Periphery

Sharing this poem for Labor Day. I published this a few years ago in a journal called Thank You For Swallowing. The journal was started by Cat Conway in response to a poem by a male poet that began with those same words as the name of the journal. It featured protest poems by mostly women writers and poets. I wrote this ekphrastic poem about Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie, 1939. It’s also inspired by my first job, as a movie theater usherette, when I was 17. I wore a uniform actually very similar to the girl in Hopper’s painting.

Periphery

She’s been told she belongs in pictures
twice already tonight.
It averages three, four times a shift.
It’s a line, but no lie…just look at her.
Yellow Harlow hair, formidable Crawford shoulders,
long legs dressed Hepburn style in slim straight trousers,
and high heels like the kind Ginger Rogers danced in
backwards all through the Depression days.
On slow nights, like tonight, she thinks
Ginger’s not the only one who can do her job backwards.
This one, in her sleep even.
She minds the attention from male moviegoers a little less
than her manager’s come-ons.
The moment the picture starts the customers forget
she’s there and she can be left alone awhile
at the periphery, beneath the three lamps
beside the red curtain and sworled blue stairs separating
the dark plush dreams of this movie palace
from reality and all the rest:
World War talk and World’s Fair frenzy,
dull dates, heartaches, mother’s meddlings,
the manager’s pinches and leers.
He puts her on the late shift on purpose,
keeps offering her a lift home
after midnight. She’s taken to telling him
she’s meeting someone, somewhere down the street
and no she doesn’t need a lift there either.
But tonight it’s no lie, not just a safety line.
Standing at the periphery in the wall-lamp glow
she counts the minutes to the closing credits.
Marlene Dietrich is dying in Jimmy Stewart’s arms.
Maybe this new guy will stick around longer,
make her laugh tonight or take her dancing,
backwards or forwards, any direction
so long as it’s away from here.
If not, there’s always the pictures…she belongs in them
so she keeps getting told. And she thinks some night
she may prove her admirers right:
wait for the closing credits, turn up the lights,
wake the audience from their dreams,
usher them out, close the red curtain,
then climb through the big screen.
She figures if they insist on looking and leering,
she’s gonna direct the angle they see her from, at least.
What she wants is to rewrite the script,
change the ending. She doesn’t want Dietrich to die.
Forget what the men in the seats want to see.
Let the heroines live. Make the pictures belong to the girls
for a change. She has ideas…not just dreams.

All the glow a woman basks in when no one’s looking.
All the good ideas to be got from the periphery.

Year of Conor McGregor

So here’s a short story I wrote a few years ago and got published at Hobart, which was a tremendous honor. To top it off, the editors paired it with some terrific art by Barrelhouse artist Killian Czuba. This piece is fiction and the narrator and her family, etc., aren’t me and mine. I’ve never even watched a boxing or MMA match. I wrote it as a kinda/sorta tongue-in-cheek yet loving take on Irish-American identity. I’m sharing it again now because it’s also a “worker’s story” and this is Labor Day weekend. Whoever reads it, if you’re suffering through a similar situation as the narrator, hang in there and don’t give up: There’s going to be a clear road.

I’ve always been the one you wouldn’t want to back in a match of wills. I work in an office. I’m a woman, a little overweight, unmarried. I live with my dad. He looks after me and I look after him.

My boss is a man, more than fifteen years younger than me, and his boss is a woman the same age as him.

Recently, for my yearly review, my boss noted how much my confidence had increased in composing emails. He said he noticed this increased confidence in the tone of quite a few of my messages, all of which I’m required to cc him on, and he wanted me to know how much he appreciated my efforts and recognized my growth. I did not tell him I’d been writing emails since well before he joined the workforce or that I sent my first one before he was even born. And when he suggested I continue my growth and skill variation in the year ahead by taking a social media for beginners course, I did not remind him I had taken it already at his and his boss’ suggestion after my previous review.

He forgets things often: assignments, deadlines, approval of my overtime pay. “I forgot,” he says, while giving me a project on Wednesday that had to be done Tuesday and came to him for assigning at least a week ago. “Sorry,” he doesn’t say. Instead: “You need to have this done before lunch today, no later than 1:00. You can work through lunch if you need to. Don’t worry if you have to go over your hours and stay late to finish the rest of your work. I’m okay with that.”

The other men at work treat me with respect or just ignore me, which I’ve been told for women like me means almost the same thing. Except one, who’s begun to make a particular noise whenever he sees me coming to make the guys in the cubicles around him laugh. He’s a temp, I’m told, when I speak to my boss’ boss about it. Or a consultant. It’s hard to know which, since my boss’ boss changes her mind on his title, on everything, hourly. In any case: “He won’t be here much longer…maybe. Don’t worry about it.”

My dad is a widower and retired. He worked a machine in a plastics factory for his life’s occupation. These days he watches sports and politics, bitches about the Republicans, reads the newspaper every day (he still gets it delivered) and every book he can find about the wild west and the American Indians. He admires their spirit, he says, their defiance. Dad always did respect a fighter. His favorite sport is boxing. On his left forearm, he has a faded tattoo of an Irish flag, the colors long blurred by patches of wiry old man’s hair and the purple, brown, and deep blue spots of age. Dad prides his Irish heritage. His “Irish blood” as he says, though there are several kinds of blood coursing through him. Irish, Welsh, German, possibly a little Czech. But Dad favors the Irish strand over all. The Irish, Dad says, have been in a state of active resistance for over 800 years. Unconquerable, he calls them. “Them” including him, me, and most of all Mom – “the full Irish breakfast” as Dad used to call her, teasingly but with respect bordering on adulation. She was the real deal after all, her parents Belfast born and bred.

She was not a naturally pretty woman. I took after her in that regard. She had a broad back and shoulders and pale eyelashes that made her look like a rabbit when they were bare, which wasn’t often. Mom always wore makeup. And dresses or skirts, never slacks – though dungarees, as she called them, were an occasional self-treat. Thick high heels, even while waitressing at the diner all day. And scads of jewelry, even though her employer threatened to fire her for it day after day. She favored quirky, dangly earrings and unique, colorful brooches – and of course, her wedding ring, an uncharacteristically simple, slim-band item that Dad wears now, on a chain around his neck under his shirt.

Mom’s most prominent feature was one I gratefully missed out on, a strong jutting jaw, like an old-time boxer or one of those tough street kids in the black-and-white Bogart movies. Mom was a toughie herself. If I got bullied at school, she’d come up with the nastiest insults you ever heard to trade back with my bullies. She would’ve gone and said them straight to the mean kids’ faces, and to their parents, my teachers, the school principal, the whole world within her aim and earshot if Dad hadn’t time and again stopped her. Mom was the kind who always needed to be moving, working, acting on something, whether a cause or an impulse, or a real or imagined slight or barely healed pain. She wouldn’t have lasted long at my workplace. The sitting in a cube all day would’ve driven her nuts. And my boss and his boss, and the “consultant”? I’d give anything to bring Mom back just to see how they’d fare against the likes of her.

