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Voices torn from the roots
on Sinead O'Connor, and the seeds of women who live by their words
When I recently returned from Amherst, spending a week thinking about Emily Dickinson’s home and her work, I felt like I understood more of why she didn’t want to publish or have her work set in print. I had thought I understood it before—the way that they’d advertise (you know)—add titles, punctuation, remove dashes, slant rhyme. Sanitize and compact it into what Victorian editors and ethos considered “Poetry.”
It was definitely all part of that—but it was also that she already had readers who understood her genius as it was—pulled up from the roots with rain and dew and earth still clinging to its stems. Readers who could recognize, if not always understand, her refusal to separate the earth from the body of her poems that made them so glittering, shining with raw feeling and vulnerability. She had readers who knew—her friend and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, abolitionist and Atlantic editor Thomas W. Higginson, her Irish maid Margaret (Maggie) Maher, and even girlhood friend and writer Helen Hunt Jackson, for instance, among many other correspondents of her letters.
And really, perhaps that’s all any writer needs—to be read, to connect with readers and writers who understand. Her fame was a local one, able to stand outside of what was expected of a writer in order to make—and importantly, keep—a space of her own. With the help and support of others, she was able to stay who she was without the chase of a more public fame.
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of fame again as we learned of Sinead O’Connor’s death—of what a public life really is, when it means becoming an object to be possessed by others, for an admiring bog to dissect and interrogate.
O’Connor, like Dickinson, refused the socially accepted script. She shaved her head when her label wanted to feminize and sexualize her (a twenty-year old woman who was pregnant during the recording of her first album). Her label pressed her to get an abortion, and she refused. She sang and wrote with an unapologetic fierceness that women aren’t supposed to show—especially not a young Irish woman who was raised Catholic in what was, as she called it, essentially a theocracy. She protested and called out the injustice of abuse before anyone was ready to hear it.
When she sang Bob Marley’s War alone on stage in a white dress, ending it by saying fight the real enemy, as she ripped up her abusive mother’s adored picture of the pope live on SNL, she was a woman, a survivor of child abuse, a mother of a young son, who claimed her anger in public. She was met with threats of violence, becoming the brunt of public ire and ridicule for making such a statement. She was booed off stages and had eggs thrown at her, her cds plowed with a steamroller on television by angry men. She later said that this rupture with fame didn’t stop her, it reset her life:
It was the proudest thing I’ve ever done as an artist…They broke my heart and they killed me, but I didn’t die. They tried to bury me. They didn’t realize I was a seed.
Sinead O’Connor’s music brought back, in her voice, the pathos of the Irish caoineadh—literally the crying. The keening cry of grief, despair, and anger at the death of a loved one. Like the anguished cries of labor as a woman brings forth new life from her body, Irish women also once led communities in grief, mending the seam of rupture between the dead and the living with their voices.1 The keen was a wailing poem, raw with emotion, merging memory and improvisation, ushering the deceased to the underworld. Based not on a written text, but on the memory and creation of a woman’s words, skill, experience, and voice.
…the ideal keener or bean chaointe [was] a woman who is barefoot and disheveled. Her hair is loose, her clothes may be torn and she travels across the country not on roads which have been imposed on the landscape by the community.’ In fact, in her poetry she reclaims nature as a witness to the chaos imposed by death, saying for example that ‘the birds have fallen silent’ (Bourke 1998: 287). She is imbued with a kind of holy madness and often drinks the blood of the deceased to align herself with [the dead] rather than the continuing life of the community. …keeners in this state of divine madness are indicative of people in transition, or outside the normal structure of society, a state necessary for the bean chaointe to escort the souls of the dead to the other world.2
Efforts to banish keening began in earnest during the 17th century under English Imperial rule and Roman Catholicism.3 Keening was done in the Irish language, by women—both aspects which flew in opposition to colonizing powers. Only Priests could officiate over the dead. Women who keened their grief, anger, despair were banished, whipped, and ridiculed—in some cases as recently as the early twentieth century. Keening later came to stand as an emblem, of lost traditions of Celtic and Irish cultures, either romanticized or derided as a representation of all that was base and uncultured before the civilizing influences of colonization and the church.
