Writing the Ruin:____________
Three years ago, I sat at a very long table in a very small room—the kind of table and room that typify an English grad student’s existence—and learned for the first time of the lost years and grievous experiences of a host of Irishwomen branded as "fallen." The subject was addressed only briefly, in a discussion of Patricia Burke Brogan’s ground-breaking playEclipsed, but it rankled all the right parts of me: the woman, the poet, the individual who had come into self-presence while living in the West of Ireland... I could not stop thinking, what a petrifying term: "fallen woman." It renders femininity so precarious—the stuff of verdict and differential instead of mutual experience. I must dive into this; there’s an important poem here. Famous last words...
"Men didn’t mean a thing to me. I’d been in an orphanage from the age of two. They put me in the Magdalen home for nothing. I had done nothing wrong."Like a firestorm, the way it blooms
red and pouring:
something about it
blushy sepal blades apiece,
is also that sense
do you know yourself
should one do,
anther, stigma, style—
you know yourself
go, you may overrun
loose and ever-new, your bloom,
us have the management
strictures of defense
every county, you will
of loveliness and the pull
impressionist has rendered a girl lake-gazing
I am ahead of myself, jumbling the sequence
shy or frightened, Niamh offers her room to show
first impression is of sentinels—or perhaps, welcome.
walls differ from her friend’s, no cut-outs (Mother
shake through seascapes the colors of a first party dress.
model in the photoclock has not been tossed. The old
maps the space, touching things: duvet here, lamp
into music, she divulges suddenly, waving off
is a calming of time, a sargassoing, here in this room.
submerges into gaze.
can’t like the risk of reducing this place
No, I won’t be wanting it. I won’t read it: it’s too thick.
thick a prettiness: all painting and spine and vernal miss.
she see how the soft parts of lake indicate depths
This move must be the most delicate, this take.
in the wide bloom of iris, the mystery of her gaze, I see
extent, the maturation of this unfathomed
still life can sometimes be enough.
to a Girl on Leaving Home
then, miss, it’s fixed.
been feeding the nuns.
business of wanting
the heart-break blood-
him with the hot eye for Boston.
could you, my girl,
matter. Done now and
forty and not the full
to care if his neighbors do
turning into Magdalen asylum for you, chick.
if you’re after thinking, He’s half-
come from a rough place
how much better wed-
one down the village likes
wife" remakes you martyred
rail so, intent to beat
of root and wing—
broken dream. My own: I wished
pulse, the shudder of wind?
surge of sun...But I can’t abide you
Time-riddled, what line now remits
of its first syllable, the ache of its second
II: Death of a Maiden
rose and rose from me, rapid and clear
The girl with the cracker-jack
sight of life’s big come-on in medias res
is writing this?) of a body dawning
scripted this as an end more proper
body bears the story like a page
Rachel Dilworth has recently completed a manuscript of poetry that explores the complex history of Ireland’s “Magdalen laundries.” She has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Ireland, Yale University’s Frederick M. Clapp Fellowship for poetry, Yale’s Francis Bergen Memorial Prize, the Academy of American Poets Celeste Turner Wright Prize, and a Breadloaf Writers Conference Waiter Scholarship. Poems of hers are forthcoming in TriQuarterly and the book LifePlace and have appeared previously in Ekphrasis and the Putah-Cache bioregion series.
By Rachel Dilworth
The story which I encountered in that frowzy little room, and which was to become the focus of my artistic life for some time, was the highly complex and disturbing one of Ireland’s “Magdalen Laundries.” The laundries, also called Magdalen “asylums” or “homes,” were nineteenth- and twentieth-century residential institutions run by the Catholic Church (and a number of Protestant philanthropists) for the “care” and containment of supposedly wayward women. The term “Magdalen laundry” referred to both the conceptual and the practical nature of the homes, emphasizing the symbolism of Mary Magdalen—Christianity’s exemplar of female repentance and redemption—as well as the industrial-style laundry work that the women were required to perform. The first Magdalen asylums of the 1800s were smallish ventures offering prostitutes, expectant or post-pregnancy single mothers, and “compromised” girls the option of temporary refuge and moral “rehabilitation.” Over time, however, and alongside shifts in the structure of Irish society, government, and religious orders, the nature of the institutions changed dramatically.
By the middle years of the Twentieth Century, the character of the convent-run Magdalen asylum seems to have shifted from that of voluntarily-entered refuge to stark penitentiary. Institutions housed as many as 150 to 200 inmates at a time, behind locked doors. An extensive catalogue of women classed as morally deviant or socially undesirable were deposited in the homes by town priests, family members, nuns, and employers. These women included a major subset of unwed mothers, as well as girls considered “at risk” of becoming sexually active due to good looks or poor discipline, women with mild mental handicaps, victims of incest and rape, epileptics, alcoholics, and others seen as either vulnerable or “bad.”
Individuals were held without legal mandate for years at a time, and led lives of repentant prayer and arduous manual labor. Many young women became so institutionalized that they were unable to live “outside,” even if eventually allowed to leave. Others became so frightened of men, so scarred by a lack of normal social relationships, that they lived permanently damaged lives. Still others were victimized in the asylums by clergymen or van drivers.
