KERRI NÍ DOCHARTAIGH’S LATEST BOOK, Cacophony of Bone, documents her time in a remote cottage in the middle of Ireland over the course of a year, from winter solstice 2019 to winter solstice 2020. During that year, she grows her first garden, tackles grief and sadness, rides out the pandemic, and revels in the light of the countryside. She also becomes pregnant with a child she never thought she’d be able to have. Structured as a series of poems, journal entries, short essays, and lists, she explores what it means to live life to the fullest, to be open to the world. To let the world move you, one book, gift, or landscape at a time.
I spoke to Kerri during the shortening days of autumn in the month before Milkweed Press would publish her book.
Sarah Boon: You talk about your one-room cottage. Does this mean everything–sleeping, cooking, woodstove, etc. is all in one room? Or was there a separate bedroom?
Kerri ní Dochartaigh: There was a separate bedroom but all else was in one room as is the way of stone cottages here in Ireland. The walk from bed to the only door was five steps. It was smaller than many live-a-board boats! Cozy!
SB: How long did you live in that cottage? Eighteen months?
KD: We were there 23 months, then moved for a spell to Cornwall, then moved back there while we sold up to move to the west of Ireland so in total we lived in that wee cottage for 2.5 years.
SB: Can you describe what it was like to land in a cottage in the middle of nowhere at the winter solstice?
Listen to Kerri read from her previous book Thin Places here.
KD: What a beautiful and heartfelt question. It was an experience quite unlike any I have had before if I’m honest. Like I describe in the book, we arrived during wild weather, amidst vast unease politically on the island of Ireland, and as the climate emergency reached a whole new low. When I’m teaching climate emergency I speak with students about 2019 and what that exact year meant for this planet. It felt important and transformative in many ways to arrive at a small dwelling in the heart of a small island on the outer edges of Europe amidst such sorrow and anxiety. For it to be the solstice felt exactly how much of the following year felt: vast, folkloric, touched by all things unknown and full of the ongoingness of being alive.
SB: Cacophony is a mix of journal entries, mini-essays, poetry, and lists. How did you decide on this structure to hold the shape of your book?
KD: I had started Cacophony before we locked down as I explore in the book and very early into the writing as the reality of the pandemic began to make itself known, I realized that everything I had once taken as necessary for a book needed to change. There had just been so much suffering and pain, and it was ongoing of course, at that time, what with the losses experienced, coupled with the ecogrief, the brutality being inflicted on our Black communities across the globe, and more. People had undergone such transformation, our reading habits had been altered beyond compare, we did not feel safe (because we were not being kept safe), and I held this close as I wrote. The book was asking me so clearly to allow it to be what it needed; which was a safe place. First and foremost, I wanted to prioritize safety. This might seem odd when we speak of a text but this really matters to me.
Through publishing Thin Places I learned a lot about trauma, triggering, and the importance of the impact the book has on its readers. I wanted my second book to hold readers in a whole new way, one more representative of how I myself would hold them, say, at an event or in a room by their side. So, I worked with breath, rhythm, white space, and authorial voice. I hoped to create an intimate, welcoming and safe space through this book; one in which the lived experiences of readers would be held respectfully and with love. I am still learning and I am still human and this work is the work of reparation and tenderness. I carry it with me and pick up where I left off, ever being nourished by the many thinkers and feelers who through their art have allowed mine to come into being.
SB: Throughout the book we get a sense that you’re very open to the world, that you have a thin skin into which the world seeps, whether that’s nature or books, or gifts from friends. You are often weeping either from the beauty of something, or in grief at a particular loss. “The older I get, the less able I am to stop the tears.” How do you maintain that openness in a world of both small and large hurts? Or is grief just something you take in stride as part of living an open and loving life?
KD: This is such an incredible question. I see this question as a gift.
Right now, I am putting all of my heart, soul, mind and body into my relationship with grief. With the heartbreak that is part of being a being in this world at this moment in time. I feel this grief and heartbreak is a call to action and as a way in which we may move towards the work of reparation and back into deep and lasting one-another-ness. This one-another-ness is a phrase my friend the poet Victoria Aduki Bulley spoke of in an essay on the garden and the end of the world, in the collection In the Garden. The phrase, as well as Bulley’s work generally, has delivered such solace to me these last years. What does it mean to enter into this one-another-ness with all beings? How do we get there? I am sure grief is one of the vehicles. I am confident heartbreak cracks things open in ways that make the journey there easier; brighter. This is not to condone or uphold suffering, rather it is a telling of my own relationship with it; with the power of grief, the wisdom of heartbreak.
I am thinking just now with people like bell hooks, Christina Sharpe, Lola Olufemi, and Gargi Bhattacharyya. Each in their way pays tribute to the role of art in a broken, bruised, beautiful world. Bhattacharyya in her outstanding work with the wonderful Hajar Press—We the Heartbroken writes: ‘In the world we are dreaming and making, there is no me and you, there is only us. Just us forever. And it feels like nothing on earth. Nothing on earth yet.’
That ‘YET’ remains one of the most important words I have ever read.
What does it mean to enter into this one-another-ness with all beings? How do we get there? I am sure grief is one of the vehicles.
SB: You often mention the light. The light in the cottage, the light over the lane you walk with the dog, “the light the light the light.” What draws you to the light? What’s your favorite light? Mine is the syrupy golden light of autumn near the equinox, which pools around the yellow, orange, and red leaves the maples have scattered on the ground.
