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Woman of Winter is a version of the ‘Lament of the Hag of Beare’ from the 9th century Irish. In her Introduction Vona Groarke recognizes the original as ‘deeply engaged with how the world is to be experienced through the body and, specifically, through the body of a woman whose social standing has been compromised as she has aged’. Woman of Winter draws on contemporary experience of the ageing female body, its desires and accommodations; its occlusions and slightings. By turns wishful, rueful, resigned and furious, this is a poem that rummages in the ageing process to pull from its various settlements a piercing and resonant voice. In her re-framing of a poem already twelve centuries old, Vona Groarke makes a poem for the ages, rhyming richly with our times. In a collaboration between two of Ireland’s preeminent artists, Isabel Nolan’s exquisite illustrations evoke the speaker of the poem in vital youth and vivid old age. They enlarge the world of a text Vona Groarke’s new version so compellingly amplifies.

Poet, critic, editor and essayist, Vona Groarke is current Writer in Residence at St John’s College, Cambridge. This is her fourteenth book.

Isabel Nolan is one of Ireland’s leading mid-career contemporary artists. Working in a wide array of media she is represented by Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.

Woman of Winter by Vona Groarke

There have been several translations of The Lament of the Hag of Beare, an Old Irish poem that dates from about the ninth century, although the translations work from written manuscripts transcribed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This magnificent, melancholy poem, author unknown, casts the mythical Cailleach, goddess of Winter, as a woman at the ebb tide of her life. As well as lamenting her physical decline, the woman reminisces about the decadent, sexy life she led when she was young and beautiful—drinking, horse-riding, fucking kings, princes, and noblemen—and anticipates a final resting place with Jesus. As Vona Groarke explains in the introduction, Woman of Winter is not a straightforward translation (if such a thing could exist). Written while Groarke was on a residency at St John’s College, Cambridge, this is, rather, ‘a new poem in contemporary English’, a ‘free version’.

Some of the most arresting parts are when the writing seems to free itself, coming unstuck from the blueprint of the original. The first time I notice this is on the third page, where two quatrains from the original become three. In Gerard Murphy’s quite literal academic translation, the lines read:

The Stone of the Kings in Feimen,
Rónán’s Dwelling in Bregun,
it is long since storms (first) reached their cheeks;
but they are not old and withered

The wave of the great sea is noisy;
winter has begun to raise it:
neither nobleman nor slave’s son
do I expect on a visit to-day

Groarke’s version in Woman of Winter includes a run-on sentence that breaks from the self-contained stanzas before it; each of the previous stanzas offered its own discrete idea or observation and ended in a full stop.

Mind you, Rónán’s fort in Bregon
is not looking good lately. The wind
with its mallet and pike has been in
and no good came of the visit.

But still I’d say it holds its own,
keeps the nub of a fort tight within it.
Which is more than I can say for myself
with my womanhood wrung out of me

the way winter wrings from the sea
high waves it will raise up and let fall
and let fall again, so hard and fast no boat,
big or small, could come safely in.

The unexpected lack of punctuation, between the second and third stanzas quoted here, brings a sense of loosening, or overflow. There is something here that—unlike the tightly defended fort—spills into disorder as the speaker turns attention to ‘myself’. The poem strays much more dramatically from the original in other parts, but this is a good example of its intermittent momentum; in the third stanza, repetition and internal rhyming build pace, which then subsides again, according to the movement of the speaker’s thoughts.

I would describe the poem’s general conceptual, or emotional, loosening as the shedding of constraint, or the slow disintegration of a structure that once held fast. This is a large part of why the poem does indeed feel ‘contemporary’. Woman of Winter is, among other things, a meditation on secularity, and the possibility of finding meaning in the vacuum left by the departure of religious belief. Though the speaker recognises her longing for reassurance about life after death (‘what wouldn’t I give / to be safe and sound / to be rowed in a silver boat / across to a golden shore?’), she dismisses this as a ‘veil’ that shrouds the physical world. Even language itself seems to get in the way of communion with her physical experience: she rebuffs the ‘bragging and clamour, airy as plains / we’d ride over once, wind in our mouths, / no big talk stoppering us’.

