Wednesday, August 27, 1997

An Inarticulate Hunger

HUNGRY for words, Sineád has read some 5000 books in her 30-odd years of life—a book a day. Final chapters of bodice rippers orchestrated in the wee hours by the heavy breathing of real birdsong. Aunt Toddy used to bring us huge red onion sacks full of books. A consummate literary escape-artist, I struggled through my grandmother’s bookshelf: Sir Walter Scott, Burns and Poe, hating poetry, but hungry for the stories gleaned from opaque lines and songs. During dry periods, I puzzled over Finnegan’s Wake, the banned Ulysses, The Dead. Even in her 90s, my grandmother could recite passages from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I couldn’t recall the right facts at school though friends called me a walking encyclopedia. A diagnosis of dyslexia would have to wait decades to dispel the myth that I was dumb.

A poet wrote I am uneasy with this love of books. And at 40, I vowed to buy no more books or to take more lovers. All this love of books, I never heard the word love pass between my grandmother’s Victorian lips. Unmentionable as sex, though she had eight babies; the last in the procession was Sineád’s mother, Canice, who hated porting the armloads of books to her father each week. He devoured the meatier stuff: anthropology, archaeology, history. Some habits seem to skip a generation. After Canice left Sineád’s father, she met a man who couldn’t read; the sons took after the father.

“During the Cromwellian,” my grandmother said, “we kept the tongue alive, sent tykes to the priests in the hedgerow schools.” This hunger for learning distilled for generations. Sometimes I’d sneak off to read in the tall grass as if to keep memory alive. An inarticulate hunger raged unchecked, devouring me from the inside, pre-verbal desire and gnawing in my mind as I teased the dark veins from chicken thighs at Sunday dinners. I sucked pomegranate seeds in the dark and counted the tide of seasons with new lovers while Canice gathered her stories from a long line of bar stools. My tally of lovers, longer than her reading list.

© 1997, revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

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