Like everything else in Ireland, poetry is contentious. There is always an occasion of outrage. Two or three years ago the choice of poems in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing made women poets feel yet again neglected, suppressed. Eavan Boland was their most vigorous speaker. With notable success she made the dispute a public issue and set radio and TV programs astir. But she is not only a campaigner. Within the past few years and after a precocious start she has emerged as one of the best poets in Ireland. When she published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, it was hard to distinguish her voice from the common tone of English poetry at large: wordly, cryptic, Larkinesque. It was the book of a young poet, premature in its certitude. She needed the reading and writing of several years to achieve the true voice of her feeling.
This is the achievement of The War Horse (1975), In Her Own Image (1980), and Night Feed (1982). With The Journey (1987) and Outside History (1990) she took possession of her style. It was now clear that she could say with ease and grace whatever she wanted to say. Her new book, In a Time of Violence, does not mark a change of direction or a formal development: it is work of consolidation, culminating in “Anna Liffey,” a poem that brings together the preoccupations of several years. I should note, incidentally, that the time of violence referred to in the title is not in any direct sense the period since 1968 in Northern Ireland.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944, daughter of the artist Frances Kelly and the diplomat Frederick H. Boland. In 1951 she moved with her family to London, where her father served as Irish Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Several of her poems refer to the six years in London—“a city of fogs and strange consonants”—as an unhappy time. Later and more contentedly she spent a few years in New York where her father served as President of the UN General Assembly. She took a degree in English and Latin at Trinity College in Dublin, and started writing poetry. She lives in Dundrum, a middle-class suburb on the south side of Dublin. Many of her poems find themes in her domestic life as the wife of the novelist Kevin Casey and the mother of two daughters.
When Boland started writing poems, she soon decided that the major obstacle in her path was “the Irish poem.” Not only was Irish poetry “predominantly male,” which meant predominantly Yeats, but it presented images of women as “passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status.” As in many other cultures, the spirit of the nation was regularly invoked as a woman—Dark Rosaleen, Cathleen ni Houlihan, Banba, Fodhla, the Sean Bhean Bhocht—beautiful in sorrow, triumphant at last in vision and prophecy. Boland resented that ideological formation and set about undermining it:
I thought it vital that women poets such as myself should establish a discourse with the idea of a nation. I felt sure that the most effective way to do this was by subverting the previous terms of that discourse.1
Besides, as she writes in In Her Own Image, “Myths / are made by men.”
But Boland does not advise women poets to practice a “separatist ideology.” That, she believes, is a spurious device: it tempts women “to disregard the whole poetic past as patriarchal betrayal.”2 Boland has chosen instead to question “the Irish poem” by revising its myths, especially those which present women as archetypes, symbols of a fractured Ireland transformed into unity. She dislikes the way Samuel Ferguson, Thomas Davis, James Clarence Mangan, Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Padraig Pearse used those myths. “Forgive me if I set the truth to rights,” Boland says in “Listen. This is the Noise of Myth.”
The issue is awkward. Since the early years of the seventeenth century, Ireland has been spiritually and emotionally divided. Most of the people in the northeast counties are Protestant and feel British, most of the people in the rest of the country are Catholic and feel Irish. (I have to present the matter briefly and approximately.) The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, gave that division a political and legal form, Partition. Eavan Boland evidently thinks it appalling that the myths which animate Irish poetry ignore the fact of difference and express a vision of unity as the true spiritual form of Ireland. I don’t share her view. It seems to me that people who have lived in division are likely to sing of unity and to tell stories that aspire to it. I regard Partition as a disaster and the immediate cause not only of the Civil War but of the murders—by the Provisional IRA and the paramilitary Loyalists, the Freedom Fighters (UFF)—which persist to this day. The Downing Street Agreement, signed last December by John Major and the Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds, guarantees that Partition will be maintained unless and until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland—not of Ireland as a whole—decide to end it. No article of the Agreement takes seriously the feelings of those who want to see Ireland united, the border removed. I am one of those. Perhaps I should also make it clear that I do not regard the achievement of Irish unity as justifying the spilling of blood.
Boland speaks of “the Irish poem,” but there is no such limited thing. Irish poems are too diverse to be given such a category. Boland is familiar with modern Irish poetry written in English, but she has little or no direct knowledge of Gaelic poetry. She has satisfied herself that most of Irish poetry demeans women, but there is no evidence that she has reached this conclusion after a sustained reading of the Tain, Buile Shuibhne, the lore of the Hag of Beara, Eibhlin Dhubh ni Chonaill’s Lament for Art O’Leary, and Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court. The women in those works are not the passive creatures Boland speaks of. Eibhlin Dhubh ni Chonaill is just as fiery as Eavan Boland. It is true that Yeats liked his women to be beautiful and quiet, but Maud Gonne, Constance Markiewicz, and Eva GoreBooth chose otherwise; each went her own way. Yeats also wrote the Crazy Jane poems in which Jane is tough enough to please feminists, and the play A Full Moon in March, in which he set a queen dancing with a swineherd’s severed head.