Though she passed away nearly fifteen years ago, Dad talks about her, champions her every deed and accomplishment as if she’s still here – alive, well, and above all, willful. “Your mother was quite a woman,” he’s always telling me, as if it needs reminding, as if I or anyone could ever forget her or compare. 

In my cubicle at work I keep a small picture of her. It’s the only personal item I keep. I used to have colorful calendars, inspirational quotes, even a little plant back in my first few years at the company, but I took it all down in the past couple years, a few months after my current boss came on. I keep Mom’s photo propped up by my mouse, close at hand. Easy to take on the day it comes to that.

It’s true I do a lot of overtime, more than I should be willing to, but it’s not out of any loyalty or dedication to my work. I use my overtime pay on Dad, always keeping my ears perked up for him to mention something he would love to have or do. Like this year for his birthday, I gave Dad the gift of a fight. The Mayweather vs. McGregor match on pay-per-view. Dad couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. It was Mayweather this and McGregor that. Who was he rooting for, I asked, thinking that was a no-brainer. Dad has always been something of a purist when it comes to boxing – he used to say boxing was for athletes, mixed martial arts was for animals. And besides, did anyone really believe McGregor, even with his mountain’s worth of confidence, could hold his own at boxing with, as Dad called Mayweather, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter to wear a pair of gloves since Ali?

By way of answering me, Dad reached into the back pocket of his trousers, pulled out his wallet, and fished out the few bills inside. “That’s on Mayweather,” he said. “What about your kinsman?” I said, teasing. “What about your fighting Irish pride?” Dad placed his hand on his heart. He took a moment to rub at something on his chest, and I knew it was the ridge of Mom’s wedding ring protruding through his undershirt. Then he lightly thumped his chest, his heart, the ring, all of it, as if for luck, and said, “This is on McGregor.”

The day of the match Dad got a barbershop haircut and shave, put on a clean old dress shirt of his, and suggested we order Chinese for dinner and eat it on proper plates with Mom’s silverware. “Some people got the Superbowl, I got the fights,” he said when I took note of his newfound dapperness. Maybe a secret memo had gone out. Just before the fight a picture went viral of McGregor getting his hands wrapped while wearing a three-piece designer suit and shades. I showed the picture to Dad on my phone. “Look at him,” I said. “Full-time flamboyance this guy has.” Dad corrected me: “No, Jean. Fighting form. Battle gear.”

Once the fight started, Dad burrowed into a respectful silence. It’s something I’ve always appreciated about him, that he doesn’t act out fights vicariously like so many other male fans. No shouting at the screen, no balling his hands into fists and jerking his shoulders as if shadowboxing his diminishing potency in his Lazy Boy. Dad watches a fight as if it was a mass, an almost mystical occasion whose noisy embellishments and flashy sideshows are only included for the benefit of those who don’t understand the stakes and significance of a fight the way he does. Which isn’t a conceit. Dad’s a Depression baby, a war draftee, a factory lifer. And yeah, Irish – 800 years of resistance, fighting form, and all.

But McGregor lost, after all that hype and hope. Dad applauded anyway when the match ended and got out a bottle of discount brandy for a birthday toast. He poured a glass for me and we both stood in the kitchen drinking. “Did you enjoy the fight, Jean? It was a good one, wasn’t it?” he said. “But our guy lost,” I said. I downed the brandy in one gulp, feeling thirstier and edgier than I could remember. Dad laughed and passed me the brandy bottle. “He lasted 10 rounds, Jean. Against Mayweather. That’s the important thing.” He put his empty glass in the sink. “There’s winning and losing, and then there’s fighting. The first two are just outcomes. The third is something else altogether. A way of life. A fighter doesn’t always need to win or lose to justify himself or prove his worth, Jean. He just needs to put up a good fight. Make a good stand.” He moved to the doorway of the kitchen. “This is just the beginning for our man McGregor. You watch.” He winked and thanked me for his birthday gift, then went off to bed. But I stayed up.

I am not like my parents. Not on the inside. Like I’ve never been comfortable with confrontation. Though there’s beauty in a fight that even I can recognize, I’m never at the ready with a withering comeback like Mom always was and I don’t have the ease with handling confrontation, the philosophical attitude about it that Dad does. That night, after the fight, I stayed up in the kitchen wondering where it all went wrong with me. Perhaps the Irish in me is too watered down, too commingled, beyond Dad’s even, beyond the brink of any inborn courage and inherited resistance. Perhaps the fighter’s gene, if there is one, skips a generation.

Dad always says Mom worshipped me, her only child. Whenever I’m feeling low about my job, he says she would be proud to know I escaped working class life, that I have a “nice clean job” in an office instead of working on my feet or at a dangerous machine all day like they did. Something stable too. He may think that and I get it, I really do, but I don’t feel it. Certainly not when I walk past the consultant’s desk and hear his juvenile joking and his cubicle neighbors’ cowardly giggles, and all I do is walk on red in the face without a word in defense of myself. And not when I put away my resignation letter for yet another day or get denied a raise for “budget reasons” for yet another year or see the boss and his boss going out with the consultant for lunch more and more often, my boss’ boss laughing and blushing as the consultant opens the door for her, and all of them acting sweet as Halloween candy swiped out of some scaredy-cat kid’s bag.

Long after the match, I kept the picture of Conor McGregor getting his hands wrapped on my phone. I looked at it every day, sneaking peeks in my cubicle, in the ladies room at work, during lunch. Studying it, studying him. His pose, his style, the way he held out his hands to his trainers – casually, but with undeniable power radiating from his hands, from the picture, from some mysterious realm I’ve never been able to find the door to, where self-assurance is as second nature as brushing your hair or buttoning your shirt, as easy to carry around and show off as a flashy new watch or necklace or tattoo, or a family trait. Imagine if McGregor were a woman, I’d wonder throughout the day, as I sifted through the barrage of emails from my boss, all his reminders to cc him the next time I sent this or that, the notifications that he’d be leaving early again as I stayed late. Imagine McGregor in an office. Imagine him…or her, aged a bit past her prime. How would she prep for a fight? What would it be like to be a woman like her?

More often I forget McGregor and the all the cubicle walls around me, and I picture clear roads. Just that, plain and simple. I close my eyes and imagine a twister-wrecked field, a traffic-jammed crossroads, the faces in my office crowded together into an ugly clump of eyes and nostrils and teeth, then say to myself in quietude: “There’s going be a clear road. It’s inevitable.” And there, in my mind and heart, it appears.