The story of the Magdalen institutions is a staggeringly complicated one. Much certainly can be, and has been, said about massive control and improper conduct on the part of the Church; however, most women came to these institutions already rejected by their families, their lovers, or their communities. To truly consider the history of what happened to thousands of Irish women and why, one must squarely examine not only the authority of the Church, but the role of social mores and behaviors, attitudes about female sexuality and who bears the responsibility for sexual conduct, education (or the lack thereof) about sexuality, the mythologies of the feminine in both the Irish and the Christian mind, communal attitudes toward silence and toward the marginalization of the other, and so on. But what does all of this have to do with poetry?
I learned only the barest bones of the preceding information on that evening years ago, and yet immediately, I found the “Magdalen” story scalding those raw, breathless regions of self that are the province of poems. The more I puzzled the history of these marginalized women, the more its dimensions seemed to me to parallel the dimensions of poetry. The story was a negotiation, even an argument, between voice and silence—or, the said and the tautly held back—individual and collective reality, perceived and unassailable truth, physical and conceptual place, idea and event. And it was muscled with such sinews of emotion, psychological ramification, historical and cultural circumstance, and gender-sensitive experience... Truly, it was the stuff of the poems we all want to write: the poems that matter.
Might it not be of unique benefit, I wondered, to use the complex capabilities of poetry to explore such a complex—and extremely sensitive—subject? Moreover, to use the forum of a whole volume to bring diverse elements of, and perspectives on, the issue into dialogue, thereby creating a more encompassing overview? Might it not be rewarding to explore the freedom offered by a collection format to highlight not only the direct but the indirect story (attitudes, cultural truisms, core concepts such as institutionalization, etc.)? Idea bloomed into prospectus and before I knew it, I was flying to Dublin to begin a Fulbright Fellowship year of intensive research and creative production.
From its inception, this project pushed and tugged and prodded at my understanding of what belongs in poems, how to find it, how to put it there, and why—what it means to be a poet “in the world.” Never before had I let poetry be a matter of such extraordinary range, such fervent investigation...never had I let it be so wholly about casting beyond my own reach into the distinct humanity of others, or about finding the far parts of me where “the other” ranges like wind.
With this project, writing poetry became not merely a matter of observation or experience or rumination, but of vigorous multidimensional research—of literally seeking out the truth of things. Poems no longer grew mainly out of my own riddled interior, but out of sources: first-hand interviews with former “Magdalens” and members of religious orders, visits to care facilities, the language of nineteenth-century materials in the National Library, film documentaries, secondary history and social science texts, newspaper articles, autobiographies, visits to defunct laundry buildings or Magdalen gravesites, and so on. As a result, I often found myself writing poems that didn’t sound to me like poems at all; and I struggled constantly with a tension between the urge to inform—to outright tell—and the need to craft beautiful, engaging poetry. But in time, amidst all that tension, new places began to burst open: new kinds of beauty, new dimensions of information, new ways to write.
The research, the reaching out that this manuscript entailed also became an extraordinary education for me in “the place” that poetry occupies, or can occupy, in the world at large. The story of the laundries encompasses individual and collective histories that are highly sensitive. Much of my time in Ireland was spent, therefore, running into walls. Irish on all sides of the issue were tired of having difficult aspects of their lives poked and peered at and sensationalized. And they had even less interest in a foreigner swooping in to poke and peer. But somehow, blessedly, the walls that being an American researching such a disturbing phenomenon put up, being a poet eventually took down. There was something about the yield, the access, or the goal of poetry that people trusted. I think their reasoning was something like this: while individuals can all-too-easily betray or strong-arm the truth, poems really can’t. Truth is the very stuff of poetry; moreover, the form inherently acknowledges the importance of facets and of personal interpretation. And at the end of the day, a poem built of weak things—the dust of the sensational or the ill-considered—just falls apart, devoid of real power.
As a citizen of a country that tends to marginalize poetry as inconsequential, I was staggered by the faith that the form engendered abroad. It was the fact that I was a poet that led the sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge, the order that ran the largest Magdalen asylum in Ireland (and fired huge controversy with the exhumation of over a hundred “Magdalens” in conjunction with the sale of land) to introduce me to a number of former residents of “St. Mary’s” who remain in care—mainly women who would have difficulty living independently. (This very affecting experience became the impetus for the poem “The Glass Lake,” which appears here.) It was being a poet that offered me the friendship of two women who had been incarcerated in the Good Shepherd Magdalen Laundry in Cork as virgin girls—their whole lives altered by the sexual paranoia of others. It was the fact that I was a poet which spurred the daughter of a woman who died in a Magdalen asylum (hemorrhaging from an abortion obtained on the streets) to invite me into her home and weep to me of her mother’s life of childhood incest, troubled marriage, rape, inability to parent, prostitution, and early death in an institution.
Never before this work did I understand that being a poet could mean so much responsibility, frustration, intimacy, extraordinary experience, connection, challenge, fear... Never before did I truly understand that being a poet could mean, quite simply, so much.