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.


Hidden Lives

Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin
Doire Press, 2017
72 pages, paper, $13.99


Cover of Annemarie Ni Churreain's Bloodroot


While the quote is often misattributed to William Butler Yeats, it was the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard who wrote, “Il y a assurément un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci”: There is another world, but it is in this one. It does, however, sound like Yeats, as the quote reinforces the popular view of the grand Celtic poet, the one who celebrates the unseen faerie life, recovering the old stories of the Tuatha dé Danann and the Sidhe. Of course, for Irish poets of the twentieth century, it became a weighty thing, this deep register between the mythic, the landscape, the history, and the poetic voice. And for women Irish poets, an exclusionary thing.


So, to come across Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s first book of poetry, Bloodroot, published by Doire Press, I return to Éluard’s quote. Ní Churreáin is no surrealist, but she does look for the life and lives that have been hidden, removed, erased, lives that still are apparent in this world. She accomplishes this achievement with exquisite craft and unrelenting attention, poem by poem. To find the other world in this one, Ní Churreáin suspends her readers in a tight, liminal space, where we must take great time and care to become still and to reflect, so that we see our own belonging, our own alienation.


The poetry happens even before you open the book. First, the title and its sonic qualities: Just two syllables, each ending on a hard consonant, but then that slipknot of “oo,” the short vowel in the first syllable, a hard and ugly thud, and the long open version of it in the second syllable, an open and soaring cry that is clipped short with that stopped “t.” Such dexterous language will pervade each poem once the cover is opened. Second, the title and its possible references: a medicinal flower whose roots ooze a red sap; a single root that is the life force of a plant, like a taproot or a blood feather for a bird; or a root that feeds from blood, or has been drowned in blood. All those associations fill the book.


The book is separated into three, tight, distinct sections, thematically united: where the poet traverses familial terrain, and then into troubled (and for me recent) cultural histories of Ireland, and then sojourns into India and Florida. Annemarie Ní Churreáin, a native of the boglands of northwest Donegal, is very much the world citizen, evidenced in her receiving several international fellowships and residencies, including those from the Akademie Schloss Solitude, the Jack Kerouac House, and Hawthornden Castle. The thematic breadth of her poetry is thus hardly surprising. Yet, each poem is discretely fashioned, built on its own sharp and unforgiving terms, in language clear, unfiltered, and yet highly wrought. While I have seen some readers say how they glide through Bloodroot, reading it all in one sitting, I am stunned by the poems. I read one or two an evening, and they trouble me, stay with me. Another one would overwhelm me.


For instance, consider the way Ní Churreáin constructs a brief lyric in “The Warning,” a poem governed by such a strong, unyielding sequence of voices (just two lines each), but by a disciplined and harrowing parallel structure. Here’s the poem in its entirety:


Give us your child, the Pica bird said
or else you go to hell.


 Give me what I want, the child said
 or else I’ll tear this House down.


Obey house rules, the House said
or else this House will break your bones.


 Tell my story, the bone said
 or else we’re all going to burn.


Despite its tightly faceted structure, there are slight, slight fissures in the poem, where the “child” and the “bone” are not capitalized, and the brilliant shifting of pronouns in the second line of each couplet: second person, first person singular, third person, and first person plural. The poem’s brevity and simplicity and personified voices also suggest something of the nursery rhyme. And then at the heart of the poem is the urgent and necessary call for witnessing, to tell the story or else. I am left wondering about whether or not we’ll all burn anyway after the telling, after the witnessing.


This attention to language partly emanates from the fact that Ní Churreáin is bilingual, a product of a colonized history, and that she is from the hinter boglands of western Ireland. Weighted with the ghosts of her foremothers, to whom the book is dedicated, the simple, hard language is so piercingly employed to speak the truths of the hidden or shamed lives of Irish women, famously the cases of Ann Lovett and Joanne Hayes, two young women in the 1980s who suffered unwanted pregnancies with one resulting in death and the other in pillorying. Ní Churreáin’s is an uncompromising and bold vision: told with a scalded clarity that makes me think of Joan Didion, with a necessity that makes me think of Muriel Rukeyser. But this is all Ní Churreáin, on her own terms.


I come back time and again to another brief lyric, “Cult,” as a grounding moment for the collection. In it, she investigates the double legend of Brigid, the pre-Christian Irish goddess of healing and inspiration who was later appropriated and canonized as St. Brigid. In County Cavan, a pagan cult continued to celebrate Brigid, worshipping a stone head capturing her three faces: one a smithy, one a herder, and one a healer. In the 1840s, a local priest was said to have “lost” the stone head in Roosky Lough. Ní Churreáin plainly notes:


This is what happens to women who brew medicine,
who bend iron, who drive cattle on their own land.


Such powerful women are not only appropriated, even canonized, but then thereafter must be erased. And the poem ends on defiance (and a string of hard “d” consonants), in lines that the place the poet among the original sisterhood, the resistant cult:


Dreamless now, I touch the water in the font,
cold as medals, streaked with my own blood.


Here, the poet unsentimentally faces the world as it is given, “[d]reamless,” while claiming her own agency and asserting her connection to her past, her real, elemental kin.

I am leaving out so much accomplishment that is evident in this remarkable book, both in terms of Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s craft and vision. There is much more for any reader to discover. This first book gives promise of a vital, important poet whose voice denudes our convenient illusions.