|Title:||Chronicles of Impeded Growth: Eavan Boland and the Reconstruction of Identity|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Chronicles of Impeded Growth: Eavan Boland and the Reconstruction of Identity
vol. 2, no. 2, Fall 1999
Chronicles of Impeded Growth: Eavan Boland and the Reconstruction of Identity
In her public persona, expressed in lectures, interviews and essays as much as in her poetry, Eavan Boland is all smooth surfaces, formal precision, and strong, lyrically-phrased protest. Beneath this poised exterior, however, roils the magma of critical self-confrontation, which breaks forth in large or small manifestations: an overrehearsed answer in an interview, a poem, an entire collection of poetry.
One nugget of cooled lava is a curious piece of arcana: a meditation to end the broadcast day on Ireland's main radio station.  Given two minutes to talk on anything she judged significant to the spiritual life, Boland for this occasion chose the subject of the Faustian bargain. In the story which speaks to her so compellingly, the protagonist —Christopher Marlowe's Faust —is a man of already undisputed brilliance and power, who yet overreaches himself by refusing to settle for his human lot. The poet explicates Faust's dilemma in terms meaningful to herself and to her imagined audience:
Did Eavan Boland sense she had, in her earlier work, made just such a Faustian bargain? And in doing so, had somehow "evaded" the finite, but infinitely more interesting, "possibilities of a personal human creativity" which were hers? The concluding lesson Boland draws at the end of her radio talk is commonplace: fear of failure blocks creativity. But the core material, quoted above, vibrates with energy and awareness, causing the reader to speculate what the poet might have felt to be a significant limitation. Evidence, in the choices she makes from first poetry collection to the most recent, points to the limitations of her gender, as distorted and simplified by the patriarchy. And the terms, conscious or unconscious, of her bargain? Let us imagine them: "Only admit me to your ranks, and I will decently clothe my limited female point of view in the cloak of the immortal masculine ones." Indeed, so it came to pass. Eavan Boland, producing what she later called "the 'bien-fait' poem...the well-made compromise," became the first twentieth century Irish woman to make it into the (male organized and edited) anthologies. But as in all Faustian bargains, the details you fail to anticipate make the whole imaginary structure fall upon you woundingly at some point.
Boland (b. 1944) is the youngest of five children of the Irish diplomat F. H. Boland  and the painter Frances Kelly. Educated in Trinity College, Dublin, she has taught in Ireland and in the U.S., following poets such as Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich as Writer-in-Residence at Stanford University, where she currently directs the Writing Program. Her eight volumes of poetry, and her many published and collected essays since 1967 constitute a chronicle of a twentieth century woman's growth: from absorption by the patriarchy to an angry reviling of her "mimic Muse;" from a denial of her earlier struggles to a more politically-shaped vision; from an intellectual training which caused her to value the received tradition more than her own voice, to an intellectual rigor which persistently informs her ongoing technical explorations.
An Identity Built to Suit
Boland's carving out of an identity is enacted both in her poetry and in the many essays she has published over the past thirty years. In the poems in New Territory (1967), the young poet—just twenty-two when the collection appeared—chooses formal design, stable rhythmic patterns, and full or near end-rhymes. She is an excellent pupil, submissive but brilliant, of the dominant aesthetic tradition: in fact poems such as "Mirages," "The Poets," and "Lullaby" sound like well-crafted responses to academic exercises or assignments. She practices with epic simile; she writes many poems on the implied theme that life is a short journey to death. It is worth quoting "The Poets" in its entirety to show the poised abstraction (weighted with homage to the Metaphysicals and perhaps the Romantics of the British literary tradition) of the poet's self-definition at this point:
Of course Yeats is there too, but not his passionate energy, his sensuality, his humanity, all the more powerful for being reined in by form. The thinness here can be ascribed to the writer's youth, of course, but surely also to the subconscious belief that she had to set aside her (gendered) humanity in order to join the male poets' club.
How was it possible for a brilliant young woman to find herself so lacking in "permission," as she later called it, to write from a real sense of herself? Part of the answer lies in her nation's long history of contorted self-imagining under colonial dominance. While Irish men had been consolidating their power against the dominant English culture, Irish women had been used in that struggle in vital but perfectly subsidiary roles, from supportive mother to untouchable icon of nationhood. Maureen Gaffney in Glass Slippers and Tough Bargains summarizes tidily:
In practical terms for the Irish literary establishment, women found themselves confined to the small and irrelevant occupation labelled "writing for the women's audience," and shut out from the world of Significance. The poet Derek Mahon, who was at school with Boland, posits that she "wrote then, as she no longer does, for a notional male readership" (24). Could Boland have written as a woman, about a woman's experience, without cutting out half her audience, or did she have to adopt the voice of the man to be a speaking subject? The poet, deciding on the latter, elides her identity by avoiding the use of a feminine persona. Sometimes she even abandons it altogether, as in the poem "A Lullaby for Lir's Son":
and the poem "New Territory" with its first-person-plural point of view of a gang of privateers:
The male persona is an implied choice in Boland's translation of the 17th century poet Egan O'Rahilly, in her poem "After the Irish of Egan O'Rahilly." One cheers the young poet's attempt to connect with her native tradition: the importance of what Thomas Kinsella has designated "the dual tradition" is already clear to her. But she does not yet adopt a preferential option for women. A notable woman poet of this period, Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, has written what is one of the jewels of the century: a long and brilliant love poem to her dead husband; but Boland ignores her, perhaps to avoid a minimizing association with the feminine, perhaps because at this point the words of a male poet seemed to her sufficiently generic, all-encompassing.
