…the last notes of “The Woman of the House.”

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I was 22 when I travelled to Ireland the first time. I’d graduated from university and I felt drawn to the landscape(s) I’d loved in my Irish literature course. I had a thousand dollars and an idea of a place I could live, a cottage arranged for me by the friend of a friend. But it didn’t work out for a lot of reasons, mostly because Travellers had camped in the remote little house in the mountains in County Mayo and burned the floorboards for fuel. I went off with my rucksack and asked in post-offices, shops, and any other place I could think of: Did anyone know of a place I could live? Somehow (a long story) I ended up in a cottage on an island off the Connemara coast. It was a small island, with a population of 60. There wasn’t electricity or running water and my toilet was a pink plastic chamber pot, emptied over the stone wall into the grass, and rinsed in the tide just below the wall.

I had in mind a writing life. Every morning I’d wake up, make a cup of the cheapest instant coffee I could find in the grocery store in the town I’d go to once every week or ten days, depending on weather and if someone was going to the mainland strand and had room in the currach for me. From the strand I’d either walk the 7 miles to the town or else borrow a bike from the farmer whose fields rose above the sand at Eyrephort. I’d wake up, drink my coffee, and then write in my journal. I’d actually brought a typewriter with me (ah, dedication) and I’d scribble notes towards poems. The scribbles were often very prosaic. Somehow the long cries of the seabirds, the wind coming down my chimney, the quavery notes of the man who played his tin-whistle on the lane, or boreen everyone called it, the familiar moaning of the donkey who lived in my field, somehow these didn’t really lend themselves to tight syllabic lines. I wrote a lot. I was lonely. I had two love affairs with men who didn’t talk much, one on the island and one off it. I had so little money that I ate mostly rice from a five pound bag I bought in Galway, measuring it out by teacups full, and I picked nettles, silverweed, mussels on the rocks below my cottage. I was grateful for the potatoes left on my doorstep, the occasional cabbage.

When I came back to Canada, I was intending to just stay long enough to get my life into order and then I was going to return to the one man who lived off the island. But in the interim, I met the man who became my husband. Before we married, I did go back, for three months, not to the island but to a village not far away. In Canada I’d taken the little prosaic scribbles and tried to fit them together as a series of prose poems. When I showed them to a couple of friends, they said the same thing: Write more, tell the whole story. So during the period I lived in the village, I did that. Not exactly my story. Somehow I wanted to know a couple of things and in the way you can find these out by venturing a little further into the unknown, I tried to find them out. What would have happened if I’d married the fisherman on the island, what would have happened if the beautiful man in the Travellers’ camp who invited me for a drink had led me to a quiet place under the fuchsia? (We had the drink but I didn’t follow him.) And so I wrote, I walked in what the Irish call weather (“Weather, isn’t it?”) and that we might call rain, and at the end of the three months, John arrived and I tucked my pages into my rucksack. Those pages became a novella in due time, my first novella, Inishbream. Because my publishing life has never enjoyed a smooth trajectory, it wasn’t published for nearly 20 years.  Jan and Crispin Elsted at the Barbarian Press printed it in 3 beautiful states, with wood-engravings by the wonderful John DePol, I have the first two states and the third, bound in turbot skins, set in a clamshell box, with little driftwood handles, I have only seen in photographs.

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On days like today, rainy, with Irish music filling the airwaves, I am there again. I am at the table by the window, the one John DePol so beautifully caught—the deep casements, my broom leaning against the mantle, the primroses I’d lifted from under a hedge on my walk back from the town and put into a teacup—, and I am listening. There is wind, the donkey looking out to sea the way he did, moaning, half in love with loneliness, and oh, Miceal on the boreen is playing his tin-whistle.

     It seemed that even the stupid blind wind would subside when Miceal’s bent fingers jigged over the length of the whistle, and instead of its hollow, monotonous tones there’d be the sweet sad airs of the Celtic heart.
     Someone else wanted reels or “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies.” We listened till the cows came home. When it darkened, you could see the frail lights begin to bloom on Bream and Turk and the occasional headlamps of evening cars on the Sky Road. The summer people would drive to the mainland viewpoint and would park, casting their beams over Mannin Bay and out to the islands. They’d see the pale gaslight or candlelight smudging the dark of the archipelago and the long piercing flash of Slyne Head, the keepers over each season attentive to craft warnings and the forecasting of gales. And if they stepped out of their cars, they’d hear the mourning donkeys and the last notes of “The Woman of the House.”


tin whistle

Note: Inishbream was published as a trade edition in 2001 by Goose Lane Editions. I also have a few copies here if you’re interested. (The Barbarian Press editions have been out of print for years though copies do show up at fine press auctions from time to time.)

“…housed in a clamshell box of leather and vellum…”

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proofs

Some mornings you wake to sky cleansed by the rain overnight, crackled clean by thunder and lightning, and just a little mist settled over the trees. The fire is warm. The cat’s been fed. To prolong the peace, you read a few of your favourite blogs, one of them Commatology.com. And wow, this is what you find, the musings of a perfect reader:

http://commatology.com/index.php/2018/10/stepping-into-a-river-of-dream/

The past hour has been spent in that dream. I was 23 when I lived on the island I wrote about in Inishbream. I was 44 when the novella was finally published. I held the narrator close to me those years in-between. She was—is—me, and she isn’t. I began this book as a series of prose poems and the people I showed them to asked for more detail, more connective tissue between the anecdotes and meditative passages. I remember asking myself, Well, what if you…and I won’t confess what I did, because I’m not entirely certain now which parts are purely autobiographical and which were invented. Or imagined.

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this is a terrible photograph but if you click on the Barbarian link, you will see better visuals

When the book was being printed in its private press editions by the Barbarian Press, I’d receive phone calls daily. The Barbarians would want to check a detail, they’d send the proofs, one page at a time, by fax, and I’d know the presses were inked and time was of the essence. I loved everything about the book they created: the magnificent wood engravings by John DePol; the soft papers, the typeface (Eric Gill’s gorgeous Joanna); the bindings (there are 3 states and they’re all bound with different materials, even a special clamshell box of vellum and leather made by Hélène Francouer); and the way the handmade values of this work echoed my own. Echoed the place that inspired the book. Inspired me in so many ways in the life I went on to live. Sometimes I take down my special copy and read it slowly, wondering at the younger self who lived on an island at the very edge of the world, alone.

I was lucky enough to have Goose Lane Editions publish the book as a trade edition two years later. (I think they still have copies available for sale and if they don’t, ask me; I have some here.) I’ve been back to Ireland twice since then, the last time 17 years ago. Leslie at Commatology was just there and it was sweet (and sort of sad) to read what she found and didn’t find.  She writes,

It’s a fictional place, but I locate its real-life cousins off the Connemara coast: Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark. Inish, or Inis, or Ennis, for that matter, all mean island in Irish, and bream are a kind of fish.

She was close. Those are all islands I knew. Mine was near them, yes, and named for a fish, though not bream. Remember what Ishmael said, in Moby Dick? “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” Or they are, but they’re hidden. Mapmakers and writers—we have our reasons.