In the journal's pages, Roberts documented the traumatic experiences of her childhood at home with her parents. Alas, in a fit of late-adolescent angst, she destroyed the journal, and many of the details of the time spent living with an alcoholic father and an enabling mother seemed forever lost to history. It would be another 15 years before she would revisit that troubled past, this time in verse.
While in a poetry-writing workshop Roberts heard her professor at the time, poet Susan Gubernat, recite a Molly Peacock poem, "Say You Love Me," about a drunken father pinning his daughter in a chair and demanding that she tell him that she loves him. It is not an easy poem to read.
His face looked like a ham on a hook above
me--I was pinned to the chair because
he'd hunkered over me with arms like jaws
pried open by the chair arms. "Do you love
me?" he began to sob. "Say you love me!"
I held out....
"That poem opened the floodgates for me. It gave me permission to explore my past with my alcoholic father," said Roberts in a recent interview.
The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who was an inspiration to the young Roberts when she was a fledgling poet working as a waitress in Manhattan in the 1990s, encouraged her to "keep digging for the good turf." The result of that journey is "Little Witness" (Arlen House, 2015), a debut collection of 88 poems. Roberts, who now teaches creative writing at Hofstra University in New York, gives a full accounting of a sad, sorry, and sordid tale of domestic and institutional abuse inflicted on her, her siblings, and many others who were institutionalized in Ireland. "Little Witness" is no fairy tale. These poems are not for the faint of heart.
"I had to revisit the scene of the crime: when I write about my father violently plunging my mother's head up and down in the Grand Canal (Trimble's Bridge), I'm back there as an eight-year-old child, under that bridge, quaking in my wellingtons; when I write about my five-year-old self being awakened from sleep in the orphanage by the screams of two girls' beating by a nun for smoking, I can hear those piercing screams, I can hear my heart pounding in my ears; when I write about being betrayed in adolescence by an adult I'd grown to love and trust (Sexual Abuse: One), my body grows numb." Turn the page in this collection and you will wince in horror at the merciless and relentless beatings inflicted on mother and child alike. Pick a page, pick a poem, and you will witness unspeakable brutality and cruelty. The poem "Seeing" is but one example.
Visibly shaken each time, my mother
would recount my temporary blindness,
how during a drunken rampage, my father
switched his attention from her to the screeching
toddler in the room, punishing its head on
the flagstone floor, how it went silent, turned purple.
Equally graphic is the title poem Little Witness.
"When you witness your father picking up a baby from its cot, holding upside down by the ankles and beating it, that image stays with you for a lifetime. Yes, it's raw. That six-line poem is meant to pack a punch; to mimic the abuse," said Roberts.
The poem was recently featured along with the works of other poets in an art exhibit to complement various artworks inspired by suffering, including World War II, Hurricane Katrina, and the Holocaust. Roberts recalled the negative reaction of one visitor to the poem.
"She was clearly upset by the image of a father abusing his child. I held off telling her I wrote the poem for a while as I was curious to hear what she had to say. Afterwards, I explained why I had chosen the poem to complement a large oil painting of Hitler and Stalin: tyrants are not found only in wars with the capital Ws--they also exist in everyday lowercase wars in people's homes. I don't set out to shock my reader with the things I write about. This is my truth. It mightn't be everybody's cup of tea," added Roberts."
The litany of abuses are as long as the decades of the Rosary. Indeed prayer and religion, which were supposed to provide succor and relief, permeate these pages in a sickening and twisted fashion, offering little if any comfort, as though taunting the victims. Whether it's her father or the nuns at Mount Carmel, the poet has little tolerance for their piety. (Litany)
Take your rosaries, your scapulars, your novenas,
your miraculous medals, your statues, your bible,
your bottle of Lourdes' holy water, your confessions
and absolutions and build a bonfire out of them....
...They are nothing
but conspirators in your swath of destruction.
Still amid the horror that is documented in these pages, Roberts also takes the time to remember some happy, albeit fleeting moments, such as when she indulges in eating an orange in bed late one night in her dormitory ("Quiet Time"), pouring kettles of water on the yard in winter to make an "ice-skating rink," eating potfuls of mashed potatoes with salt and butter or just sitting in the grass in summertime, eating bread and jam sandwiches and drinking milky tea from a big pot-bellied teapot, and singing what Roberts called "orphanage songs" at the top of their lungs on the swings outside the Cloister.
Mammy, Daddy, take me home
Out of this convent I must roam,
I've been here a year or two,
Now I want to be with you.
That some of these happy memories revolved around food only heightens the reader's awareness that young Connie Roberts, her siblings, and the other children in Mount Carmel were lacking in nurture and always craved the love and attention from the adults in their lives. The longing is palpable and often ended in heartbreaking disappointment ("Three Sheets").
I wrote letters to Daddy
from the orphanage, begging him
not to beat Mammy, to stay off
the drink. Once I sent him a lock
of my straw-coloured hair.
He wrote letters back to me
in the orphanage, vowing
not to beat Mammy, promising
to take the 'pledge'. Once, he wrote it
on a Guinness bar mat.
Roberts initially considered publishing "Little Witness" in 2010 after she won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, but she hesitated, feeling something was missing from the collection. What was missing were the experiences of others who, like her, were institutionalized and suffered terribly as a result. Thus a quarter of the collection is dedicated to the memory of strangers who were far less fortunate than her.
None is perhaps more wrenching than the poem "Letterfrack Man," which is in memory of Peter Tyrrell who self-immolated in a London park in 1967 to draw attention to the abuses he suffered while in the care of the Christian Brothers in Letterfrack Industrial School in Galway, Ireland.
One day I will go to Hampstead heath
to read his postscript, written in
oily black ash that Friday in April.
In that hollowed ground
where they found him,
his last meal, a pint and a take-away,
his overcoat melted to the bone,
I will stand a long time;
weep that it took so long for his
match to spark a revolution.
Another poem, "Mosaic," pays homage to Grace Farrel, a fledgling artist (and a childhood friend of this writer in Saint Vincent's Children's Home in Drogheda, County Louth,) who fell on hard times as a result of a life blighted by alcohol and loneliness, and died homeless on a few sheets of cardboard in the alcove of St. Brigid's Catholic Church on Avenue B in the East Village on a cold February night in 2011. Roberts writes:
Dead to the world in Alphabet City,
on a cardboard-scattered bed in a drafty
alcove of a famine church. Earlier:
panhandling on Houston...
The irascible wind buffaloing in off the river
shakes her awake. Drawing the coarse blanket around
her whippet-thin bones, she folds her arms
into an X across her chest, pulls her frozen feet
up under her. Why she can't go home is anybody's guess.
In a 2006 interview with RTE, Seamus Heaney said this of poetry.
"Verse is different from prose. It's got more of a dance movement in it. Poetry calls to a listening part of the other person. It also fortifies your inwardness...that's what all art does."
"Little Witness" is a collection of fragments of a poet's life. The poems have allowed her to name the monsters, to share the pain, to forgive and to bear witness to her life's experiences, as well as those of others who lived in institutions all across Ireland and where unspeakable cruelty reigned.
Just as a pearl takes months to form in an oyster or mussel shell, these poems took years to mature in the poet's head. But when they came out in verse, they spoke loud and clear. Roberts did not set out to shock her reader, but rather to give voice to the voiceless, to ask the reader to listen to that voice and respond accordingly. As readers we have the opportunity to embrace Ireland's checkered past when it comes to its children and come to terms with it, and in so doing, we have the chance to build a new culture out of our collective autobiography. Roberts has taken a courageous first step and for this we should be grateful.
* Emmanuel Touhey is a Washington-based writer and journalist.