Now look at what she does with the poem. Egan O'Rahilly's "Is fada liom oiche fhir fhliuc" is a poem by the last of the great Gaelic poets (1670-1726) which has been much translated, James Stephens's 1918 version being the most well-known, and Kinsella's the most recent. Here is a sample verse:
Boland changes the mood of these long vigorous lines, their five heavy beats accentuated by the repeated long "oo" and "auw" sounds, their cacophonous consonants a stage direction that they be shouted in defiance. Here is her version of that same verse:
She has recomposed the poem, then, as a set of carefully-patterned six-line stanzas, with many enjambments. The note struck is one of cool control, in place of the angry lament of the original, male, poet. I draw my readers' attention to the strangeness of this hypercorrection. Boland can't allow herself the luxury of emotion, even if she finds it in an original she is translating.
On the plus side, the poem's placement beside "Flight of the Earls" sheds an ironic light on the nostalgia and pathos in the wake of failed and lost leaders which both poems recall. Defiance of the waves, often symbolic of a frustrated quest for self identity or national independence, and seen in O'Rahilly's poem in the final apostrophe to the sea, has a long tradition in Irish literature, from Cuchulainn to the men in Synge's Riders to the Sea who are sucked into that fatal combat. While revealing the pathos of the quest, Boland is impatient enough with nostalgia to undercut it by showing the futility of "writing to headstones and forgotten princes."
While few of the poems in New Territory focus on women, Patricia Boyle Haberstroh notes that in those that do "Boland [has] adopted the poetic stereotype of women, which she would later argue, reduced and simplified them" (61). We even find, straight out of what Irigaray terms the "dominant scopic economy," one woman as the specular object of a poem. "From the Painting 'Back from Market' by Chardin" presents the male view of a woman at one remove, that of a neutral "I," who gazes at the painting as Chardin had gazed at the woman. The persona does not identify with the woman, but stays at a great distance, moving back and forth from contemplation of the subject to contemplation of Chardin's technique, though once admitting:
Is there the beginning of desire for a different economy here? We shall have to wait for future collections to see that desire develop. Meanwhile the poet seems completely unconscious of her own duplication of the artist's project.
Significantly, the only poem in this collection written from an obviously feminine point of view is "Athene's Song." This goddess, sprung not from the womb but whole from her father's brow, is clearly the role model of choice for a woman-poet absorbed into the patriarchy. The poem, dedicated to Boland's diplomat father, appropriately shows Athene tiring of war and, instead, making peace "the toy of power."
In this first collection, then, the male quest and the male persona are chosen as sufficiently representative of the poet's positionality. Further, as a correction of the English version of the Irish as emotional, irrational, and feckless, as well as men's typecasting of women in the same terms, the poet takes two giant steps away into strict, hyper-rational form and subject, allowing subject matter to be dictated, for the most part, by the traditional themes of the English aesthetic.
In her second collection, The War Horse (1975), Boland continues to connect to the patriarchal canon without attempting to re-envision or rewrite it from a woman's point of view, but a feminist awareness starts to emerge in the poems "Sisters" and "Suburban Woman," both of which reach beyond the necessity for the male-as-mirror. The first seems to celebrate the breaking of a seven-year-old silence and estrangement of two sisters, with "a sister's grim embrace," saving the two from
An oddly mixed message here: sisterhood is powerful, but at risk from the alternate, joyless sisterhood of the Fates? Woman is still suspect, and the point of view still one inherited from the male-dominant literary canon. In "Suburban Woman" the bored housewife exemplifies Horkheimer and Adorno's "woman in bourgeois society" who "has become the enigmatic image of irresistibility and powerlessness"(71-2). The poet carefully separates herself from the subject, while still comparing and joining their separate struggles:
In this collection, Boland's awareness of her particular place (in terms of geography and history) takes on more political weight. In "Famine Road," the interwoven poem in italics, commenting on the main story, is a disembodied male voice telling a woman she'll always be barren.
The interaction of the two voices shows Boland making the first threads of connection between the colonizers and the contemporary patriarchy who still hold the fate of the lesser race, women, in their hands.
Some nationalist concerns are also apparent in the title-poem of the collection, "The War Horse," which depicts a brush with violence, but from the point of view of a safe, uncommitted suburbanite, who waits, holding her breath, till the maverick passes.
What's being pointed to, quite critically, is the way the citizens of the Irish Republic can, for their own emotional cushioning, close their eyes to the struggle in Northern Ireland.
While war images prevail throughout the collection marriage, life in suburbia, the urban rape of the countryside, are other issues. Boland displays, through various personae, a rising anger or impatience with the old ways, the old stories; yet in the middle of it all the reader finds the cool classicism of "O Fons Bandusiae," a straight translation of Horace (Odes, III, xiii), and is tempted to speculate that despite rising consciousness, the author, a prize-winning Latinist as an undergraduate, still needs an anchor in a lyrically imagined Pax Romana of the establishment, where "linearity, self-possesion, the affirmation of mastery, authority, and above all, unity" still hold sway. 