For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I can feel something coming up in me, something stirring in my blood. Like I might be my father’s daughter after all. My mother’s too.

There’s one more way I take after her. I may spend a lot of my overtime pay on Dad, but for myself I splurge on makeup. Unlike Mom, I can take or leave a nice outfit, designer clothes, accessories, bling and all that. But like her, like a warrior without a shield, like a knight without armor, without makeup I feel naked. Defenseless even, like someone without a name or history or kin. I wear it every day, even when I have nowhere to go. What I’ve always loved best is a dramatic look – dark eyes, carved cheekbones, a strong mouth in a bold color. But it’s too much for the everyday, for the office, so I keep that look just for practice, just for myself.

But lately, as I get ready for work every morning, I’ve been playing up the drama, piling on the boldness, keeping a few images in mind. As I trace the shape of my eye with liner and gloss my lips, I think of the consultant and the cubicle gigglers. I’ve begun to notice, they all dress alike, eat alike, laugh alike, as if on cue or autopilot. They make a drab little blot in the center of the office, their laughter and very breath a feeble, fading heartbeat, the mewings of a nest of mice in a python’s chokehold. Their time’s up. They’re done. I apply color to my cheeks and I pick something rosy – against drabness, I say.

As I blacken my lashes, I think of my boss in a meeting room going over my annual review, clicking his pen and reading from a sheet the goals he’s decided on for me for the year ahead. The social media course. The emails. My boss’ boss interrupting me, correcting my just fine English and exchanging my just fine words for ones that make no better difference. This is the best they can do, and it isn’t much. It’s over for them too. It’s inevitable. I say it again: There’s going to be a clear road.

Second to last, I think of Conor McGregor getting his hands wrapped in a three-piece suit. Dad’s faded Irish flag tattoo and special occasion dress shirt. Mom’s picture beside my mousepad, waiting, ready.

I accentuate the angle of my brows, my cheekbones, and work my way down to my jawline, playing up the feature I’ve always tried to hide. My mother’s boxer’s jaw, jutting out from her face, from 800 years of resistance, from my long-awaiting destiny, like a fist.

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces:

Nonfiction:

How St. Gertrude of Nivelles became the cat lady of the Catholic Church (U.S. Catholic)

How Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery Built a Prairie and Lost My Ancestors (Medium)

A pilgrim’s pace (or How I found healing on the Camino de Santiago) (U.S. Catholic)

Mixed Messages (Memoir Mixtapes)

Song recommendations (short memoir pieces) at Memoir Mixtapes:
White Mystery’s “Birthday”
Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather”
Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”
Al Green’s “Belle”
The Gap Band’s “Party Train”

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed I’ve included the essay on my site here

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Republished at Camino Ways

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down, I’ve reposted the story here

Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog)

Fiction:

The Widow’s Quilt (Medium)

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here, with author’s note)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut(The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Ancestral Hunger Pangs

This is the last editor’s note/essay I wrote for Tiny Donkey. As I wrote in a previous post, Tiny Donkey was a digital journal devoted to short nonfiction about fairy tales and folkore and associated with Fairy Tale Review. It was shut down in 2017, and its site was recently taken down from the internet completely. I’ve been rescuing all the essays and interviews I contributed here. This one was my favorite of all.


My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.

Mom in Ireland, 1969.

The Unbeautiful Ones

As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago went the way of the dinosaurs recently. Tiny Donkey was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review and was dedicated to short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its site being gone, I’ve been sharing a few of my own pieces here.

This one is the third and last editor’s note I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale The Ugly Duckling. I loved the tale as a child, and I admit I identified with the poor créatur. I didn’t fit in as a child. At all. And adulthood has felt like a full-on flail as well. I suppose most people feel that way, more of us than each of us realize. In any case, I worried about appearing too emo or po-faced in this piece. Still, I hope anyone who reads it likes it, and I hope it did Andersen’s touching tale justice. And yes, I stole the title from a Prince song. You can’t tell me the guy who played The Kid in Purple Rain wouldn’t have related to The Ugly Duckling as well.


Growing up, you were shy. Or maybe you were short, you were fat, you had bad teeth. You had frizzy hair, you wet the bed, you spoke with a stammer. You slept with a stuffed toy ‘til you were twelve, or ‘til you were twenty, or ‘til your monthly blood ran out and you began soaking the bed with night sweats and hot flashes and Mississippi-wide rivers of regrets. You’re almost an old woman now. Love and transcendence have passed you by. Those fairy tales you were fed by Hollywood and MTV and Hans Christian Andersen as a child, and the ones you fed yourself to get by, through the loneliness of the school playground, through the long tick-tocking overthinking of the night, through the daily treacheries of life – they all lied.

Which fairy tale was it you always went back to, the one you believed in most? The one with the song saying someday your prince would come? Or the one where the funny-looking little duckling (you don’t like to say “ugly” – it’s a word that’s been used against you so many times) turns into a stunner of a swan? Did you think that might be you one day? Did you really? All along, you should have paid more attention to the crone, the ogre, the unredeemed outcasts, the ones haunting the margins, or worse yet, the ordinary ones, the unmagical, the unnamed and underappreciated. Because these were your destiny – not the beautiful ones, not the princess and the swan.

Or maybe the fairy tales didn’t lie. You just saw in them what you wanted, took what you needed. Beauty, hope, promises of happily ever after, some danger to make things interesting, some fear to cut through the dull of the everyday. You simply ignored the despair. Even though all fairy tales, and all life, is rife with it. Like that moment in Andersen’s tale about the duckling, when the bullied little bird welcomes the beauty of spring and a bevy of swans with pure, piercing heartache:

“I will fly to those royal birds,” he exclaimed, “and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter…”

Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

In the next moment the duckling sees his reflection in the water, sees a swan looking back – his transformed self, his true tribe, his happily ever after. I wonder though, if the duckling had seen no change, no beauty, no swan staring back at him in the water, could he still have survived? Would he still have come to know happiness, belonging, self-love?

I need to know, same as every once and for-all-time misfit. Is there magic after all in despair? Can there be beauty in forsaken hope, transcendence without transformation, belonging when you’re the only one around to hear your own questions, a happy ending when the fairy tale, or life, or maybe yourself, is found so wanting?

Think back on the ones you paid too little attention to, while you were paying as little attention to the beauty in your worst and best self. The crone, the ogre, the marginal, the ordinary. The untransformed duckling. The resilient, the persisting, the interesting and astute, the ultimately self-accepting and wise. Lucky you – these were your destiny. The unbeautiful ones, who know how to make magic out of the most disappointing circumstances, to potion up an unbreakable spell of endurance out of yesterday’s cold pot of despair. Let them teach you to love whatever reflection stares back at you, to see the beauty in even a fantastically imperfect you.

