'Losing my baby was devastating ... I was two persons, and then I was one again'
Deirdre Cartmill, from Belfast, on the pain of miscarriage and having a heart attack at just 43
At the sunlit burial of Seamus Heaney, an old Celtic saying was on the minds of many gathered in the country graveyard that early September afternoon. "Where are we going to go for wood," it roughly translates, "now that the tree has been cut down?"
Well there are a few saplings around, notably the award-winning poetry of Moy-born writer Deirdre Cartmill, who has published her second collection, The Return of the Buffalo – and who is lucky to be alive, having suffered two heart attacks three years ago.
Now fully recovered and living alone in Belfast, the soft-featured 46-year-old with the soulful eyes and girlish fringe looks much younger than her years. She has just a hint of Tyrone accent, diluted by stints in England and Dublin, where she worked as a sound engineer in the Landsdowne and U2's Factory studios, before turning to TV script-writing and poetry.
Widely anthologised, Deirdre spent a year affiliated with the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University Belfast but only got to see the man himself once, at a reading a few years ago.
"He had an absolutely amazing voice but it's funny, I didn't like English at school and I didn't like Seamus Heaney's poetry – probably because we were told to like him," she says. "But now he's my favourite poet – the way he writes about where he came from is exactly how I feel about my home. All that running through fields picking blackberries and so on, I soaked all that up too."
Like Heaney, Deirdre isn't afraid to go to the dark side in her poetry. Although sometimes softly ironic and ultimately hopeful, her recent poetry is imbued by a sense of loss and longing. She lost her extremely supportive father Paedar to cancer while she was writing her first collection Midnight Solo, published in 2004 and split up with her husband in June. In the intervening years, she also lost a baby to miscarriage, which left her devastated and emotionally crushed.
"It's my first time to talk about this and there could be tears," she warns. "It's hard to talk about even to my three sisters and my friends – I found that it's almost taboo. I had to take a month off work but didn't say why. People think it's common but it's no less devastating for being so; it's like losing a parent.
"Then a year later I went into town to buy some clothes and suddenly burst into tears with the guilt of it. People in general don't understand how devastating it can be, even six years on. I was only eight or nine weeks but that doesn't matter – I was two persons, then I was one again. I was watching what I was eating and being careful crossing the road, and was bonding and thinking of names and its first birthday. I had envisaged its whole life. It's actually therapeutic to talk about it."
She feels strongly there isn't enough support for women who have experienced miscarriage and has recently gone back to counselling to help her cope with it. Her deep faith has also helped.
"Oh, I lay in bed and screamed at God, obscenities at times, but I knew He could take it," she recalls. "To me that baby was another soul, already a person. I also begged God for strength to get through it and I can see that underlying faith in my new book, the belief in something more, in a higher power, in the search for hope and healing. I discovered we have far more strength than we realise inside."
Deirdre had to draw on that well of inner strength when her father, a former paramedic, died in 2004. "It's very sad he never got to see my book – he would have been carrying it about with him, showing it to people in the shops. We were very close and he was very loving, not that he'd be saying 'I love you' all the time', but I absolutely knew it."
Working as part of an ambulance crew in the Seventies, Paedar saw some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles at first hand and, although the Cartmill household was non-political, the family was acutely aware of conflict and sectarian tensions locally. The dark atmosphere created by the violence is evoked in Deirdre's poetry and she has taken some flak from critics over her take on the muffling of the voice of her generation in the strife, but she is unrepentant.
"Dad didn't talk about his work very much but I remember on one occasion he came home in shock after being at a bomb scene," she recalls quietly. "I'll never forget him talking about the body parts strewn around, the image of a leg torn off at the knee. That image had a long-lasting effect on me.
"So has the feeling of being a second-class citizen when I was growing up and having no voice, politically and also in a wider social context.
"We always felt we had to bite our lips and hide who we were. I had to struggle to get over that when I grew up and to forge a sense of identity not defined by the conflict."