Though it contains some important poems, the feeling of this collection is transitional: Boland has a foot in either camp, and surely the stretch is beginning to feel uncomfortable. But the move to suburbia with husband and small daughters was a turning point for the poet. She felt forgotten by the literary establishment to which she had gained some access, and consigned to traditional female roles. Born of a mixture of resentment and new-found solidarity with other women, her fresh awareness brought a major shift in her poetic sensibility, an un-Faustlike possibility of change.
Establishing Her Own Image
In Boland's third collection, In Her Own Image (1980), everything is loosed: language, form, the poet's anger. The voice here is that described by Cixous in La Jeune Nee': "exclamation, cry, breath-lessness, yell, cough, vomit, music...the spoken word exploded, blown to bits by suffering and anger, demolishing discourse" (94). It appears that anger has broken through the tight bonds with which Boland bound herself till now: for once she abandons the need to organize sound in beautiful and logical patterns, and (in Kristeva's terms) creates a disruption in the patriarchal order. "Tirade For the Mimic Muse" lambastes not merely her own composed persona, but mimesis itself, the old classical project. This muse, by the rites and formalities of "approved" poetry, protected herself from the realities of women's everyday lives, from
The angry woman beats her breast—duped, she's been a tool of the system;
There's a blurring of the "I" and the "You" in this poem, so that the excoriation of the mimic muse seems more and more to become one with a frightening self-hatred, also evident in "Anorexic." The self, separating from the hated body, becomes harder to pin down, to grasp. If, however, the subject can have patience with this lack of coherent form, she may break into what Irigaray would think of as her true voice, a "feminine syntax" involving "nearness, proximity," but not distinct identity, nor owning, nor appropriation.  To Boland, however (even though the speakers of poems in In Her Own Image replicate chaotic emotional states), it's obvious that such syntax would have seemed a very austere choice, perhaps separating her from a newly imagined Irish female audience.The persona, seeking to give birth to another image of herself, does not yet abandon the need for some kind of mirror: as the married woman who seeks to make herself "In Her Own Image," as the wife in "In His Own Image" who is remade by her husband, a sculptor whose battering hands seem to form a new "self" in her at each beating. Mimesis is a crock, but one must find oneself somewhere. The low point of felt oppression and self-hatred comes in "Mastectomy":
Because Boland has here not repressed—in the name of propriety or the need to be part of the canon—any understanding of bodily experiences, the poems move from anger to a liberation from pretence, to a repossession in writing of her woman's body. The poet, "accepting the challenge of the discourse controlled by the phallus" has become one of Cixoux's saints, a woman who can "affirm woman somewhere other than in silence." (La Jeune Nee, 93) The woman in "Solitary" has been reduced to "animal/inanimate," after stealing fire from the gods—usurping the male prerogative to give her sexual pleasure—but with this comes the self-permission to hibernate, and whether this is healing withdrawal or temporary regression, it produces in the final poem, "Menses," the most positive affirmation yet of her womanhood. Initial feelings of anger and disgust at the idea of menstruation, especially the aspect of being in the control of another, the moon, allow the speaker to come to the realization that she, unlike the moon, doesn't have to be merely a reflection of someone, husband or lover: "My light's my own."
Meanwhile, though the teacherly, schooled, didactic voice is purified out of the poetry, it's alive and on-stage in Boland's prose commentary. Because the coming to self for a twentieth century Irish woman has been so problematized by a constraining foreign tradition as well as a constraining national expectation of her, even the poet herself may do her work a disservice by superimposing the judgments of the tradition on her project. Thus we find that in a 1986 essay for the journal Krino, she writes with distaste of "the declension of poetry into self-consciousness, self-invention" (54). The presentation of oneself in an interview is also a complicated kind of artifice. But even in interviews about In Her Own Image Boland is careful to separate herself from the oppressed women she depicts, consistently denying any identification with the subjects of these poems. In an interview published in 1990, she deals with the question directly:
And in the later interviews of 1989 and 1990, Boland rehabilitates her early self by showing how much more she knows now: "There are a lot of things I regret in In Her Own Image, mostly technical, in abilities of my own, but it was a very liberating book, both in its actual writing and in its publication."
So, we must consider the possibility that what looked like an unimpeded, clear ascent to a strong woman's voice is in fact not so clear or direct. The interviews and essays show that the reader cannot take for granted that the poet tells the whole story in her poetry. Happily, Boland's prose commentary doesn't tell the whole story either: while separating herself from feminists  in earlier interviews, and certainly rejecting the notion of a feminist poetic, her actions showed exemplary solidarity with women. She became an editor of The Web which published new writing by Irish women, and furnished information about artists' retreats, prizes, organizations, grants, specifically tailored to women writers. She led numerous writing workshops in Ireland in the Eighties, both mixed and women-only; and she strongly defends the writing workshop against what she perceives to be the condescension of the literary establishment, who refused that "societal permission to be a poet"  especially to women. She spread the word in public places such as lecture halls and TV talk shows about the fact of and the quality of women's writing, chipping away at those withheld permissions. Boland credits her association with these struggling women writers as being formative experiences for her own perceptions of life and poetry.