Illustration by Johannes Larsen

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I contributed for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet. Every month one of the editors interviewed some writer or artist related to folklore or fairy tales. I did this interview with the great Irish poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. It was a tremendous pleasure to get to correspond with her for this.


Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is a poet who practices her craft exclusively in the Irish language. Born in 1952 in Lancashire, England to Irish parents, she was sent to Ireland at age 5 to live with relatives in the Gaeltacht of County Kerry, and later lived in County Tipperary. She studied English and Irish literature at University College Cork, where she met her future husband, the geologist Dogan Leflef. Her relationship with Leflef, a Turk and Muslim, was opposed by her Catholic parents, who made her a ward of the court and forbade her any contact with Leflef. In 1973 Ní Dhomhnaill left Ireland for Turkey to marry Leflef and start a family.

After 7 years abroad, she returned to the island and published her first collections of poetry, An Dealg Droighinn (“The Blackthorn Bramble,” 1981) and Féar Suaithinseach (“Marvellous Grass,” 1984). In 1986, she released Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, featuring her Irish poems alongside English translations by Michael Hartnett. She has since published numerous Irish-language (Feis, “Festival,” 1991; Cead Aighnis, “Leave to Speak,” 1998) and dual-language editions (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990; The Astrakhan Cloak, 1992; and The Water Horse, 1999), along with plays, essays, and fiction. Her poems have been translated by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other contemporary Irish poets and in more than half a dozen languages. She has taught and lectured widely in Ireland, Turkey, Canada, the US, and Britain.

Apart from her choice to write in a minority language, Ní Dhomhnaill’s work is characterized by its focus on themes such as gender roles, language and culture, sexuality, and mythology. Her poems are abundant in imagery from both local Irish folklore and world-famous legends. Her recent dual-language collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007, trans. Muldoon) is a powerful work that begins with three poems on authoritarianism before heading off into a long series of poems examining the habits and culture of Irish merfolk. The poems cover topics from mermaid hair-washing and breastfeeding, to the merfolk’s struggles with assimilation, family dysfunction, and religious abuse and hypocrisy. I contacted Ní Dhomhnaill to talk about this collection as well as her thoughts on language, culture, and mythology.

Your poems are so rich in images and characters from folklore, fairy tales, and mythology, it makes me wonder what role these genres play in your everyday life. Do you regularly read fairy tales or books about folklore and myth, or is your knowledge of folklore drawn from memory and stories you’ve heard? What inspires you to write a poem using fairy tale/mythical images?

I haven’t read a book of fairy or folktales in years—the last one probably Italian Folktales translated from many different Italian dialects by Italo Calvino, which came into the house in the early ‘80s and was fought over so much by my children Timuchin and Melissa that they tore it in two. (It was a very fat paperback, and they are notorious for falling apart.) I remember having to call down to them once “who has the half that has the introduction?” for something I was writing.

But there were no children’s books in the house when I was growing up so I tore through a set of books left from my grandfather—Myths and Legends of the World, a series of scholarly books from the beginning of the 20th century, and it answered a deep need in me.

It seems that the archetypal level of reality is much more alive in me than any other level. The same could be said of three of my four children, one of whom writes screenplays, and the other two, who have a real artistic bent. Recently I read that, what with all the neuroscanning, etc. they can do now, that they have found certain strict patterns of brain movements, which are really a physical proof of what Jung intuited as archetypes. I got an email recently from the poet Tom McCarthy, where he mentioned my “brilliantly symbolic life.” I had to laugh. About 10 years ago my father died. He was trodden to death by cattle, which is what you would associate with the Paleolithic rather than the 21st century AD. I happened to meet the writer Nuala O’Faolain on the corner of 2nd Ave and 5th Street in New York City shortly afterwards. I told her what had happened. Her response was “How is it, Nuala, that everything that happens to you has to be so mythological?” So there you have it. I think the mythological level is more active in me than any other, say, realistic, level. So it naturally expresses itself as archetypes, in poetry.

But what I really love to do is to go in to the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin and read the stories in the manuscripts there. These give me a physical pleasure so strong, it is all I can do sometimes not to break into tears. This is the oral tradition at its best, what I heard the tail-end of when I was sent to Kerry from England at age 5. A richness of tradition cultivated by the works of thousands of scribes, who wrote down much of the medieval corpus in little copybooks, right up to the time of the Famine, mostly in Munster [province in the south of Ireland] and East Ulster [province in the north of Ireland], so that the oral tradition was enriched enormously. An example, I once spent an afternoon talking to a farmer, Mickey Long, as he dug up potatoes in the autumn. We were looking out over the expanse of Ventry harbour. He told me how, as a young boy in 1912, the whole British Atlantic fleet had come into the harbour and were at rest there. He told me the names of the flagships, the Indefatigable, the Defence, etc. He said he and his friends had rowed out to them and given them mackerel and got cigarettes in return. Then he used a phrase that translated means “the ships were so thick on the water that you could walk from the farthest out of them right into the shore without wetting your feet,” which I recognised at once as a line from the medieval text “The Battle of Ventry,” written in Regensburg in what is now Germany by an Irish monk in 1353. That kind of richness, that was kept alive for centuries, is what I absolutely exult in.

You’ve suggested in essays and other interviews that there’s a connection between expressing yourself in Irish and deeper emotional accessibility compared to writing or conversing in English. Can you talk about that? Is it the same for poetry, since you’ve written more poetry than you have any other form of writing? Do you find poetry a more accessible means for writing about emotions or about the mythical world than other kinds of writing?

I write poetry exclusively in Irish. I can only write poetry in Irish, as it seems to be where my emotions are located. I think rationally mostly in English, because most of the books, etc that I have around me are in English, but that only engages one part of my brain. Feelings come out in Irish. Imagination also. I luckily discovered this at a very young age, at 16, when in the middle of writing a poem in the study (instead of doing my French exercise) I suddenly realized that I was actually writing Irish prosody in English, and that was a stupid thing to be doing, why don’t I write it in Irish? Which I did, and I realized it was much better. The words seemed to sit more naturally on the emotions. I realized I was only a poet in Irish, not English. I never looked back. Irish, for better or worse, is the language of my emotions and imagination, and as I have said earlier, the imagino-emotional level is the most alive part of my psyche, so, ipso facto, it has to be in Irish. Mind you, I didn’t know any of this when I started out. It was by the very act of writing that all this became conscious.