Boland has developed her complaint about men and their myths and images far beyond the brotherhood of Irish poets. She seems always ready to be incensed and to return to the scene of anger. She has two poems, twenty years apart, on Chardin’s painting Back from Market (see next page). In the first, looking at Chardin’s peasant woman, “her eyes mixed/Between love and market,” Boland writes:
I think of what great art removes:
Hazard and death, the future and the past,
This woman’s secret history and her loves—
and she implies that Chardin gives the woman and her companions much diminished lives:
He has fixed
Her limbs in colour, and her heart in line…
And even the dawn market, from whose bargaining
She has just come back, where men and women
Congregate and go
Among the produce, learning to live from morning
To next day, linked
By a common impulse to survive, although
In surging light they are single and distinct,
Like birds in the accumulating snow.
—“From the Painting ‘Back from Market’ by Chardin”
“Although” is intrusive. Chardin’s painting is domestic, but it does not withhold from the woman her single and distinct quality. Her presence exceeds her meaning. In the later poem, “Self-Portrait on a Summer Evening,” Boland writes of Chardin’s peasant woman that
All summer long
he has been slighting her
in botched blues, tints,
half-tones, rinsed neutrals.
Slighting her? How?
Before your eyes
the ordinary life
is being glazed over.
If the viewer is still not convinced:
Can’t you feel it?
Aren’t you chilled by it?
The way the late afternoon
is reduced to detail—
I’m chilled by the poem, not by Chardin’s picture. “Reduced” is impertinent, unless Boland claims to tell Chardin how he should choose his palette.
Perhaps she does. She tends to see herself in a dramatic and representative light, such that her censoriousness is to be understood as exemplary, her moods as universally significant. Her representative “suburban woman” has only to stand in a garden in Dundrum to feel the whole natural world ministering to her disposition as if the fate of nations hung upon it:
Late, quiet across her garden
sunlight shifts like a cat
burglar, thieving perspectives,
leaving her in the last light
alone, where, as shadows harden,
lengthen, silent she perceives
veteran dead-nettles, knapweed
crutched on walls, a summer’s seed
of roses trenched in ramsons, and stares
at her life falling with her flowers,
like military tribute or the tears
of shell-shocked men, into arrears.
One’s life does not fall with one’s flowers. It seems to me tactless to compare the movement of a secure life to the tears of shell-shocked men.
In “Anna Liffey,” Boland instructs the seabirds to mind her business in preference to their own:
I am sure
The body of an ageing woman
Is a memory
And to find a language for it
Is as hard
As weeping and requiring
These birds to cry out as if they could
Recognize their element
Remembered and diminished in
A single tear.
She evidently assumes that the natural world and the elements it contains have nothing better to do than to sustain her allegories.
Boland’s common modes of poetry are lyrical and meditative. Her themes issue from her personal life or from other lives she draws into her own. She is especially tender toward “the unlived life,” “evicted possibilities,” “the lost, the voiceless, the silent,” secret lives sequestered or suppressed in favor of an ostensibly higher cause, her own early restless self:
her mind so frail her body was its ghost.
I want to tell her she can rest,
she is embodied now.
—“A False Spring”
But if her tenderness takes the form of brooding on those lives, she rarely imagines them apart from her brooding. In recent poems she is concerned to rescue people from the myths in which they are allegedly imprisoned and to draw them into “history,” a discourse she has not clearly established:
Out of myth into history I move to be
part of that ordeal
whose darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead
Morally, the move does Boland credit. But the differences between myth, history, and fiction are left unclear, though her use of these words is peremptory. Each of them is a story. We are not saved from evil or untrue stories by coming out of myth into history. That, too, is a story, and it has death on its hands.
Boland writes of history as if it were true and solid beyond the telling. In “It’s a Woman’s World” (1978) she speaks for women, excluded from history:
as far as history goes
we were never
on the scene of the crime
moth our children
to the flame
of hearth not history.
And still no page
scores the low music
of our outrage.
Sometimes the complaint against men becomes vindictive, and the low music nearly intolerable, as in “Mastectomy,” a poem unduly influenced I think by Sylvia Plath’s rancor. “Mastectomy” denounces the surgeon who performs the operation: he does it, we are urged to believe, to satisfy the predatory character of men:
So they have taken off
what slaked them first,
what they have hated since:
and the wetness
of their dreams.
But the crucial poem for an understanding of Eavan Boland’s work is “The Achill Woman.” In “A Kind of Scar” she describes how she came by it. One Easter when she was a young woman she had the loan of a friend’s cottage in Achill and stayed there for a week. Mainly she spent the time reading for her courses in Trinity College and studying The Court Poets of the Silver Age. The cottage had no water, and every evening the caretaker, “an old woman who shared a cottage with her brother at the bottom of the field,” carried up a bucket of water to the visitor. Boland and the old woman talked about the famine of the 1840s:
but nothing now can change the way I went
indoors, chilled by the wind
and made a fire
and took down my book and opened it and failed to comprehend
the harmonies of servitude,
the grace music gives to flattery
and language borrows from ambition—
and how I fell asleep
the planets clouding over in the skies,
the slow decline of the spring moon,
the songs crying out their ironies.