Remaking the Image
In her 1983 Night Feed (intended as a companion volume to In Her Own Image) Boland displays a new face, artificially produced. Artifice here is claimed as a positive reembracing of the poet's project; more, it is "the means by which the adventuring self loses itself in order to preserve itself" (Horkheimer and Adorno 48-9). In "The Woman Changes Her Skin," "Daphne With Her Thighs in Bark," and "The New Pastoral," there's much changing, turning of oneself into something: a tree, a beauty, a fish.
The poet also makes a healthy regressive movement back to the mother in looking for a "mother tongue," in "The Muse Mother." As Kristeva points out in "Stabat Mater," motherhood may be both a means of oppression of women and a way to establish compensatory power, and it is that second, generative and creative and authoritative function of the mother that Boland now reconnects with. "The girl has the mother, in some sense, in her skin," says Irigaray, in a discussion of why the fort-da game would not have been likely play for a girl-child. (Irigaray, "The Gesture in Psychoanalysis" 132). Boland's rediscovery of the mother, in such poems as "Woman in Kitchen" and "Fruit on a Straight-Sided Tray" (the latter title refers to a still-life composition used by Frances Kelly, Boland's mother) is therefore a rediscovery of herself. In this spirit, she also celebrates her own daughters in several poems. "Night Feed," and "Endings," poems which hold more than a little fear for what the daughters face from the world ahead of them. From the image of the kitchen as tomb (43) she moves toward the end of the collection to a celebration of "Home" in a slightly mocking ballad that tilts towards the romantic.
The effort to integrate her rebellion against the patriarchy with her projects as wife and mother produces some ambiguous poems. The mellifluous, mysterious "A Woman Turns Herself Into A Fish" is a case in point. The persona has taken charge of the artifice, formerly the male poet's province; and so the cutting away of her awkward feminine body ("Unpod/the bag,/the seed./Slap/the flanks back.") cannot be seen as a totally negative act. Now the cool, smooth, emotionless persona glides through life experiencing even motherhood without its pains:
In what sense, then, does she still feel the "pull" of that earlier self who in the last lines of the poem "moons" in her? Despite, as we recall, the earlier disgust at the mess and lack of control in "Menses," this poet cannot fully make her home in artifice.
In interesting contrast to similar poems in the earlier collections, the author connects now to the female model as specular object of the male artist. Iconic poems (poems which attempt to reproduce the effects of works of art in language, or which simply explicate an artwork) form a discernable trail running all the way through the successive collections, with signposts to the poet's changing perceptions. In a big shift of loyalties, Boland here allies herself with Degas's laundresses against the artist:
Unconsciously, however, Boland herself continues to mythologize and objectify the models, apostrophizing them in the opening lines as "roll-sleeved Aphrodites"!
The poet does not make the final shift to complete identification with woman-as-specular-object until "Self Portrait on a Summer Evening," from her fifth collection The Journey (1986). Here she is both author and object, admiring Chardin's art as she, "Chardin's woman," is remade by his skillful use of color, and remaking his art with her words. This is the second half of the poem:
The poem leads the eye first, as does the painting, in a serene sweep across the landscape; the chill calm of which itself intensifies the critique of the artist, who has oversimplified and used this woman's life for his purposes—"the ordinary life/is being glazed over." Mid poem, a repeated "before your eyes" asks for a shift of perception; and the reader contracts his retinas, so to speak, to observe with the poet her own life as Chardin might see it. But despite the "reflected light" which reduces her almost to outline, she is aware enough of her "need to be ordinary" to escape his frame; she will not be content, as her foremothers in Ireland have been, to be symbol-ized: her poem about his picture becomes a strategy for controlling his controlling specular gaze.
Claiming a Political/National Identity
In her next collection, The Journey (1987), Boland begins to work more intensely with issues of national identity.
In "Mise Eire"  she reclaims the feminine persona often given Ireland, and reestablishes the variety of life experiences of real Irish women, from immigrant to Ascendancy matron to garrison slut. In "An Irish Childhood in England," and "Fond Memory" Boland focuses for the first time on the difference between herself and the English she'd modeled in her youth, and, for the first time, realizes how difficult that fit had been. Despite a conscious return to form, her subject matter, and her new skill at bringing pain to her memory and to the page, make for more muscular, less "beautiful" lines. In "An Irish Childhood in England" the cacophony of consonants in the first quatrain, and the enjambment of lines two, three and four, hurry the reader on through small, alienating unpleasantnesses till he is brought to a stop with the colon before the dramatic "Exile."
In "Fond Memory" Boland brings together with wonderful subtle coaxing lines both the alienation and the seductive nostalgia which romanticized the native land; the title obviously, but not too obviously, refers to Thomas Moore's "Oft on the Stilly Night"—"Fond Mem'ry brings the light/Of other days around me." The poet allows no easy resting in the luscious music, however scratchy and uncomfortable the righteous darned worsted of British identity:
Boland seems to be gathering in to herself in many of the later poems ("The Oral Tradition," "Fever," "The Unlived Life," "Lace") the power, worth and wisdom of other women—instead of, for example, simply pitying their hardships. In "The Women," her self-in-process seems, thus, to be larger and more compendious—at times ballooned out to abstraction—as she moves back and forth in this collection between embracing her life in an almost too-cozy way and fretting against the cage of it.
