Voicing Ghosts

MOTHERBABYHOME by Kimberly Campanello

zimZalla Press, 2019

Vellum paper and oak box or readers’ edition book, 796 pages, £47.00 GBP




A vexing problem for the poet is how to write for the dead. Inherent in the endeavor is an appropriation, a betrayal, and a reduction. I know this dynamic well as my first book of poetry, The Sunshine Mine Disaster, was an attempt to speak to/for the 91 miners who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the most productive silver mine in the United States in 1972. There’s a point where the dead unveil the poet’s futility and hubris, where the dead say “not enough,” where the dead say “too much.”


Or I think of Muriel Rukeyser’s attempt to capture the thousands of deaths caused by silica exposure from the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster in the 1930s. There, she traveled with photographer Nancy Naumburg to study, document, and capture the suffering of the laborers and their families. The result was an abbreviated, incomplete section of U.S. 1, “The Book of the Dead,” where the project resisted containment.


Thus, I come to Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME, an excavation into the deaths of some 796 infants and children, who were housed from 1926 through 1961 by the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home under the administration of the Bon Secours Sisters, on behalf of the Irish State in Tuam, County Galway. These children were lost and buried in unmarked graves. Perhaps thousands of others were illegally adopted. They were, in essence, shame-ridden chattel of the Irish State and the Catholic Church; neither they nor their mothers had bodily autonomy.


Campanello’s work is a 796-page compilation of conceptual and visual poetry, of great expanses of nearly blank pages, disruptions of language and fragments, poly-layered type, explosions of text, all on large, letter-sized sheets of lightly transparent paper. In a brave collaboration with Tom Jenks of zimZalla Press, Campanello constructed both a reader’s edition, a bound paperback volume with a map of the institution grounds on the cover, and an “avant object” edition, a small set of individual copies made on loose sheaths of vellum paper housed in a hand-made oak box. Physically, both editions approximate the size of a coffin that could very well hold the skeletal remains of an infant.


The fragments—while highly manipulated by the poet, as they contort and bleed and reiterate on the page, as they communicate with other fragments visible through the layers of paper—are all external to the poet. They come from contemporaneous letters, documents, reports, decades of anguished cries and discomforting disavowals. They also come from current expressions voiced on the internet and in newspapers in response to the disclosures of the deaths by historian Catherine Corless in 2012. And so, among the fragments are harrowing words of mothers, rationalizations by priests, legalistic dodges by the government, and angry protests by Catholic apologists.


On one hand, it mimics the chatter of our currency—these could be tweets lost in the algorithms—and on the other hand, it channels the dead, directly, in their own words, buried, misaligned, and decomposing on layer, upon layer, upon layer of page. And as an anthropological record, the one lineal linkage is the chronological listing of the identified dead, the infants and children, all in impossibly tiny font (4-point, perhaps), with the years punctuating the individual sections.


One poem is a repetition of a single fragment, “programme of DNA,” reprinted three or four dozen times, overlaying one another, to form tiny stars, coalescing signifiers. Another poem is a four-page catalogue of diseases, ailments, and medical conditions. Clinically, the work on any single page may echo some early 1980s L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E experiments, a flashy and active deconstruction of language. But there’s a source content to Campanello’s work that goes deep and has absolute essence, and there’s an argument that challenges the reader to do the exhumer’s difficult and soul-demanding work. This book is a distressed artifact.


The final tenth of this book is a study of the word “delay,” a point that is amplified by the delayed report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, which was supposed to have been released this February (after one extension), and will not release its findings until early 2020. The deferral of accountability continues, remains suspended. MOTHERBABYHOME is clear and uncompromising in its keening.


Campanello herself acknowledges antecedents to her task in M. Nourbese Philip’s brilliant Zong! and in Thomas Kinsella’s Butcher’s Dozen, in honoring the voices of the unjustly dead. That is, from them, she has learned to put aside her own voice, to contend directly with the recorded voices themselves, and to cull through the officially sanctioned narratives. But it is in her indebtedness to H. D., who re-positions the poet as ritual maker, where Campanello’s considerable genius and courage come to the fore. Here, she compiles these documents and records, captures and releases all the noise among the living and the dead, and in composing upon ghostly translucent sheets, she builds a coffin and a monument. Each page is prayer. Each page is holy.


I need to say two more things.


First, the book, in its entirety, overwhelmed me. Its weight, these ghost voices and their truths, has the heft of the remains of one baby and her mother, times nearly 800. I feel that weight looking at just one page, which reads, “reverence / for / the grave / may / Dunne Patricia 25/03/1944 2 mths / derive / planting / centuries.” The grief expressed, released, is not individual, not of a single lifetime, but what will require centuries of collective work. There is no easy reconciliation.


Second, Kimberly Campanello’s steadfast commitment in this avant object is breathtaking and humbling. This is the work of a great, great artist, and of a single, attentive human being who listens with intelligent receptiveness and with full love.