I have written the odd short story in Irish also, which I am about to bring together this summer in a collection called after the longest story in the collection, “Sean-chathracha na hAise Bige,” which could be translated as “The Ancient Cities of Asia Minor.” I owe it to Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge [Irish Books Board], so I just have to finish it and clear the decks before I do anything else. My son is always at me to write a memoir, in English, so that the things that happened to me back in the early 1970s do not happen, even in a different form, to anyone else. I am collecting material for it, like going into the Wards of Court office etc, but I see it a few years down the road. In the meantime I am working on a new collection in Irish, Urú, which means an eclipse of both the grammatical and celestial kind.

Do you think there’s something that makes Irish unique in terms of storytelling about the Otherworld, the unseen and unproven, the subconscious or subliminal? Do you think this is an advantage or characteristic of minority languages in general or something special to Irish?

Well, in a post-religious, increasingly rational and empirical world, anything that keeps the imagino-emotional part of us alive, and allows it to function, is to be cherished and cultured. After all this is what makes us different from, and superior to, robots. Mind you, rationality has its time and place also. After all I was married to a very exact scientist for 40 years, and he was always pulling me up on my “woolly” thinking. And rightly so. I am a great believer in science and what it can discover and create, but it is not the whole picture. We are, rightly or wrongly, only occasionally rational animals. You only have to look at Brexit and the election of Trump to see that. And all the “hoo-ha” in Irish society about illegitimate children throughout the large part of the 20th century is another proof. Think of it, your daughter gets pregnant at 16. The rational reaction should be to be delighted, as it means you have a fertile daughter, and the next generation is accounted for. Instead you had this whole collective reaction of shame and the madness of locking poor young girls in penal institutions, often for their whole lives, and stigmatizing both them and their children ad infinitum. How logical or rational is that? If our emotional and imaginational levels are expressed freely, for instance through the arts, then maybe we can learn not to mix up things and have our emotions express themselves in all kinds of inappropriate manners. I have a very basic theory—that when Irish people switched language to English, their emotions were left behind in the Irish they refused to use or teach to their children. That is what my mermaid poems are all about. When you read the material in the manuscripts in the Department of Folklore, the sheer imaginative richness that pervaded people’s lives is astonishing. And because the medieval manuscript tradition was kept alive for so long, sometimes by ordinary farmhands, who copied them down into paper copies, at night, by the light of seal-oil tapers, Irish does have a long and very rich repertoire for discussing the non-rational and sometimes downright uncanny. I’m sure all languages do, Irish is not an exception. But minority languages, that haven’t undergone the rationalizing effects of Aristotelian schooling, have maybe an advantage.

The Fifty Minute Mermaid is my favorite collection of yours. It’s so sharp and complex in observation and emotion, and also so beautiful and evocative in imagery. Most of its poems are about mermaids and merfolk, and many of them are humorous, but there’s also an underlying sense of trauma throughout the collection. Of the merfolk suffering and surviving, and even inflicting, various forms of trauma. The title of the collection suggests the time of a typical therapy session. I’ve heard you speak about this collection and about Irish folk beliefs in general as a projection of the Irish people’s inner landscape, as the unconscious of the community. Can you talk about about that notion and how it affects your use of mythology and folklore in your work? Is there a relationship in your view between folklore or fairy tales and trauma?

I’m glad you like my mermaids, as a lot of people don’t seem to understand or appreciate them. Because they are not really mermaids, they are my birth family, with scales and gills attached. You see, in Ireland confessional poetry of the kind often written in America is really a no-go, as we are so hugely and deeply related to and networked with each other on this tiny island, and so madly curious about each other. So I take Emily Dickinson’s dictum to heart: “Tell the whole truth, but tell it slant.” Also by changing everyone into merfolk, I can perhaps reach at a truth that goes deeper than just something depending on the significant details of my own life. This is what poetry has always done for me. In doing so, it has helped me from going mad.

Only now, as I recover from my husband’s death, do I realize that a lot of this madness is still within and around me, and that only by writing can I still keep myself sane. And the folklore material, which I am convinced is a projection outwards of our collective paysage intérieure, is the perfect “objective correlative.” To express many things. Including trauma.

Many of your poems feature islands, either specific ones like the Blaskets (or Ireland of course) or unnamed, mythical islands. Is there a place or landscape you find more inspiring to write about? Where do you most like to write?

The fact that many of my poems feature islands, well, that has of course a lot to do to the place I was exiled to at age 5. The parish of Ventry, with the Blaskets just around the corner, and a view out at sea to the Scellig Rocks (about to be made famous worldwide by their use as a background in the next Star Wars). I wrote a series of poems called “Imramm” when I was dreaming a lot of islands. I think, retrospectively, that it was about a part of my personality that had been cut off, like an island, and that was emerging from the subconscious and becoming part of my main personality. I find walking Ventry strand a marvellous aid to writing poems, or rather getting the main action of the poem going. I finish it off then later, in the quiet shelter of my tiny little southwest-facing room in Dublin. And I mean tiny—six feet by eight feet. I am very loath to leave it, and will refuse to move anywhere else until I get a suitable substitute.

Do you have a favorite fairy tale or folk tale? If so, which one and why?

Yes, it is known in Irish as either “An Gadharaín Bán” (“The Little White Dog”) or “An Gabairin Bán” (“The Little White Goat”). There are a few versions of it in the Department of Folklore material. There is a version from Peig Sayers which I love, but my all-time favourite version is a version by Máire Ruiséal, also known as Cú an Tobair. Actually I found out that it is from a book of Norwegian stories translated into English sometime in the mid-19th century, where it is about a white bear. Of course, there are no bears in Ireland, so the story was naturalized as being about a different animal. P.J. Lynch has illustrated a version of it as East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which I managed to pick up one time for my kids in America. It is a modern version of the Amor and Psyche story and a wonderful girl’s quest story. It is interesting that it is the story picked by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for inclusion in the women’s volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature. The versions Peig and Máire tell are basically the same but the telling is so different—Peig’s is wonderfully baroque, with all sorts of curlicues and digressions, while Máire’s is very straight, with the wonderful interpolation to [story collector] Joe Daly, who was using the edeophone with her. “Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an…a Joe, an féidir liom an focal Bearla a úsáid? The children of the king were playing out in the…Joe, can I use the English word? I can, alright then, Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an bpiazza.

I also love the different versions that exist of “The Handless Maiden,” a version of which I used as the introduction to my first book, An Dealg Droighinn. The dealg droighinn is the equivalent of the blackthorn thorn that the maiden has to pull out of her brother’s leg, even though he has cut off her hands. I intuitively knew that that was the story of my life. Also, the various versions of the [fairy tale about the] man who unwittingly sells his daughter to the devil, including the well-known one of “Beauty and the Beast.”

There are a whole lot of them but somehow I don’t need them as absolutely totally as I used to. I’ve worked out a lot of my obsessions in my poetry, and so they no longer come back to haunt me.