In an important poem, "The Journey," she blends and makes her own elements of works from three traditions: the form of the Irish Aisling or dream vision, Virgil's Aeneid, and Dante's Purgatorio. Her guide in this underworld of longsuffering mothers is Sappho, whose final words to her (about the women she must forever bring with her now on her journey) remind her of "the silences in which are our beginnings/in which we have an origin like water."
The Poet Outside Herself
Again we must glance at the way the poet continues her reinvention in more discursive format. Writing with ever-increasing power and authority, Boland explores and worries her way through the questions which confront her as a poet and an Irish woman. From her essays and interviews of the nineties, an essay written for American Poetry Review of March 1990 shows her feeling a sense of irony and omission at her exclusive incorporation of the texts of Brit Lit on her way to being a poet. She confronts her earlier self: what mattered to that clever pupil was the poem as "pure process, the technical encounter [as] the one which guarantees all others...the dissonance of line, and the necessity for stanza." She has become aware of the ethics of writing, of women, passive objects of art, becoming authors of art, of the self ( the writer) as part of a web of associations/ of poems past and present. But though she uses the word "subversive"—as she does with with some frequency—she can't quite escape her background and training: she speaks of the "recurring temptation for any nation, and for any writer who operates within its field of force, to make an ornament of the past," yet remains unaware of the temptation to do it herself in both prose and poetry. In the summer of 1995, she was revising her story for The Southern Review: she now finds it "hard to accept that a radical self can function authoritatively in the political poem if the sexual self, which is part of it, remains conservative, exclusive, and unquestioning of inherited authority" (497). Increasingly articulate about the withholding of permissions from the male establishment, about her debt to the women's poetry workshops she so generously led for ten years (Allen-Randolph 127-8), Boland also gives the edifying impression of being a poet who's always learning, pushing ahead, and trying new ways to get there.
In 1995 these decades of essays, which Lucy Mc Diarmid calls "classic texts of Irish feminism" (20) were collected as Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (Norton), and make instructive reading taken chronologically.
The collection that illustrates a most interesting example of the complications of coming to self as an Irish woman poet, Outside History, was first published in Ireland as a separate slim volume of poetry. It appeared in America as a 152-page volume subtitled Selected Poems 1980-1990, adding to the eponymous collection the poems from The Journey and Night Feed (W.W. Norton, 1990). This edition constituted another remaking of the poet's identity, suppressing her first three collections entirely. Rejecting her early, messy, growth pattern, Boland gave in this volume, the first to reach a wide American audience, a portrait of another Athene, sprung fully formed from the feminist or at least feminized canon. All poets select their best work and even rewrite lines of earlier published poems. But look at what Boland omitted for the new audience: the still struggling self, the example of emergence as a woman and a poet which her later poems talk about with such distance and objective sorrow. The rough feelings gone, the chronology of growth is also deliberately confused, even by the printing of the chosen three books in reverse chronological order, without dates.
Moving out of Myth into History?
Boland foregrounds her own coming to self-identity-as-female in "A False Spring," when, looking back at the vision of her frail former university-student self, living the life of Aeneas in the shadow-world, she says "I want to tell her she can rest,/she is embodied now." In Outside History she has called herself and by implication other Irish women out of the world of myth in which they had such a limited, glorified existence. That sense of solidarity with other women is one important element which characterizes both Boland's art and her life, as we have shown. And indeed, the poems about women caring for women here are some of the poet's strongest: one of the most splendid of these is the short and, in its very ordinary images of jampots, candles, and fruit, powerful, "Contingencies." The sensual richness and sweetness of the words conserve the remembered rich relationships with women whole to the reader. Conserving, with all that word's many implications, includes preserving from danger—ah, those echoing "crisis-bright" phrases, masquerading as threats of punishment, how they capture the feeling of being a cared-for child. Or do the acids in them boil off in the conserving process of memory?  The odd uneasiness communicated by the intimation of the "private hunger" which engenders those "whispered kisses" is a hard thing for a child to understand, or bear. But on the whole, this kitchen, this community of women then and now, is another place of safety.
In the poem "Distances" some of the complications of proceeding on one's journey are consciously and most wryly brought to the foreground. For once, Boland seems to let the rhythm of everyday conversation direct her poetic rhythms. In the opening stanzas the caesuras and line-endings work with not a hint of melodrama:
And yet there is plenty of suspense already, in the emotional "don't leave" of the protagonist, signaling unspoken fear or unconscious longing, though her request turns out to be a slight one. We glance back again to the title. "Distances." First distance: that between people, even people who live together; becoming sometimes more obvious at the departure of one. The poem's fulcrum is in fact the Other's departure; after four stanzas, and with four to follow "The front door bangs/ and you're gone." Second distance: between memory and particular facts; between the images conjured up by a traditional ballad and the let-down of an afternoon's excursion to the place it celebrates. It is "emigrant grief" which makes the
Boland has perhaps begun to learn from Elizabeth Bishop to move through clearly observed detail towards the volcano, though the ending here contains no revelation at all, but instead one of the familiar Boland signatures of quiet, heartsick movement away from the dream. One by one the commodities of this bustling market are demythologized: the linen to "adult handkerchiefs" that "scraped your face and left your tears/ falling"; the candy apples to a "mush inside the crisp sugar/shell." Even the spectacles—and how nicely these last words of the poem tie all the strands together—are "out of focus." For the third distance is a complicated one, woven through the examples of the other two. The protagonist imagines the couple inside the "distances of /fiction: not of that place but this," and "longing" to demythologize it. Why? Because they are as yet unable to? Because they are still trapped inside the dream/the fiction? The distance so obliquely referred to here is that between the reality we are able for and the fictions we are forced to operate within, for our own safety. It includes the distance between our slightly "out of focus" image of Nation—the "ideal universal realm" we need our nation to be for us so we can love it and adhere to it—and the reality of the forces which have pushed it along through history.