In “A Kind of Scar” Boland complains that “the anguish and power of that woman’s gesture on Achill, with its suggestive hinterland of pain, was not something I could predict or rely on in Irish poetry.” But if it wasn’t in Irish poetry then, it’s still missing, because Boland’s poem hasn’t put it there. The poem expresses Boland’s feelings, but it hasn’t a word to say about the old woman’s.
The poem I would like to read is one in which Boland would imagine how the old woman feels, carrying a bucket of water up the field every evening to the young woman from Dublin who has nothing to do but read Elizabethan poems. Could she not fetch the bucket for herself? Better still: I’d like to read a poem in which the old woman would express her own life and speak of the disharmonies of servitude and come into speech and history under her own auspices. Why should she be dependent upon Eavan Boland for her bounty?
In a Time of Violence has many of Boland’s recurring themes: her sense of things diminished by the thought of them; unlived lives; terrains of suffering not indicated by maps:
Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which per- suades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon
will not be there.
—“That the Science of Cartography Is Limited”
In the new book, too, Boland writes of the Huguenot cemetery in Dublin, graves of the dispossessed; of Irish seamstresses in St. Louis in 1860, blinded by their craft; of lost arts; of things that happen out of sight and out of mind; and of how hard it is for a woman to become a figure in a poem. “Anna Liffey” has the problem of keeping Joyce’s Anna Livia out of the poem or at a distance from it. A woman who identifies herself with the River Liffey is likely to have Joyce’s woman taking over the show:
My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence. I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come. I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me?
Boland’s “Anna Liffey” can’t rise or fall to that eloquence, and in the end it settles for a claim, the achievement of a voice, we might well have been left quietly to infer:
They are always en route to
Their own nothingness. From the first moment
They are going home. And so
When language cannot do it for us,
Cannot make us know love will not diminish us,
There are these phrases
Of the ocean
To console us.
Particular and unafraid of their completion.
In the end
Everything that burdened and dis- tinguished me
Will be lost in this:
I was a voice.
My favorite poem in the new book is “Lava Cameo,” about a brooch carved on volcanic rock. Let’s suppose there is such a brooch and that Boland associates it with her grandparents. But the detail must be improvised, and the moral of the made-up story is this:
there is a way of making free with the past,
a pastiche of what is
real and what is
not, which can only be
justified if you think of it
not as sculpture but syntax:
a structure extrinsic to meaning which uncovers
the inner secret of it.
It strikes me that if Boland makes free with the past in this spirit, she should give Yeats the same concession; in which case the myths he recited have a right to be heard. They have a claim at least as good as Boland’s to be a structure extrinsic to the meaning of Ireland which uncovers the inner secret of it.
Finally I should declare a preference. Eavan Boland’s best poems seem to me those in which she writes without apparent fuss or political flourish. She gets on with it, writes the poem, and leaves the ideological significance of it to be divined. Her feeling is discovered through the words for it: “the line which says woodland and cries hunger.” From the new book I quote “The Pomegranate”:
The only legend I have ever loved is
The story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the leg- end is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
A city of fogs and strange conso- nants,
I read it first and at first I was
An exiled child in the crackling dusk of
The underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
Searching for my daughter at bed- time.
When she came running I was ready
To make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past white- beams.
And wasps and honey-scented buddleias:
But I was Ceres then and I knew
Winter was in store for every leaf
On every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
And the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
My child asleep beside her teen magazines,
Her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I for- get it?
She could have come home and been safe
And ended the story and all
Our heartbroken searching but she reached
Out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
The French sound for apple and
The noise of stone and the proof
That even in the place of death,
At the heart of legend, in the midst
Of rocks full of unshed tears
Ready to be diamonds by the time
The story was told, a child can be
Hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint- coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
Can a mother give her daughter but such
Beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
The papery, flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.
My short list includes “The Latin Lesson,” “Fever,” “The Women,” “The Journey,” “An Irish Childhood in England: 1951,” “Domestic Interior,” “Night Feed,” “Suburban Woman: A Detail,” “We Are Always Too Late,” and “Outside History.” From the new book I would add “The Dolls Museum in Dublin,” “Moths,” “At the Glass Factory in Cavan Town,” “Lava Cameo,” “Love,” and “We Are the Only Animals Who Do This.” Each of these is a very good poem, if not quite the supreme poem Boland asks for in “A Woman Painted on a Leaf”:
I want a poem
I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.
But that is too much to ask. As my mother used to say, less will have to do.
May 26, 1994