Though the woman feels ‘no glimmer of the only love I’m told I ought to be eyeing, at my age’, this absence of faith does not necessarily mean despair. Rather than presenting the poem as an outright lament, Groarke has teased out the ambivalence in her situation. ‘Do I mind?’, the woman asks, and ‘what of it?’; she sounds unsure as to whether she really misses her old life or not. There is loss and loneliness here, but there is also newfound clarity, and a certain sensual pleasure in becoming closer and more in sync with her physical surroundings in a way that seems possible only now that her lovers have gone, and with them their ‘big talk’:

Have I love in me, if there were call?
Who would dare to ask? But what else
do I carry out to the headland
to fling into a wind

that won’t refuse me
but will turn my silt and dust
every which way, so a fleck of sun
can still make much of me.

As well as its Old Irish source text, Woman of Winter also seems to reinterpret the early work of Wallace Stevens, a poet of secularity, ambivalence, and sensuous pleasure in the natural world if ever there was one. Perhaps most significantly, it riffs on Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’, which Groarke has already explored in a poem of the same name. In ‘Sunday Morning’, a woman rejects religion in favour of the ‘comforts of the sun’ or ‘any balm or beauty of the earth’. I hear in the woman of Beare’s rhetorical questions an echo of this earlier speaker’s introspection: ‘When the birds are gone’, asks the woman in ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’ If Groarke’s Woman of Winter brings a secular ambivalence to her main source text, The Lament of the Hag of Beare, it brings an interest in other people to Stevens’ empty landscapes. Many, including myself, find it difficult to find traces of the social in the work of Stevens, a poet whom Terrence Hayes described (in wonderful riposte to his well-documented racism) as ‘snowed-in’, with ‘pipes of winter / lining his cognition’. Whereas the speaker in ‘Sunday Morning’ misses feeling assured of an afterlife (‘But in contentment I still feel some longing for imperishable bliss’) in contrast, the old woman of Beare misses other people, other bodies: ‘sometimes, low hours, still I feel my mother’s kiss on my forehead, my father’s hand on my hand’. The clear-eyed secularity of Woman of Winter is more collectively-minded, and it hints, perhaps, at the social and historical conditions that have made the shedding of institutional religion such an important phenomenon in contemporary Ireland.

And all my children who never lived
call for me when the wind is up
to sing them softly back to sleep
from which there is no calling.

— Lily Ní Dhomhnaill, The Stinging Fly


Vona Groarke, whose acclaimed version of The Lament for Art O’Leary was published by Gallery in 2007, gives her idiosyncratic voice to another “dramatic, articulate, wounded and resistant female protagonist” in Woman of Winter (Gallery, €15), her new version of The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare. Responding to the poem’s deep engagement “with how the world is to be experienced through the body … specifically, through the body of a woman whose social standing has been compromised as she has aged”, Groarke extends this “forensic examination” of the ageing body, “now I’m worn thin as threadbare cloth my bare-bone life pokes through”.

The “bony arms” of Kuno Meyer’s original translation are likened to “whins in winter”, a tactile image that falls beautifully alliterative on the ear, setting up the rich sense of texture which characterises Groarke’s translation, “The green coat over Drummain /looks better than my dun brown./ And the fine-spun over its early fields is more pleasing than my coarse grain.”

This vivid tactility is complemented by Isabel Nolan’s delightful black and white drawings, inspired by images from old handwritten manuscripts. “After food/another hunger; after light another dark./ And no point tussling with either, no, /when you’ve had joy of both.”

Woman of Winter is as relevant to the 21st-century woman as it is true to the spirit of the original lament, its pitiless, richly assonantal voice commanding trust with its honest dissection of a “cramped, parched room” and it brings its own bittersweet light to an unexpectedly consoling lyrical conclusion, “the day I loved and the day I didn’t;/ not long, either of them,/now I look back;/not long at all in the end//but lovely too, sweet as the sea/ on a May afternoon/when the tide,/coming in just as far as it comes,/ slips away off, quietly.”

— Martina Evans, The Irish Times

Woman of Winter preview

Publication date: 7 September 2023
Details: 36pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 861 1

Cover: ‘Desert Mother (Saint Paula) and Lion’ (2022) by Isabel Nolan, water-based oil on canvas (detail). Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. © the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.

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