The specific sequence of twelve poems subtitled "Outside History" develops and explicates Boland's critique of the marginality of woman in Irish history as far as it has come to date.
"The Achill Woman" becomes the poet's Sappho in this collection, or perhaps she's a new Persephone leading the persona back into a darker realm. The image of the Great Famine as a paradigm for women's history is not a new usage for Boland: the reader will recall the treatment of woman's body as a "famine road" in her 1975 collection, The War Horse. The gathering of several poems within this framing metaphor in Outside History, however, strengthens and expands the theme. The poet feels called to embody, not less than to set down on paper, "an accurate inscription/of that agony" ("The Making of an Irish Goddess"); and what is the exact "agony" which afflicts her racial memory? Nothing less than the devouring of children by their starving mothers, mothers so scarred and destroyed by their hardships that "[t]here is no other way" for them to be, than on this hell-bound path. The speaker's own hand, shading her eyes, is "sickle-shaped" as she picks out her daughter in a crowd of children—recalling the moon, but also, ominously, Death. The cycle of life and fertility is not merely broken but countervened in this poem of awe-full responsibility. The speaker confesses with shattered awareness:
and in the search for a suitable Irish goddess imagines Ceres herself descending to Hell, turning her back on the fields of lush grain unavailable to the starving potato-eaters.
In "Daphne Heard With Horror the Addresses of the God" the poet sets stories of marriage and fertility beside references to shadow, darkness, the weeping of "river-daughters"; undercutting the old, romantic wedding tales told by the mother figure, with omens of despair: even the sweetness of stephanotis is described as "cutthroat." The old myths counteract this flood of despair, barely holding it in check; but they are impotent to affect reality. The necessary thing is for us—and the "we" of these poems vibrates between the subject positions of "women" and "Irish natives," managing to include them both —to take the reins of the story-telling, for
The persona is rightly suspicious of the way history has been presented, particularly in its use of images (she doesn't even have to say images of women) to inspire patriotic deaths. Finding and claiming and using the word, however, "we" Irish/women are enabled to reveal what really happened, and is happening. "Nothing can stir until we say this is..." No longer fixed in mythic images, life begins to move forward.
But has the poet moved out of myth into history as she intends, for herself and her Irish sisters? Though there can be no doubt that she has learned from "the feminary," Boland here and in her later poetry and essays enacts and proposes a curiously self-shackling road to freedom, emblematizing her countrywomen, and herself choosing to be "an emblematic figure," simply to take away the permission to do so from male poets and critics. Lucy McDiarmid defends this approach:
We must certainly grant her that Boland, in discovering her own word (Freire 77) and speaking it, in dialogue with her life and her history (even that patch of quicksand which was inclusion by the establishment), is engaged in transforming Irish society.
Finding a Convincing Poetic
A delighted acceptance of the gift of the Word disperses a lighter mood thoughout the collection Outside History. The reader can be rewarded with a fresh coinage of phrase, a surprising turn of plot; the mind is moved dextrously from the "Hanging Curtains" to the view from street to the consciousness of the curtains' function as concealers and revealers of unpleasant reality. (Which reality, as we shall see, is a recurring theme thoughout the collection, garnished by the poet's commentary on how it is to be approached.) Boland's delight in her profession is foregrounded in several poems which take the reader through the discovery of language and imagination as tools to re-make her world. Words become alive and create possibilities for the speaker, here a young scholar:
These isolated and perishing words of a dead language also arouse the sympathy of the poet: they are like the oppressed women she has later befriended, "chittering and mobbing/ on the far/shore, signaling their hunger for/the small usefulness of a life."
As in Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" and "The Idea of Order at Key West" the work of the artist/poet is the theme of "On the Gift of The Birds of America by John James Audubon." But the first artists here are the birds, which are allowed artistic agency by the poet. Their air-y art, rephrasing air and ocean, causes us earth-bound bipeds to understand our own earthliness better, both by contrast and because the vanished ones in Audubon—"an element which absence has revealed"—are harbingers of our own extinction. On the facing page, however, in a poem called "The Game," the persona herself escapes, by imaginary flight, confinement to the daily regimen, the daily loneliness, the daily prayers for the King of her English boarding school. What brave writing this is, how exhilarating in its riding of the underneath it steady structure:
The enjambed lines, with their assonantal "w" sounds, perfectly mimic the downward spiral of the flight of the dreamer. The dreamer's wonderful escape mechanism is contrasted to the "trapped" state of the stone angels "in their granite hosannas"; theirs to a heavenly sovereign, which nicely balances with her own required prayers for the King of England. The poem is replete with such pleasing unities, not the least of which is the sly cutting down to size of the (much-prayed-for) King by the reference to queens and aces in stanza two! The revenge of the emigrant; in this case a very polite revenge.