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Nonfiction:

How St. Gertrude of Nivelles became the cat lady of the Catholic Church (U.S. Catholic)

How Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery Built a Prairie and Lost My Ancestors (Medium)

A pilgrim’s pace (or How I found healing on the Camino de Santiago) (U.S. Catholic)

Mixed Messages (Memoir Mixtapes)

Song recommendations (short memoir pieces) at Memoir Mixtapes:
White Mystery’s “Birthday”
Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather”
Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”
Al Green’s “Belle”
The Gap Band’s “Party Train”

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed, check out my masthead for link to this piece

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Republished at Camino Ways

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down these days, I’ve reposted this here.

Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog)

Fiction:

The Widow’s Quilt (Medium)

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here, with author’s note)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut(The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Nonfiction:

How St. Gertrude of Nivelles became the cat lady of the Catholic Church (U.S. Catholic)

How Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery Built a Prairie and Lost My Ancestors (Medium)

A pilgrim’s pace (or How I found healing on the Camino de Santiago) (U.S. Catholic)

Mixed Messages (Memoir Mixtapes)

Song recommendations (short memoir pieces) at Memoir Mixtapes:
White Mystery’s “Birthday”
Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather”
Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”
Al Green’s “Belle”
The Gap Band’s “Party Train”

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed, check out my masthead for link to this piece

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Republished at Camino Ways

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down these days, I’ve reposted this here.

Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog)

Fiction:

The Widow’s Quilt (Medium)

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here, with author’s note)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut(The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet

This nonfiction piece was originally published at Literary Orphans on Easter 2014, as part of the journal’s Irish-themed “Jonathan Swift” issue. Earlier this year though, the Literary Orphans website was hacked and wiped, including its nonfiction Tavern Lantern channel, where this piece was posted. The journal editors are still working on restoring the Tavern Lantern site. Until then, I’m sharing my essay here, because of all the pieces I’ve published so far, this is the one I’m most proud of, and I want people to be able to read it.

022 (2)

I

A woman who keeps bees is a woman I’d like to know. I think she’d be able to tell me a lot about the secrets of surviving this world. For starters, how to disregard the stings and cultivate the sweetness of life. I wouldn’t mind also taking a few lessons from the bees themselves. But we speak different languages, the bees and I. You might say we travel in different circles. They dance through air, I tread on earth. Their lives are short, sweet, and purposeful. They enjoy a profound intimacy with the world’s great beauties, the flowers.

Me? I’m 40 years here on earth—living, stumbling, bumbling, mistaking, basically wasting time. Intimacy of any kind is hard to come by, much less turn into something fruitful. The same goes with resolve. And effort. Between you and me and the bees, there are times when I’d rather stick my hand into a hornet’s nest than risk a flight at trust or hope or gumption, and a flight away from bitterness and fear.

A beekeeper is someone I’d bet on to have good advice and answers. But I’ve never known one to ask. The closest I’ve come to even meeting one was in visiting the alleged church of an alleged beekeeping saint who allegedly lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland long ago. This rumor of a holy hive-keeping woman is all I have to guide me.

II

Her name was Gobnait. A uniquely Irish name. To American ears, like mine, its pronunciation sounds something like what you might shout upon being stung by an insect. So of course a woman with a name like that kept bees. And it was the kind of thing holy people did back then, in the 6th century, when Gobnait had her turn on earth. In those days in Ireland, holy people were all around, almost as common as bees themselves. A land of saints, as they say. Some of those holy folks lived like honey bees, clustered together in communities of hundreds or more. Some were more like the bumble variety, settling with only a dozen or so kindred spirits. And some, like the carpenter bee, were solitary—self-marooned on lonely little rock islands or hidden away in dark and dinky caves.

Gobnait was something of a hybrid of all holy varieties, depending on where she was at in her life and on earth. On Inis Oírr, the western Irish island where Gobnait’s story first gets going, the locals say she arrived there from County Clare, just a few miles across Galway Bay, to escape an enemy or a family squabble. Who her enemy might have been, what the problem was, what sort of punishment or consequences she was running from, and whether she was ever found or followed by her pursuers—nobody knows. Not a word more about Gobnait’s life pre-flight has survived. If there ever was more to the story of Gobnait’s escape to Inis Oírr, those details have vanished or fallen away, like the features on a face carved out of stone many centuries ago.

Maybe Gobnait was already religious before leaving home. Or maybe it was her desperate dash across the bay that made her so. Maybe religious devotion was a comfort she conjured after living out on Inis Oírr—a small and thoroughly stony place, almost totally treeless and therefore shadeless, and in times of harsh weather, rather merciless. If this was where she started keeping bees, you couldn’t blame her for wanting to bring some sweetness to the surrounding bleakness. But as with her life in Clare, no one really knows what Gobnait did with herself on Inis Oírr, or even how long she stayed there. All the islanders can say is that she stayed until an angel appeared to her in a dream and told her to move on. This island was not the place for her. She was to seek out a place where there were nine white deer grazing. There and then she would find the place of her resurrection.

You don’t argue with angels. Not when there’s a heavenly reward, on earth or otherwise, at stake. Gobnait went back to the mainland so, where she wandered the country for a while, keeping her eye out for the nine white deer and the place of her true belonging. The story goes that she stopped in Kerry and Waterford and Cork, giving her name to a church here, a village there, like a child dropping crumbs or clues just in case she lost her way. Or perhaps in case anyone was looking for her. Was anyone looking for her? Wouldn’t there have been? No one seems to ask in the Gobnait story. The point has always been what she was looking for. And where she found it.

Gobnait’s reward of resurrection actually came in increments, in teases, like a dancer dropping the veils covering her body and revealing herself one inch of skin at a time. She found three deer first, in Clondrohid in County Cork. Then a herd of six at Ballymakeera, a few miles roughly northwest. Then finally nine after crossing into a village called Ballyvourney over the River Sullane. There she stayed, built a convent, and made a reputation for herself as a healer who had a way with the bees and a holy woman capable of performing miracles. Among her miracles are the time she kept a plague away from Ballyvourney simply by drawing a line in the earth along the village’s eastern borders, and another occasion during which she caused some cattle thieves to flee by letting her bee friends loose from their hives. That latter miracle might seem obvious and ordinary enough—anyone can poke a stick into a few bees’ nests and rouse their fury after all—hence, no miracle at all. But Gobnait turned her army of bees into actual soldiers, you see, and for an extra dose of no-nonsense she hurled one of the hives at the fleeing thieves and made it change into a helmet as it flew through the air at the bolting crooks.