KD: For me, every layer of my being is drawn to light and always has been. This book, before it shapeshifted into its current state, was purely and simply a meditation on light. On the way it holds, heals and shatters us; on how it weaves us back together again. I am partial to winter light, the kind that falls on crows and on swans alike. The kind that reminds us what it means to dream, to fly, to love, to live, to forgive. Perhaps I still will write that other book, or perhaps every thing I ever write might be an ode to light.
SB: As readers, we experience your brimming optimism of bringing a child into the world, the sense of awe that you feel as your child moves and grows in your belly. When you and your partner talked about having a child, you mentioned that you’d never talked about it previously. What triggered this vital conversation, and can you expand on what that conversation entailed?
KD: Oh, that conversation, the biggest but smallest of my life. It sounds clichéd I suppose but that conversation happened because of what we were all living through. It was a pandemic conversation. We had moved to the cottage so I might grieve the children I had not brought into being. Somehow the time spent there moulded that grief. When I began to feel unburdened by those unborn beings, my partner began to feel there might be ways to explore other options. And so, it happened in such an ordinary but beautiful way. Because of the changes in our circumstances we qualified, potentially, for some help with trying for a baby and so the conversation came after a day together in the garden. A day spent clearing room for new growth, at a time so touched by loss. To sit together and speak of the possibility of growing a baby together, no matter what did or did not come along for us, was the turning point of my life. It was a vital stage for my healing in myriad ways.
SB: One of the things you’re interested in is the idea of circles and spirals in life and in nature, rather than straight lines. Yet the book is written in a straight line (day-by-day) and in a circle (from one solstice to another). How do you reconcile the two?
KD: I think this really depends on to your view of days, right? I don’t view days, so therefore day by day, as being in a straight line. Time just does not exist for me in that way; never has. My relationship with time also changed hugely during the pandemic. Grief changes how time works, as does falling in love; so, motherhood as a combination of these two has changed time for me in many interesting and arresting ways. I’m really thinking with the breadth of writing that explores maternal time at the moment; from Classical Greek texts, through Irish mythology, to incomparable works by contemporary writers like Denise Riley and Olga Ravn who speak truth to the fullness of caregiving and loss. Such spanning of work on time over eras for me epitomizes what I am trying to unravel with time; its universality even when it feels it could be nothing other than individual. In this respect perhaps time is a triangle, too, somehow.
I am partial to winter light, the kind that falls on crows and on swans alike. The kind that reminds us what it means to dream, to fly, to love, to live, to forgive.
SB: You write: “I am hungry for accounts of time experienced by women.” You also write: “(Time; you funny, unsettling creature.)” Tell me more about your obsession with time, and how it might differ for women than for men.
KD: Time holds so much doesn’t it? My relationship with it as a woman continues to widen and widen, for which I am very grateful. I am learning so much from writers who share their experience with CRIP time, queer time, time within the brutality of colonial violence, time spent entrenched in poverty and more. Time means so much when it comes to ecologies of care.
SB: You write: “This garden is the making of me, / and don’t I know it.” You also write: “I have no idea what to do in a garden… If I’m truly honest, I was terrified.” Can you expand on what that garden meant to you, the first garden you’d ever planted?
KD: I have realized as I work on my third book just how central that garden was in my healing. I well up even trying to talk about it, still, almost a year since I left it. I think I will never really leave it though, places that mean much to us find ways to travel with us. We carry them, in ways similar to how they carry us. I am confident that garden made me a mother, and continues to make me one no matter how far from it I may be.
Read Sarah’s conversation with Melissa Sevigny here.
SB: You do a lot of wild swimming, like Roger Deakin in Waterlog. Why is it so important to you, and what do you take away from it?
KD: Swimming is an increasingly difficult thing for me to write about as, like breathing, walking, and maybe writing—it feels such an integral part of being alive that any attempt to write it feels shallow. The sea is the original mother, and in returning to her, she returns me to myself over and over.
SB: I loved reading your inner thoughts in each journal entry. I felt like I was there with you, drawn into the experiences you shared on the page. They made me think of Montana’s Poet Laureate, Chris LaTray, who writes one sentence a day and shares them on Substack. Was it difficult to go back over your journals from that time in the cottage as you put Cacophony together? Did you miss that life or just see it as just another life stage?
KD: I see this also as a question about time, and as such I suppose what I feel is that I never really left that life. Like the garden; I carry it with me. I am still being nourished by those years. That place still delivers solace to me. I hope it always does.
SB: What were you working on during your time at the cottage? You mention several times the work that went into finishing off Thin Places, but you also note “I am not really sure, most days, what it is that I should be doing.”
KD: I worked more during the lockdown years than I had in my entire life, which was kind of wild given that almost everyone else I knew finally felt able to breathe out and relax. I was editing Thin Places, my first book, ahead of its British publication, which was heavy going given its content and the trauma of the continued excavation of pain. I worked on lots of commissions about place, and started my work as a creative writing teacher online and a mentor too during the lockdowns, as well as really working on my craft as a reviewer too. I hold that time as a fertile moment for me as a writer.
SB: Do you see the time at the cottage as your pandemic years? Was it hard to isolate for the pandemic or easy because you already lived in such an isolated place?
KD: I have worked really hard at reframing how I view my time at that cottage as for so long it was tinged by grief, anxiety, and heartbreak. Estrangement, the sorrow of the pandemic, a pandemic pregnancy and birth and the peripartum depression that came along with that. However, my life changed in innumerable ways during my time there, in beautiful and humbling manners and I have learned now the importance of honouring the multiplicity of existence. No moment lasts forever. We are ever held by the flow of this act of being; this dance that is the gift of existence. I am so grateful for my time there and all it continues to mean for my life.
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