Later, in the poem "In Exile," Boland approaches, in a sidelong way, her own past life in Limbo through a meditation on the fate of two German servant girls her parents employed after the war. She understands the uses of the past, vivdly remembered, unsuppressed: through it she can make connections to the lives of other exiles, or other women in pain, or other Irish women, and so she will not cloak it over any longer with language mastery. "Here in this scalding air,/my speech will not heal. I do not want it to heal." But the ease found in figuring the hurt—"those safe curves, that seasonless canter" ("The Carousel in the Park," Outside History 57)—still seems to seduce her.
Take for example, the marriage at the heart of the poem "Object Lessons": a coffee mug is broken, and the as-yet unsanded and unsealed floorboards on which the shards are found suggest the speaker's anxiety at never being able to accomplish an unbreakable bond between two people. The painted cup's idyllic scene reminds the speaker of a time "before disaster/strikes or suffering/becomes a habit" or of
In ironic contrast to the chaos thus feared and foreshadowed, the poem's structure is a remarkable little engine: its full or near rhymes moving abccba, its lines organized in a fairly tight pattern of stresses—and still pleasingly and exactly lineated for emphasis. Is the irony deliberate, or has Boland simply reached once more for her surpassing instrument of control in the face of life's instability?
A longing for the speech which is proper to her, which her awakening consciousness calls for, has run like an undercurrent through the past three collections, since the "Muse Mother" where the poet longs to be taught
She wants it, but she can't imagine what it would be, her imagination still tied to masculinist metaphor: the power, for example, "to belly...a woman" which uses belly as a verb, meaning to impregnate. Boland still seems to feel the necessity for the cloak of masculine power and privilege: in "Bright-Cut Irish Silver" she handles with awe a piece of fashioned silver, mined, she tells us, by a "gift for wounding an artery of rock" which has been "passed on from father to son, to the father /of the next son." In the work of the miners she sees a paradigm for the writer's skill: "It is an aptitude for injuring/earth while inferring it in curves and surfaces." And this aptitude is now passed to the persona, of unidentified gender:
The reader who has been following Boland's poetic/psychic development since the earliest collection must wonder on reading this poem whether she sees the "cold potency" of the written word which, by time and chance, she has inherited, as essentially male, or merely traditionally male? The taking on of the poet's gift as here described continues to illustrate the difficulty of abandoning one's old successful mask, even when reality has taught one a fuller, enculturated, gendered identity.
In the past few years, Boland seems to be moving into "A Habitable Grief" (The Lost Land 32) over what can never be healed or reclaimed. By now everyone notices what Betty Adcock called "her stake in the tradition that had both hobbled and illuminated her writing life" (793). The poet's introduction to a 1996 collection of all her earlier poems, An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-87, focuses, bravely and with compassion, on the young self who "struggled for skill and avoided risk" (13). But what Boland wants, "a forceful engagement between a life and a language" (14), comes hard to her.
Des O'Rawe, willing to praise both her "voice" and her "vision," finds it "disappointing that Boland has been unable to devise a convincing poetic to heal with human suffering, despair, exploitation" (138). But certainly something new is being tried. In her two most recent collections, In a Time of Violence (1994), and The Lost Land (1998), the voice is pared down, emptied of ornament; fragments are uttered as if by a Beckett character without the requisite determination to go on. In a 1990 interview Boland had proclaimed her undying devotion to the structure of standard English: "Yeats may well be the poet I love most, [but] he's no technical influence on me at all; I deplore Yeats's technical syntax....I'm very fond of syntax, and it's one area in poetry I have confidence in."  Now, however, Boland omits commas, lets colon infelicitously follow colon, makes question marks appear in unreasonable places, writes subjectless verbals—some of which decisions lead to a little confusion or ambiguity. Short phrases followed by a period slow the pace, or mimic shortness of breath: one- and two-word declarations, sentences beginning with ". And" In the poem "Formal Feeling" there are no less than seven fragments which start ". And"
The "Dot And" habit, however numbing in overuse, is without doubt purposeful. The poet's static lines, disturbed syntactical elements, fragments, and short silences work in the service of her larger theme, and this aspect of it is nowhere more cogently expressed than "At the Glass Factory in Cavan Town," with its cassandra-like warning against buying into the false self, the legend of oneself, so vulnerable to splintering or to being dashed as failed glass-pieces are (22).
As she becomes increasingly articulate in her prose, she has decided, at least in these collections, on a narrowed, more ascetic path in poetry. This narrowing could not have been an easy decision for the poet. In effect, Boland has decided to embrace the limitations she rejected in her youth, to display them all fragmentary and wounded, and, moreover, to make those limitations of gender and nation largely imposed by others the central events of her poetry. In these poems the Boland more consistently removes herself as far as possible from the position of spectator, to be in the experience. Further, the feeling of confidence in her art, in her skills, which so held the earlier poems together in the face of anxiety, is here willingly stripped as well, and we catch a glimpse of a Boland persona who is not sure of herself, in for example the poem "The Necessity for Irony," where the speaker just about apologizes to her daughter. This is a new position, representing new learning: the woman speaking not as victim but as agent with the power to hurt others.
