Eavan, My Travel Buddy

eavan boland

NB – This is my own tribute to the work of Eavan Boland. I am not a Boland scholar and so what follows is unlikely to contain anything particularly new for those who are already well-read in criticism and analysis of her poetry. If you’re interested in a personal view of her work as a whole, however, you might find it interesting. Only one way to find out…

 For two years I carried the New Collected Poems of Eavan Boland (Carcanet, 2005) around in the glove compartment of my car, taking it out to stave off boredom in traffic jams, car parks, laybys and verges during the daily routine of commuting and ferrying my daughter to and from various evening clubs and activities. During this time, I have taken what I call my ‘Proust Approach’ to the collection, knowing from the beginning that I wasn’t going to rush it, picking it up only when it felt right – and not dangerous traffic-wise – and being happy to read other things in the hiatuses between pages (if you’re interested, I’m currently ten years into my actual Proust Project and only now getting round to The Prisoner). This slow approach has allowed me to see Eavan (it’s a little impertinent to use her first name, I know, but I have travelled with her voice for so long I feel like I know her) as a poetic trajectory rather than a point in time; but it is a trajectory which feels to me like an end in itself, not a development or progression towards some final point of accomplishment. Finally, this week, with the lovely, quiet elegy to Michael Hartnett and perhaps to an older, more natural, musical mode of poetry, ‘Irish Poetry’, I finally bade Eavan farewell. And now, I can look back over her oeuvre (minus Domestic Violence, which came along in 2007) the way a young musician might look through the sheet music of a Mozart symphony, admiring the peaks and troughs, the waves and contours, the shifting forms and patterns. I’m not so young, but such is the way I see my relationship with this dazzling body of work. Eavan has spoken to me through these two years with a quiet, dignified authority I have seldom heard; and at times with such force: a calm, clear anger which she has needed to explain to one like me who does not understand. But she has explained, and I think I have understood. This is how I have come to read her poems, a master explaining an Art to a novice.

