Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat is a genre-bending autofictional book about one woman’s “crush”—on a poem written three centuries ago. In the narrator’s first encounter with the “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire,” written by the eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill after her husband was murdered, and while she was pregnant with their third child, the author is a schoolgirl who draws pierced hearts in the margins of the canonical poem when she reads of Eibhlín Dubh drinking “handfuls of [her lover’s] blood” in grief. When the author returns to the lament yet again, she too is pregnant with her third child.
On the very first pages, Ní Ghríofa declares that “This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow, while my hands perform innumerable chores.” Errands, lists, and milking are part and parcel of the account of her life with four children, a husband, and a string of moves and homes. Shifting between modes of memoir, autofiction, and translation, the author’s engagement with Eibhlín Dubh’s poem weaves itself into the author’s life, taking her on a quest with her children to go where the poet had once been. A detailed tapestry that threads Eibhlín Dubh’s family histories with the author’s own translations of her poem from the Irish, Ní Ghríofa’s essayistic and intimate style recalls the inter-disciplinary perambulations of W.G. Sebald and the uncompromising feminism of Maggie Nelson. Encounters with eighteenth century history stretching from Ireland to Canada, the question of self-sacrifice and care when it comes to “nursling-love,” and the effects of a vasectomy enable the narrator to cast wide digressions, revisiting old selves in the process in order to cast a new one.
Ultimately, A Ghost in the Throat is an exercise in conjuring that centers the embodied work of translation. Eibhlín Dubh’s poem illuminates a path for the author’s own self-creation as translator, despite her vulnerable admissions of lacking the academic prerequisites for historical research needed to grasp the extent of the poet’s life. Eibhlín Dubh, whose own son erased her from the family records, is an example of a loud silence often present in archives that have been deliberately erased or destroyed. Translation, for Ní Ghríofa, is not simply an act of meaning- and language-making, but an embodied act of receptivity to access the silence: “If I am to conjure her presence,” writes Ní Ghríofa, “I must first construct a suitable home for her, building and furnishing room after careful room, in which each mirror will catch her reflection.”
Ní Ghríofa’s approach focuses on the body, and in doing so breaks the traditional binary of choice between a life of art or a life of family. She reminds us that “In Italian, the word stanza means ‘room.’ If there are times when I feel ill-equipped and daunted by the expertise of those who have walked these rooms before me, I reassure myself that I am simply homemaking, and this thought steadies me, because tending to a room is a form of labour I know that I can attempt as well as anyone.”
A Ghost in the Throat is a kaleidoscopic book of “homemaking” that centers the intuitive knowledge of the body in order to learn to live—again, again, and again.
A Ghost In The Throat
By Doireann Ní Ghríofa
June 1st, 2021
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s writing has been shortlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize for International Creative Writing and nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes. It has appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2019, Maisonneuve, Gutter: the magazine of new Scottish and international writing, and is forthcoming in EVENT and Vallum. She is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prizes, Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Shazia’s fiction has recently appeared in the short film, Colour Study, available on CBC Gem. She is a Kenyan-Canadian of South Asian, Iranian, and Irish descent, and lives on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples (Vancouver). Shazia is at work on a novel.