A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

“This powerful blend of memoir and literary investigation begins with the author’s obsession with an 18th-century Irish poem.”—New York Times, “100 Notable Books of 2021

A wholly original and unique approach to writing a memoir, this book integrates a search for a lost woman with mapping the author’s own desires, obsessions, and vulnerabilities. Award-winning poet Ní Ghríofa weaves her process of learning about an epic Irish poem’s female writer into her own life as a mom to four kids. She writes about cleaning up dried oatmeal, filling lunchboxes, and pumping breast milk, when all the while a poem that she learned at age 11 occupies and haunts her. As you read, you watch two women poets, Ní Ghríofa  and the epic’s author, Eiblín Dubh, meet across a gap of over 300 years.

Why Writers Should Read It: The prose finds a balletic tension between rigor and grace. The author’s discipline in word choice inspires and awes. As Ní Ghríofa follows every lead to discover her subject, she speaks of her own struggles and passions. Read her to learn about the courage to be naked and proud in front of your readers.

In-depth: Writing is not just a mechanical act of transferring words from the ether into an articulated form. It can take place, does take place amid all manner of activities: taking walks, cleaning, weeding a garden. In the case of Doireann Ní Ghríofa, writing happens while she fold clothes for her family, washes diapers, and waits in her car before heading to her next child-oriented destination.

Ní Ghríofa has won multiple awards for her poetry; certainly A Ghost in the Throat is poetic. But it’s no poem, although it was mothered by one: “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire,” which from what I can tell is pronounced sort of like “queen Art O’Leary,” but spoken with a great deal more breath and lyricism than English allows for. The first word means “keen” as in lament (not peachy), and the rest is the name of a man who was murdered, the husband of the writer. The Keen—the Irish word is too hard to spell— was written by a woman in the 18th century, Eiblín (pronounced like Eileen) Dubh Ní Chonaill, and is considered Ireland’s greatest epic poem.

Ní Ghríofa has long lingered on Eiblín’s verses, discovering her  as a schoolgirl, “terrible at sums and sports….a girl whose only real gift lies in daydreaming.” She decides to translate the poem, despite having no experience or credentials to do so, apparently understanding and speaking Irish well enough to undertake it. Her approach is unique: “In every translated line of this verse, I feel that I am mimicking the homemaking actions of centuries before, stuffing quilts with duck-feathers….kneading dough.”

Nothing appears to be taken for granted by the author. She delights in an early home with her husband, in the city with “all our bins lined up side by side.” Hanging laundry, “the gesture of pinching clothes to the line requires my arms to reach skywards, to where clouds gush by, a flood suspended in layers of silvers and greys.” Exactly the right verbs, repeated words, alliteration in spot-on doses appear on every page. She speaks of “each autumn, when leaves begin to dream of gold”, how “this vase, so blue, matches the iridescent tide.” She strings together “the gush and squash and crush” when talking about a glacier’s path. A room is “obliterated thud by violent thud.”

Most thrilling is her exploration of her own body, and by extension of female bodies, “living repositories of poetry and song.” Either nursing or pregnant for much of the book, “I was ruled by milk now, an ocean that surged and ripped to the laws of its own tides.” She talks herself and us through crises, one with a child, one farther away in her youth; by the time she begins to deep dive into the character of Eiblín, or at any rate, what she gleans of it from fragments of texts written by and generally about the men in Eiblín’s life, I trusted her as a guide. While reading, I felt a strong sense of a person who simply knows how to be there, who doesn’t offer false condolence but instead is a calm, loving hand on your shoulder.

“Perhaps the past is always trembling inside the present, whether or not we sense it,” says Ní Ghríofa toward the end of A Ghost in the Throat. In her search for a woman all but lost to history, Ní Ghríofa shows that the woman trembles inside her, and, after reading her account, in all of us as well.