It can be hard to square such violence, such unapologetic vengeance, with the modern notion of what a saint should be. Saints are supposed to be nice. Mother Teresa smiling on the cover of a magazine nice. St. Francis of Assisi holding a kitten in someone’s backyard garden nice. Not necessarily without backbone, but not vindictive to the point of throwing potentially murderous heavy objects at people’s heads either. Even after taking into account old stereotypes about Irish tempers (and there are stories of other Irish saints, besides Gobnait, who also liked to throw things and start up a brawl every now and again), there’s something both extraordinary and extraordinarily admirable to me about Gobnait’s flashes of anger, something so correctly drawn about a woman once chased from her home now chasing away others, making lines in the earth, marking boundaries, protecting her turf, defending the place of her resurrection from thievery and greed and disease, from any chance of being spoiled or taken away from her, especially after it took such wandering for her to finally get here.

She had a right to be so territorial. For in the end Ballyvourney was indeed her place of resurrection. Her grave is there, near the traditional site of her convent, and near a holy well, a cemetery, and a statue of a rather downcast and dull-looking little woman wearing a long cape and rosary beads and standing on a stone hive. The statue was erected in 1950, a representation more of its time, of how Ireland once wanted its women to be—modest, devout, unchallenging—than of the territorial and spirited woman who guarded 6th-century Ballyvourney.

171 (2)

III

I have never been to Ballyvourney. That’s a bold confession on my part, as Ballyvourney is of course the go-to spot for Gobnait groupies and devotees. On her feast day, February 11th, locals and visitors make pilgrimage to Gobnait’s grave there. The day is marked with a turas, in which pilgrims visit designated stations at the monastic site, moving around them in a clockwise direction and saying the usual prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be—as they go. There’s no re-creating of Gobnait’s more memorable life moments—no hive or helmet-throwing contests, no banishing of plagues, no running or wandering. Not as far as I know. Since I only know Gobnait-devotion through the place she ran from, not to—through Inis Oírr.

On Inis Oírr on Gobnait’s feast day, the islanders huddle inside the small, roofless, stone church dedicated to her for a special mass in her honor. It’s usually a small crowd, and mostly women. Very unlike the outdoor mass in June for Inis Oírr’s patron—and male—saint, Caomhán, held in a larger yet also roofless church in the island graveyard.

St. Caomhán’s church may just get more attention because of its obviousness. The graveyard in which it lies—and I do mean “in”—is on a high dune just off the beach and the island’s tiny airport. The church has long since sunk into the sand of the dune, and the islanders used to have to clear away the sand regularly until grass was planted around the church to keep the sand back a bit. Climbing up the dune to the cemetery and coming to the edge of the church ruins is like stumbling upon and looking down into the world’s largest and most worn-out treasure chest, its top ripped off and its contents emptied out with just sweepings of dust left in the remains of the frame. Despite the church’s deathly surroundings, it has an association with luck. There’s a belief that if you can fit through the very narrow open window above the church’s stone altar, you’re bound for heaven when you die. Near the church is a small house-like structure that protects Caomhán’s grave. The islanders say if you spend the night lying on it, especially on the eve of his feast day, you’ll be cured of all illness.

Gobnait’s church, on the other hand, is hard to find. It’s in a field among many fields that cover the island, all separated from each other by high, hand-built stone walls that give the island fields and roads a maze-like appearance from above. It’s easy to get lost looking for Gobnait’s church. Which may be what the runaway saint would have wanted. And even if you do find your way, there’s little luck to be won there. Beside the entrance to the field of Gobnait’s church are a well and a tree with a bad reputation. Now on an island as barren and rocky as Inis Oírr, you’d think a tree would be seen as a blessed thing, a miracle even. After all, you can count the number of trees on the island on one hand. But the tree by Gobnait’s church is an elder, one of several tree varieties in Ireland often associated with fairies and all the tricks and mischief fairies like to get up to. Worse, Gobnait’s tree is actually a twin elder, two trickster trees grown into one. Double the trouble.

As with Caomhán’s church site, there are graves at Gobnait’s church, or maybe they’re outdoor altars—no one can decide for sure. There are also the remains of a clochán, a very small stone hut that must have kept some sacred or solitary-loving soul on the island out of the rain long ago. It has no roof now, same as Gobnait’s and Caomhán’s churches. It’s almost as if there’s a moral to be found in all these roofless old structures on the island: Stick around this place long enough and you’ll lose your head. Just wait for it.

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IV

Gobnait’s church site was my favorite place on Inis Oírr in the days I lived there. That was many years ago, but hardly as many as when Gobnait did. I came to the island from the opposite direction than Gobnait, from America, from Chicago. I wasn’t running or escaping anything—not yet. I was just looking to spend some time in a foreign country I had visited once before and wanted to get to know better. When I went to Ireland to live and work, I expected to end up in Dublin or Cork—in a city at any rate. I never dreamed I’d end up on a tiny island off the country’s west coast.

How I landed on Inis Oírr is a story for another time. If nobody knows how or why no less a figure than St. Gobnait got there, nobody really needs to know how or why I did. There was a job there on the island, in a hotel over the summer, when I went looking for one and couldn’t seem to find one anywhere else in Ireland. That’s really all there is to it.

Though I would spend the next three months living and working on Inis Oírr (and several more summers to come), it took me awhile to come across Gobnait’s church site. I don’t even recall if I found it the first summer I was there. But once I finally did, it became my favorite spot to get away from it all. (Yes, I know, as if being on a small island on the opposite side of the Atlantic wasn’t getting far enough away from it all to begin with.) There’s a low hill in the corner of the field of Gobnait’s church, and I liked to sit there and read or look out at the pieces of the sea and mainland and horizon you could see from the hill between all the island walls. Once in a while I’d go to Gobnait’s field and find someone else, some tourists or such, already there—taking pictures, inspecting the old church and graves, maybe resting on the hill themselves—and I’d feel jealous and frustrated. How to get rid of them? How to make them buzz off?  I never really tried. Despite my big-city background, I’m not a confrontational person. I’m Midwestern, and Midwesterners don’t make waves. We never learned, what with no ocean around us.

When I found someone else intruding on my favorite spot, I tended to just walk on. Maybe I’d come back after a while to see if the intruders were gone, but usually I’d just accept it and find somewhere else to read or watch or brood. The back of the island was usually a good bet. It’s entirely uninhabited—by people, at least—and wild. At the back of the island, the stone walls are mostly tumbled down and crumbled away, leaving messy hurdles of rock for walkers to climb over only to land on more rock—great, long, fissured blocks of limestone jutting out into the sea. There may be a couple islandmen around collecting seaweed for fertilizer if the tide is out, and there may be a few tourists who’ve found their way out here—but the sound of the sea generally drowns out their chatter and the clicks of their cameras and tends to humble them into either high-tailing it back to civilization at the front of the island or finding a cranny in the rocks to cower against, as sea and stone duke it out in the fight for elemental supremacy. This part of the island can make a scaredy-cat out of a street tough and a hermit out of an attention whore.

