doireann Ni Ghriofa

A man is shot in the street. When his wife arrives at his body, she kneels by it and, frantic with love and grief, cups her hands and drinks his blood. She then writes a poem, a keen to her slain husband, and it will echo through the centuries. “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.”

The poem, written nearly 250 years ago, reaches an 11-year-old Doireann Ni Ghriofa, who will grow up to be an award-winning poet, in the early 1990s in a classroom in Ireland. It stirs her again in high school. And it returns years later, in the damp, exhausted clutch of motherhood, when it takes hold of her entirely.

“A Ghost in the Throat,” Ni Ghriofa’s prose debut, is, in the simplest terms, about her relationship with this poem, “The Keen for Art O Laoghaire,” and its author, Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill. Pregnant with her third child, Ni Ghriofa starts to translate the text, “an evolving record of praise, sorrow, lust and reminiscence,” as she describes it (her translation is included at the end of the book). Ni Chonaill’s voice inhabits her, and she seeks out everything she can about the poet.

The book, a powerful, bewitching blend of memoir and literary investigation, centers on this search, and is as much about what she doesn’t find as what she does. Ni Ghriofa is deeply attuned to the gaps, silences and mysteries in women’s lives, and the book reveals, perhaps above all else, how we absorb what we love — a child, a lover, a poem — and how it changes us from the inside out.

Her sleuthing brings her to libraries, archives and cemeteries, often with babies in tow, and amid a terrifying crisis with her fourth pregnancy. She works in stolen moments, forgoing food and rest to flesh this long-dead poet who lives inside her. She emphasizes her lack of qualifications — she is no scholar, holds no Ph.D. — which has the ring of a student lamenting that she failed each test, only to have inevitably aced it.

What makes this book so heated and alive is precisely this lack of academic expertise. This is not dusty scholarship but a work of passion. “Raw” is not the right word; the book is finely structured, its pace controlled. “Vulnerable” gets closer, in its root force: vulnus, or wound. This book comes from the body, from the “entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies.”

The sound of the female voice, the aural texture of “A Ghost in the Throat,” is part of its deep pleasure. Hear it: The book is “composed while folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow.” As Ni Ghriofa weaves present day with past, she writes of dreams and omens, of places beyond reason and rationality, and returns us to earth with “porridge gloop,” crusted vomit, the humble mess of living. She is part of a chorus, she says, and invites us to join the song, one that began long ago.

Ni Ghriofa nods to John Ashbery when she mentions looking in her rearview mirror, “a convex seer” that “lets me peer into the landscape unwinding behind me, but it cannot show what is ahead.” The past lives with us, look-upon-able, but no one knows what happens next. “This past / Is now here,” writes Ashbery in his own convex mirror poem. He writes of the soul, how “it fits / Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.”

“Stanza,” Ni Ghriofa points out, is the Italian word for room. In the rooms she tends to, the stanzas she translates, the poet she has re-fleshed, she makes us know: Our moment of attention is the most precious thing we have to give.

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