But keening didn’t vanish, it moved out of ritual into art. It arose in laments for those who emigrated out of Ireland, mourned by those who remained, as their loved ones crossed oceans to lands they would never see.
And it later emerged in Sinead O’Connor’s incredible words and voice, unwilling to be silenced. It’s that rawness in her voice, her quick switch between scales in a breaking voice as she sang, between the whisper of a lullaby and the shrieks of rage. You can hear it all in her voice. The breaking, the fierce conviction, the soaring vulnerability, unafraid to be soaked with feeling, despair, anger.
I loved Sinead for her fierceness. When I first heard her song Jackie I was entranced—a feeling that never left as I listened to the rest of that stunning first album. Such fierce beauty in that voice, like nothing I had ever heard before. How much pathos was being wrung from me as I listened, the anger and protest I hardly yet knew was also a part of me, wanting to join in the keening.
Her voice, her words, her songs of catharsis and protest, invokes us all to step outside of the roads that society has imposed. To notice and feel the ground on our bare feet, wind on bare skin, to move beyond caricatures of gender, pop star, performance. For anger to be embodied, woven through the voices of grieving, raging women through ages, bringing the wails, howls, and keens—which were so often remarked upon in any review of her music—into the light. To say the thing out loud that everyone pretended didn’t exist. The Emperor’s New Clothes. She, like Cassandra and so many women before her, was ridiculed for speaking truth. And ignored when that truth was later stunningly revealed by others.
But now, everyone is sorry, with testaments to being so ahead of her time—my favorite awful epithet for brilliant women. She wasn’t ahead, she just saw truth and tried to live by it in a world that refused to see, honor, or seek justice for those truths. A world that in the end made it impossible for her more often than not. But now that she has passed on, society rushes in to make her our saint. When truth-seekers like Sinead O’Connor are dead we can adore them and claim sheepishly how ahead of their time they really were. But never in life.
…saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history and we resent that. We need history to remain ordinary. We need to be able to call saints neurotic, anorectic, pathological, sexually repressed or fake. These judgments sanctify our own survival.4
O’Connor sang a traditional 17th c. anonymous poem over a sampled James Brown beat in I am Stretched on your Grave—a poem that came from a time of colonization and empire. Not unlike the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, one of the most well-known and lauded lament poems from Ireland, written a century later. It is a poem-song of a grieving woman’s anger, where in the haunting book A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa writes that
Through the darkness of grief, [Eibhlín’s] rage is a lucifer match, struck and sparking.5
Like Anna Akhmatova’s poems, memorized by friends under threat of Stalin, Ní Ghríofa writes of Eibhlín’s caoineadh for her husband:
A body holds so much beyond the visible. Before it was ever transcribed or translated, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire was preserved in oral folklore, reverberating through a succession of female bodies, from female mouth to female ear, over years and years and years.6
Ní Ghríofa goes on to write of lament traditions like the caoineadh that
…literature composed by women was stored not in books but in female bodies, living repositories of poetry and song…The Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration…7
I thought of this as I listened again to O’Connor’s incredible voice and the many women she has inspired—and of the circle of women friends, particularly, who kept Emily Dickinson’s poems alive in manuscripts and letters, both as she lived but especially, after she died. Such creations of feeling in women, carried by women, that refused the trajectory demanded for a public life.
I am Stretched on your Grave—old poetic forms overlaid on sampled beats. It’s not dissimilar to what Dickinson did in her poetry, overlaying slant rhyme and dashes on traditional hymn meter while considering carriage rides with death, or refusing a god that demands a severance from the natural world—the place where Dickinson already knew the divine to exist. Older forms made new, brought into the air with the soil of the earth still clinging, to refuse a world that demands that people remain in prescribed cages. Both women’s work sought the expansiveness to be found outside the cage’s edges.