To continue the teacher-student metaphor, she began, in her early work, explaining the rules of rhyme and scansion – wonderful, tightly-formed poems like ‘Cyclist with Cut Branches’: “Jasmine and the hyacinth, / The lintel mortar and the plinth / Of spring across his bars, / Like globed grapes at first I thought, / then at last more surely wrought / Like winter’s single stars.”. Then there were her little gems of metaphysics like ‘The Poets’, as well as her great tower of finely-rhymed myth-narrative ‘The Winning of Etain’, both from 1967’s New Territory. Both of these felt like examples of how mastery of form comes before deviation, experimentation and, possibly, freedom. Much later, in In A Time of Violence, I would see how she came to subvert figures of Irish mythology in poems like ‘Story’ where she appears to be ‘saving’ female characters from mythological narratives where they have become almost ‘frozen’ by the epic language of the past: “I am writing/a woman out of legend” she says; and then one poem later, in ‘Time and Violence’ taking on the voices of constellations, mythical women trapped in the sky: “This is what language did to us…” and then a plea “Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in”. Both these poems continue the focus on Suburbia for which Eavan became renown I think and which began way back in the early seventies with The War Horse, the penultimate and antepenultimate poems of which are ‘Suburban Woman’ and ‘Ode to Suburbia’. ‘Suburban Woman’ builds an unconventional portrait of a woman at home from the language of war and sex, and ‘Ode to Suburbia’ juxtaposes a late suburban evening with the imagery of Cinderella, finally metamorphosing the ‘housewife’ not into a princess but first into “The same lion who tore strips / Once off zebras” and then back into a sleeping cat which “may / On a red letter day / Catch a mouse.” The ‘suburban woman’ (a woman of the mid-to-late twentieth century, and an Irish woman, no doubt), her routines and skills and thoughts and creations remains standing (so often standing) in her house, and at the doorway to her house (in the famous image from ‘Anna Liffey’), throughout this collection that she starts to seem like a temple statue of Athena, or perhaps more appropriately, Hestia. She is usually placed inside the home (with all its connotations of being trapped), but her thoughts are more often aimed out – they fly skywards and look down at the hills, rivers and cities – and Irish history/past, as I shall come to. The soul of this particular emblem-woman is projected outwards in advance of a looked-for metamorphosis. It’s this idea of metamorphosis, or perhaps the unrealised potential for it, that appears briefly in The War Horse but returns more emphatically and with an edge of (perhaps exhausted) exasperation in In Her Own Image* and Night Feed (both 1980). Here there is a sense that the statue-woman evoked in earlier collections is now breastfeeding late at night, even as the poet herself is doing so, and so the emblematic figure is becoming intertwined with a ‘real’ woman – the stone of the statue is softening into flesh. But now, with a sudden and visually impactful use of of short-lined poems (thin, drawn perhaps, emaciated from lack of sleep?), and notably those whose titles begin ‘A Woman…’ she introduces a full-on body-change, self-willed and unexpected. Boland (it’s no use, I must use her surname) rejects the homely softness of human flesh – the rosy flesh of the compliant cook in the kitchen, being the flipside of the desirable flesh of the bedroom whore – for more complex shapes and coverings: the fish scales of a sexless aquatic creature in ‘The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish’, the fur of an omega wolf in ‘The Woman in a Fur Shop’, and the festering, stinking bandages of a sense-stripped corpse in the surreal ‘The Woman as Mummy’s Head’. None of these forms are easy to translate, and none of them provide quick answers to questions about identity and gender. They ask rather than answer such questions, and they bring to mind something Boland said of her own work: “The poem is a place – at least for me – where all kinds of certainties stop. All sorts of beliefs, convictions, certainties get left on that threshold. I couldn’t be a feminist poet. Simply because the poem is a place of experience and not a place of convictions…” (quoted in PN Review 220). It is not that the poet rejects this metamorphosed woman, or the un-characteristic note of anger that pervades ‘It’s a Woman’s World’ (“And still no page/scores the low music/of our outrage”) and her various ‘Tirades’ for the Muses, such as ‘Tirade for the Epic Muse’ (“Piston-fisted, engine-headed, blade-faced hag!”), in fact she returns to both in 1987’s The Journey, along with the suburban theme**, but having asked those questions, Boland goes on to ask others: questions of family, belonging, and the blurred line between history and the past. There are surges of close observation in her writing too; moments when she seems driven to look more fixedly at objects – this is most overtly done in the ‘Object Lessons’ sequence from Outside History (1990) with poems such as the sad and beautiful ‘Bright-Cut Irish Silver’ (“this gift for wounding an artery of rock”) – but this is by no means the only time she pauses over the physicality of an item (often of family or historical value or interest) and mines it for significance – and taking a long view, these moments of tight focus feel almost like lyrical contractions which work in opposition to the dilations of other poems that stretch the reader’s view out over a summer, a city, or a situation. This, it seems to me now looking back over New Collected Poems, gives her work viewed over time a sort of rhythm not unlike the in-out of breathing or the up-down of waves. The poems together, as I think is often the case, are more than the sum of their parts, they take on a ‘super-organism’-like life which is independent from the life of each individual poem. The natural place (I suppose with hindsight I can see this) for the developing image of a silent, standing, internal/eternal female figure, and an awareness of the constant and heavy weight of epic myth-narrative to be heading is towards an increasingly distinct dividing line (a threshold) between notions of ‘the past’ and ‘history’. This distinction is present throughout Boland’s work – even in The War Horse, with poems like ‘Child of Our Time’ and ‘The Famine Road’, the one evoking a more personal past (“Yesterday I knew no lullaby”) and the other a colder, more political one (“The Relief / Committee deliberated…”). It is of course, part of the power of ‘Child of Our Time’ that it represents the devastating meeting of the political and the personal. But by the final collection of the New Collected, Code (2001), the relationship between the two has become more complex, more central and more overt. In ‘How We Made a New Art on Old Ground’ there are two different histories, one has a ‘voice’ of sorts: “follow this // silence to its edge and you will hear / the history of air: the crispness of a fern / or the upward cut and turn around of / a fieldfare or thrush written on it.” – this is the personal past of earlier collections. And the other history “is silent: the estuary / is over there. The issue was decided here: / Two kings prepared to give no quarter. / Then one king and one dead tradition.” This language of a personal past – a livingness of the past as oppose to the deadness of history – is tied back to the Irish oral poetic tradition in that lovely final elegy of the collection, where Eavan (my travel buddy, my friend-in-voice, and my esteemed poetry tutor who has guided me on a two-year-long course) remembers an evening with her friend Michael Hartnett when he spoke about “How the sound / of a bird’s wing in a lost language sounded.” And though there is sadness in the death of her friend and in the loss of a poetic tradition, the very poem itself stands for the livingness of the past. A past with a voice we can listen to. “As if to music, as if to peace”.

Although I’ve said goodbye to Eavan as a travel buddy, I cannot quite bring myself to put her back on the shelf. The New Collected Poems, now part of my life, will sit on the table at my bedside (next to Proust) and I will continue my long journey with her. It’s a journey I do not expect to end; and that’s okay with me.

Eavan Boland’s New Collected Poems is available from Carcanet, here.

*I don’t mention it in the body of the text as it would clutter things up, but In Her Own Image contains a moment at the very end which seems to me quite pivotal when it comes to reading Eavan Boland’s approach to mythology and women’s self-reclamation. The final four stanzas of the final poem:

it’s a trick.
Myths
are made by men.
The truth of this

wave-raiding
sea-heaving
made-up
tale

of a face
from the source
of the morning
is my own:

Mine are the rouge pots,
the hot pinks
the fledged
and edgy mix
of light and water
out of which
I dawn.

(Making Up)

**it is interesting that the themes of metamorphosis, anger and suburbia (all present in separate poems in The Journey – in ‘The Woman Takes Revenge on the Moon’, ‘Tirade for the Lyric Muse’ for example – but they also at times appear to mutate and combine themselves, diluting into a new tone and style where the woman and her bourgeois surroundings, the epic and the lyric, the real and the imagined become fused as a single, startling voice, the anger distilled into a sense of loss and regret:

Setting out for a neighbour’s house
in a denim skirt,

a blouse blended in
by the last light,

I am definite
to start with
but the light is lessening,
the hedge losing its detail,
the path its edge.

Look at me says the tree.
I was a woman once like you,
full-skirted, human.

(Suburban Woman: A Detail – III)

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