The title poem of The Return Of the Buffalo was inspired by a visit to the prison island Alcatraz, off San Francisco – the site of a Native American occupation in the 1960s.
"I sat there and cried as I listened to the story of that occupation and grew very emotional. It was really about a people finding their voice, finding their dignity and pride in themselves and a new way of being in a changing society, just like we are here.
"It's very important to me to give a voice to people who have not had a voice. I know what that is like."
Ernest Hemingway once said that the best qualification for a writer was an unhappy childhood. Deirdre had a happy childhood and a formal education in Electronic Engineering at Queen's – "coming from a working class background I wanted to be able to do something practical" – but she has had her fair share of heartbreak to draw on in her adulthood.
It's ironic, then, that she discovered her physical heart was literally broken, when she was rushed into hospital two years ago.
"I had no idea I had a heart abnormality until then," she says, amused at my surprise. "It was life-threatening – aren't they all? I just began to feel there was something terribly wrong. My body knew it – I felt this pressure in my fingertips, then my arms, then my chest. My neighbour was a nurse and she phoned 999 and when I got to the hospital I had a completely different sensation like heartburn, like elastic bands pinging.
"The nurses were giving me Gaviscon. Six hours later it was 'Oops! You've actually had two heart attacks.' My artery was dissected and I had a stent put in. It was a big shock for that to happen out of the blue at 43 – you're wondering can it happen again. There was a lot of anxiety but it was life-changing. It was a big shake-up and it made me reassess my priorities."
There is the feeling that her marriage was something that may have come up for review in the period after her heart attacks, but the split is still raw and she prefers not to talk about her ex.
"The health scare was possibly the best thing that ever happened to me in a way," she concludes before rushing off to a Corners' post-conflict poetry event in the Basque country.
"It made me stop and think, 'Am I going in the right direction?' You don't worry about silly things so much.
"It made me think too about what you can't change in life. I couldn't save my dad, I couldn't save my baby. I couldn't save a wee seagull I found stranded on a beach. Sometimes you can't escape from a nightmare – you just have to stop and deal with it. Poetry helps me deal with mine."
Stars on anguish of miscarriage
As many as 20% of pregnancies ends in miscarriage – that is one in five, usually in the first trimester.
Friends star Courtney Cox and then-husband David Arquette suffered multiple miscarriages before turning to IVF. Daughter Coco Riley was born in June 2004.
Kelly Brook, the actress/model, lost her baby five months into her pregnancy.
Gwyneth Paltrow revealed she suffered a miscarriage when she was pregnant with a third child, describing it as "a really bad experience. It didn't work out and I nearly died". The Oscar-winning actress told a magazine: "My children – (Apple (8) and Moses (6) – ask me to have a baby all the time. And you never know, I could squeeze one more in. I am missing my third. I'm thinking about it."
The singer Lily Allen sadly suffered two miscarriages. In 2008, Allen and her then-boyfriend Ed Simons lost their baby during the first trimester. This was an event that caused Allen to seek treatment in a psychiatric facility. Two years later, she and her soon-to-be husband, Sam Cooper, lost their baby in the second trimester after Allen contracted a viral infection. Fortunately the Smile singer went on to have two daughters, Ethel Mary and Marnie Rose.
Pop superstar Mariah Carey and her actor husband, Nick Cannon, revealed that they also suffered a miscarriage before Mariah became pregnant with twins.
She said losing their first baby "kind of shook us both and took us into a place that was really dark and difficult. I wasn't able to even talk to anybody about it."
After struggling with infertility, Brooke Shields and her writer/producer husband, Chris Henchy, got pregnant via IVF in 2001, but three months later she miscarried.
After seven more treatments she gave birth to daughter Rowan Francis in 2003, only to suffer post-natal depression. She went on to have a second daughter, Grier Hammond, without IVF in 2006.
The Return of the Buffalo by Deirdre Cartmill, LAgan Press, £16.99, www.laganpress.co.uk, supported by the Arts Council of NI