Reviewed by Emily Webber
I’m writing this review of Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s wonderful book Cacophony of Bone: The Circle of a Year (Milkweed Editions, 2023) at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It seems like the perfect time to read ní Dochartaigh’s fragmented, lyrical words about our natural world, the idea of home, motherhood, and surviving the unknown. Cacophony of Bone is a record of days, a meditation on the passing of time, and a deep noticing of the world around us—trees, moths, birds, water, and the comfort of animals. One morning, as I read through a passage in the book, what seemed like hundreds of grackles descended on my yard. They swoop down, then suddenly fly away, then swoop down again. They are a force of beating wings, loud cawing, and precisely the moments of observation detailed in Cacophony of Bone.
Cacophony of Bone revisits similar topics from ní Dochartaigh’s first memoir, Thin Places, but with a new perspective—of sobriety, finding a partner to share life with, a home she may stay at longer than any other place, and the new longing to become a mother. The year chronicled in Cacophony of Bone is at the start of the pandemic, and ní Dochartaigh’s log of her days, as we all navigated through something unimaginable, seems a fitting way to reflect on this time. Reading this book feels like reading through her journals and the hybrid format of daily logs, poetry, and fragmented thoughts makes this a very intimate and personal read. There is so much this book is—a testament to the joy of birds and the natural world, a love of gardening, and finding unexpected peace in a place. It is about taking stock of life and finding safety and love, even in the simplest things. She writes:
M has lit the candle for dinner, and I love to watch these quiet, simple gestures that make up our days. Our lives are built of such small, quiet moments as those. Kettles boiled, candles lit, hands stroked, thanks given, bodies held in close as the day gives itself into the arms of dark night.
Also, because the year ní Dochartaigh documents is during the pandemic, many passages highlight how people stayed connected during isolation and fear. So many times, we see social media used for ill purposes, but ní Dochartaigh shows through the interactions with her friends how it can be used to lift people up, to highlight experiences of wonder, and to help people feel less alone. Gardening is something that brings a sense of safety and peace, as well as sharing that with friends through technology:
So much more than seeds are being passed between us. We are sharing, from our tiny, backlit screens – in various degrees of lockdown and of heartache – tips & images, resources & timeframes; our gardens feel almost womb-like. Places we might feel held. Spaces outside of the normal confines of place or time. Being there, no matter what we lose, no matter what blows we and the garden suffer, is giving so many of us a means of feeling buoyed. A way to feel set free, and so much less alone than we really are.
Cacophony of Bone is also very much a book about the reading life, and ní Dochartaigh is a voracious reader and often reflects throughout this book on what she is reading and how the written word informs her own life and supports or shifts her perspective. She also speaks much about the idea of home and how as someone who has lived in “a house per each year” she has spent on this earth finally finds a sense of home and how that idea of home evolves throughout the pandemic and her pregnancy. Intertwined with the concept of home, she also writes beautifully about the joy and fears of wanting a child, the time of pregnancy, and motherhood.
This book is a manual on how to process change—be it the change the pandemic brought or becoming a mother or living in a new place. It is about how we can find joy in simple things and the natural world around us and how you continue to love and find a safe place in a world that is one fire:
When my partner built that table and bought food for those birds, what he was saying was: Yes the world as we know it has changed beyond all words but there are things that need no words. There are still things that we can do. Look at all those birds we never knew there could be.
In Cacophony of Bone: The Circle of a Year, Kerri ní Dochartaigh is confined to a place, a home, for the first time in her life. She takes measure of the darkest days, which include loneliness, the thought that her body may not give her a longed-for child, and immeasurable loss during the pandemic. Still, there is that creeping light in the unexpected balm of routine, in gardening, in observation of the world around us, in loved ones, in the written world, and in that longed-for child. This book covers much emotional ground and allows the reader to reflect along with ní Dochartaigh on how we get on with living.