Dickinson refused to meet visitors to her house if she wasn’t in the mood to socialize. When she overheard women on a social visit in the parlor below her room, who only talked of shallow things, she rhetorically asked her niece, who is hemmed in? She didn’t believe in the fake niceties of small talk and obligatory social visits that etiquette dictated. Had she had a formal stage, she too would have shocked the world, as she already shocked her neighbors, by turning her back to the crowd.wrote a beautiful essay the morning after O’Connor’s death, writing of how the act of writing, singing, creating takes immense strength and vulnerability, and how damaging the machinery of fame can be—the marketing and publicity in order to be read, heard, and thus sustain the ability to create in a capitalist world. How mentally exhausting and traumatic it truly can be. What it requires for those who speak truth to try and conform to a public world and the cages it seeks to put us in—genres, topics, titles, interviews about a work that took enormous vulnerability and strength to create in the first place.
I had written about that idea when I was in Emily Dickinson’s room, thinking about her writing life, the life of her poems, and how damaging publishing would have been then, and especially now, for someone like her, with what is required of authors who publish with any hope for a public success. May’s essay after O’Connor’s death reminded me of that yet again.
Fame is a tricky thing—where what you create means not only that your creation becomes an object to dissect, but your identity gets wrapped into that objectification—a public that demands to know the fine details of her life—especially but not only if she is a woman—in order to make sense of someone who stood outside the norms she was supposed to follow. Dickinson knew this, and O’Connor knew this all too well.
Sinead O’Connor was 56 years old—the same age as Emily Dickinson when she died. And as soon as their souls left for the other world, their lives and words became objects less for ridicule and questioning, but for wonder, adulation. Yet of course there was only gossip and ridicule when they demanded a life of the truth they knew they needed to create.
Higginson famously told Dickinson after she first sent her poems to him that her verse was “spasmodic" and “uncontrolled,” and that she should “wait to publish,” to which she replied that the idea of publishing is as “foreign to her as firmament to fin.” Music producers told O’Connor that her second album—which skyrocketed her to fame despite being more subdued than her first debut—was too wildly personal to produce.8
Both O’Connor and Dickinson worked to sustain art that were acts of refusal to the expected and staid—acts of refusal towards a world that would proscribe so much of what a woman or a truth teller is allowed to be.
Dickinson rather famously requested that her Irish immigrant servants—families that had been entwined with the Dickinson family for decades—be her only pall bearers. They carried her coffin out the servant entrance or back door, and walked the most unused path to the burial ground—something that in Irish tradition is thought to assuage the spirits of the dead.
I think of both women and wonder at the bright fire they brought into a wider world that remained defiantly, derisively unreceptive to hearing them, really, until their death. How quickly we want to sanctify the odd, the errant, the ones who defy social norms once they are no longer part of our world. The ones who have no other Troy to burn, and are unafraid of the fiery white heat—so long as it is always truth. As Susan Sontag wrote in her journals9:
Mad people = people who stand alone + burn. I’m attracted to them because they give me permission to do the same.
I feel such immense gratitude for the permission that women like Dickinson and O’Connor have given us, particularly for the lives of women—gratitude for their conviction in refusing social demands, to create art that was not so much about performance but about seeking raw truths. For showing that there are other ways to live than accepting what is handed to us.
Women who stood alone and burned. That in the rawness of poems and songs torn up from the roots, they remind us that we are all of the same earth.
Lysaght, Patricia. 1997. "Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp": The Lament for the Dead in Ireland. Folklore, Vol. 108, pp. 65-82
Ó Coileáin, Sean. 1988. “The Irish Lament: An Oral Genre.” Studia Hibernica, No. 24, pp. 97-117
Ní Ghríofa, Doireann. 2020. A Ghost in the Throat. Tramp Press. p. 19
Ibid. p. 37
Ibid. p. 74
So similar to how Joni Mitchell’s album Blue was first reviewed—a woman writing about herself, the personal and the political, always seems to elicit some kind of shock. Of course it’s now considered one of the best albums ever recorded.