Every word, every syllable of the poetry in Connie Roberts' unpublished memoir matters to her. Her verse manages, like a time machine, to slam the reader at once with the horror and joy of an uncommon childhood in Ireland.
Her memoir contains 20 poems that earned Roberts, who lives in Merrick and teaches at Hofstra University, the 2010 Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, a prestigious honor for up-and-coming poets from Ireland.
Many of the pieces in Roberts' manuscript, "Not the Delft School," were inspired by her childhood and by the years she spent at Mount Carmel Industrial School in Moate, County Westmeath, Ireland.
She says she was taken from her family home at the age of 5. Three years later she returned home - only to be placed 10 months later back at the orphanage where she remained until she graduated high school at 17.
"I write because I have to," Roberts, 48, an adjunct professor, said in an interview last week. "It's a way of looking back and trying to make sense of things."
She marvels - hands moving, eyes smiling - at some of her memories, such as fate eventually bringing 11 of her 14 siblings - all of whom ended up in orphanages - to Mount Carmel.
And at how far she's managed to bring herself since then. She immigrated to the United States in 1983 and for years worked as a waitress. Later, at the prodding of her husband, she decided to go back to school, entering Nassau Community College at age 30. She went on to earn a master's degree in English and creative writing at Hofstra.
"There was a time when I imagined that none of those doors would be open for me," she said. "Isn't that a shame?"
At age 40, Roberts - against the deathbed advice of her mother, who had 25 pregnancies in 21 years - gave birth to a son. And she's reconciled with her father, who still lives in Ireland.
Still, Roberts stressed, please don't think she's written "another Irish misery memoir." Roberts said she strived for a balance of memories, including a Lucille Ball doll "with her red-bouffant curls and mischievous smile"; eating a "tropical scented" orange when others in the orphanage were asleep; and the "home" she and other children made "of a stone cowshed that summer when we were 10."
But there are also recollections such as these, from the poem "Not the Delft School" that gave the collection its name:
If I were in a Vermeer of a De Hooch,
I'd rest my head on my mother's lap,
The radiant light from the outdoors
illuminating the spacious, tiled kitchen,
As she searched my hair, lovingly.
But I am in Saint Brigid's dormitory . . .
Older girls search younger girls' heads
With fine tooth combs, stopping every now
And then to squeeze a louse or a nit between
Thumb nails. One girl, for fun, shakes
Her head over a sink. Scores
Of insects - like grains of pepper -
Dance on the porcelain whiteness.
The collection of prize-winning verse represents a fraction of Roberts' biographical poetry. There are more than 30 other, longer pieces that delve even deeper. She hopes to have them published someday. She also hopes that readers take away more than the details of her memories. "I want them to appreciate the poetry as poetry itself," she said.
For now, Roberts recites her work at poetry readings. And, from time to time, to students in her creative writing classes at Hofstra. "I find that in opening up about myself, it makes it easier for students to open up," she said.
But Roberts' work speaks to her own strength too. As she wrote, in "Litany":
Tell your high priests that I've gained strength from their apathy;
Like a falcon, I fly strong and hard into the wind.