Gobnait picked a good place to run away to, is what you think while exploring Inis Oírr. Even if it wasn’t the end place for her, it was a good hideout, a good place to recover from whatever personal apocalypse drove her here to wait for news of resurrection.

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V

There are women I know on the island who refuse to believe the negative superstitions around Gobnait’s bad-luck double fairy tree. There are women on the island who in fact will go to Gobnait’s field to “sit with Gobnait” whenever they need time and space to think or reflect—they’ll go to Gobnait’s church over the modern church on the island or even Caomhán’s church any day. I myself never heard anything bad about Gobnait’s tree or field from the islandwomen. It was a man who told me. An islandman and a one-time sweetheart of mine.

Once while holding hands with this sweetheart and walking on the road past Gobnait’s church at night, I mentioned to him that it was my favorite spot on the island. “You know there’s a lot of superstition about that tree,” he said to me. “Lots of people here say they get a bad feeling passing it after dark. They say they don’t trust it.”

I didn’t have much to say in response to that then. I was, after all, a girl in love, young, quite inexperienced, and giddy with the romance of walking at night under a starry sky with one of the island’s handsomest men. All I had on my mind was the fire in my heart, not the cool tone in his voice. It was only two days later when he would betray me badly and break my heart.

Did the tree jinx us? Was it the double tree who double-crossed me? Or was it him? Or me? Something I said, or didn’t say, when my islandman and I passed the tree by? Perhaps there are cautions on the island against women who stand in spoken solidarity with trees. Reaching as that may sound, consider that one of the only other trees on the island had a stone beneath it dedicated to the mná na hÉireann, women of Ireland, in honor of a visit by Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson—and the stone was broken in half, replaced, and broken again. They say the “women’s tree” was eventually blown away entirely, in a storm. Maybe it blew all the way to Resurrectionville, Ireland, itself: Ballyvourney. Maybe it found refuge there, replanted itself, and grew to cast loving shade over Gobnait’s grave. Maybe it even shelters a beehive in its branches.

I dream up these notions of renewed life for a lost tree because I’m too proud and too bitter to dream up notions of renewed life for a lost love. After getting my heart broken, I became a running and wandering woman, same as Gobnait had been. But where she ran to Inis Oírr, I ran from it, and I wouldn’t return for years to come. Nor would I find my place of resurrection, despite hops around America to Australia to Bolivia to Mexico to France and Spain. And I never lent my name to any of the places I passed through, didn’t drop clues for anyone who may have been looking for me…though all along I wondered if someone might be, hoped that someone would be. I’ve also yet to come across any white deer—though other miracles, in other forms, have certainly been abundant. The most unexpected, most bitter and sweet, was seeing the face of the man who betrayed me, back in Ireland, over a decade on. He didn’t bring me resurrection. He brought a handshake. Likewise I didn’t bring forgiveness. I brought a hug. These things come in increments, in teases: one step, two steps, three steps…three deer, six deer, nine deer…a few inches of skin, a few inches of self-exposure, trust, and courage at a time.

VI

Gobnait was by all accounts a nun and a virgin, so she may have been innocent of the disasters of love affairs. Yet her legend begins with a running, a fleeing, the kind women do when disaster is fresh and raw as a still swelling sting. Any woman who’s ever been burned can understand the desire to give it all over to God, to scorn men for solitude or society for a nunnery, to trust no one but the bees. Every woman has her own Ballyvourney ahead of her, and behind her, her own Inis Oírr. Considering that in Gobnait’s time Ireland was swarming with saints (Wikipedia’s list of medieval saints numbers well over 100), one has to wonder how much of it came down to holiness and how much to heartbreak.

VII

Whatever their motive in the old days, holy people are a rare breed today. In Ireland, in America, perhaps everywhere, people just don’t get up and maroon themselves on an island or in a desert for the sake of the sacred anymore. Our times produce few saints. They’re almost extinct. And word is that the bees who once kept their company aren’t far behind.

It’s called colony collapse disorder, this large-scale vanishing of the bees, and it’s a red-hot topic. I could have written a whole essay here about it, written as many paragraphs as above examining all the reasons for what’s killing the bees off and the consequences for us humans and what we can do about it. I’m sure there are readers who would tell me I should have written about these things, who would tell me a personal heartbreak and the life of a long-gone holy woman are much less worthy topics of discussion in the grand scheme of things and, for further convincing, might toss off a quote that’s been going around lately (attributed to Einstein, though it’s never been verified) that says humans won’t last even half a decade if a beeless planet comes to pass. I admit this prospect is a much more pressing issue. I also admit I’m not so interested in the pressing issues.

There’s already a multitude of people shouting a multitude of questions and answers and opinions on the disappearance of bee colonies. They shout things like: Pesticides! Viruses! GMOs! Also: Climate change! Monoculture! Cell phones! Bee malnutrition! Indeed, the list of culprits gets longer as more bees disappear and more people take notice. Still, the shouting may not be loud enough, the message not yet focused enough or crystal-clear to cut through to people’s serious concern. Perhaps there’s still time for the shouters to prove themselves heroes and life-savers, or they may suffer the fate of tragically unheeded sages, of failed missionaries, of hoarse-voiced street preachers ranting and raving about the loss of faith and the coming end times.

I for one don’t doubt the urgency. I like bees. I dig their buzz. I don’t want to see them go away. I like honey, and I like all the fruits and nuts and such that bees pollinate for the world. But all the same, I’ll leave it to the know-it-alls of science, biology, and the environment to fight over the various reasons and solutions for colony collapse disorder. They can work on saving the world’s source of sweetness. I’ll work on resolving my personal store of bitterness. So I’d rather turn to that back-page place where women’s stories and women’s glories so often get buried. I’d rather investigate the mystery of a little-known female saint in a little country than the tragedy of something so large as a worldwide apocalypse.

Besides, St. Gobnait’s story is something like an apocalypse. For every life that’s ever sparked and ended is an apocalypse of sorts. So is every creation that’s ever crumbled or vanished or come to lose meaning and appreciation in time. Really, we’re all apocalypses—men, women, bees, bad-luck trees, holy people, hives, half-hidden churches on islands, and deer herds straight from a hermit woman’s dream. All runnings and vanishings are apocalypses as well. All arrivals, resurrections, and fumbles at forgiveness. All wishes, answers, shoutings, and conversions. All love affairs too…especially love affairs.

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Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Poetry:

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Fiction:

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Nonfiction:

Lady Folk forthcoming (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans)

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Other:

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

A complete list of my credits can be found here. You can also follow me on Facebook.