Now, after a third decade of writing, the poet's careful distinctions and self-corrrections begin to seem more and more like painstaking honesty about, and increasing vulnerability in, her own processes. For this supremely committed teacher, the learning continues to go both ways, and with it the reconstruction of the self, and/or the poetic line. Boland's longevity and integrity within the writing community make her polite, direct, determined voice audible: despite a distancing prose, often marked by abstraction, Boland raises necessary questions, promotes young writers' growth, and guides, in particular, women writers towards an identity independent of that imposed by those to whom history and convention have given primacy. Tirelessly bearing its critique of the establishment, her poetry moves along established paths towards greyer landscapes, shedding ballast as it goes.
Adcock, Betty. "Permanent Enchantments." The Southern Review 30:4 (Autumn 1994): 792-809.
Allen-Randolph, Jody. "An Interview with Eavan Boland." Irish University Review 23:1 (Spring/Summer 1993): 117-30.
Boland, Eavan. In a Time of Violence: Norton, 1994.
—. "In Defence of Workshops." The Salmon Guide to Creative Writing in Ireland. Ed. Jessie Lendennie and Paddy Hickson. Galway: Salmon Press, 1991 (20).
—. In Her Own Image. Dublin: Arlen House, 1980.
—. A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition. Dublin: Attic Press (LIP pamphlet), 1989.
—. New Territory. Dublin: Arlen House, 1967.
—. Night Feed. Manchester: Carcanet, 1982.
—. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time: (essays) Norton, 1995.
—. An Origin Like Water: Poems 1967-1987: Norton, 1996.
—. Outside History. New York: Norton, 1990.
—. Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1989.
—. Selected Poems 1980-1990 : Norton, 1990.
—. The Journey. Manchester: Carcanet, 1986.
—. The War Horse. Dublin: Arlen House, 1975.
—. "The Woman Poet: Her Dilemma" Krino 1:1 (1986): 32-9.
Cixous, Helene, and Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.
Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 1989.
Gaffney, Maureen. Glass Slippers and Tough Bargains: Women, Men and Power. Dublin: Attic Press (LIP pamphlet), 1991.
Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle. Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets. Syracurse, N.Y.: Syracuse UP, 1996.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) . New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1975.
Irigaray, Luce. "The Gesture in Psychoanalysis." in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Teresa Brennan. London, New York: Routledge, 1989.
—. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca : Cornell UP, May 1985.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Mahon, Derek. "Young Eavan and Early Boland." Irish University Review: Special Issue on Eavan Boland (Spring/Summer 1993): 23-8.
McDiarmid, Lucy. "The Irish Question, Poetry Dept." New York Times Book Review May 7, 1995: 20-1.
Meaney, Gerardine. Sex and Nation: Women in Irish Culture and Politics. Dublin: Attic Press (LIP pamphlet), 1991.
Montefiori, Jan. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience and Identity in Women's Writing. London and New York: Pandora Press, 1987.
O'Rawe, Des. "Responsibilities/Responses." The Irish Review 16 (Autumn/Winter 1994): 136-41.
Ostriker, Alicia. "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking." The New Feminist Criticism. Showalter, Elaine, ed. New York: Pantheon, 1985: 314-38.
Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-78. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.
Rose, Catherine. The Female Experience: the Story of the Woman Movement in Ireland. Galway: Arlen House, 1975.
Suleiman, Susan. "(Re)Writing the Body: The Politics and Poetics of Female Eroticism" in The Female Body in Western Culture ed. Suleiman, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986.
Wilson, Rebecca E., and Gillian Somerville-Arjat. Sleeping With Monsters: Conversations with Irish and Scottish Women Poets. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990.
1. "The Faustian Bargain," from Just a Thought, ed. Martha McCarron, a collection of radio meditations culled from broadcasts between 1983 and 1985. Unexpectedly diverse, it includes, among some stereotypically pious contributions, John F. Deane reading a poem of his own about a violent political action in a church, Gabriel Rosenstock telling—in Irish—a story of Zen Master Pang Chÿh-Shih, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis expounding on the theme "love your neighbor as yourelf," Senator Brendan Ryan talking about the possibilities of radical change in affluent middle age.
2. She has had a wide choice even here: Goethe's Faust, for example, is a far more noble character; among the dozens of versions of Faust in fiction, drama and folklore, Irish literature too has its folk Faust in Séadhna, a folktale told wonderfully in Irish Gaelic by Peadar Ó Laoghaire.
3. "Woman Poet," 37.
4. Frederick Boland (1904-1985): educated Clongowes, Trinity College, Dublin, King's Inns; served in Irish Government as Secretary of the Department of External Affairs; represented Ireland at the U.N. from 1956-1960; President of the General Assembly 1960.
5. Luce Irigaray's idea of "phallic discourse" as summarized by Susan Suleiman, "(Re)Writing the Body," 13.
6. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 123. For Irigaray, this syntax can be deciphered in the gestural code of women's bodies, in their suffering, in their laughter, in what they "dare" or dare to say, when they are among themselves.
7. In an introduction to a book by firebrand journalist Nell McCafferty: "I have nothing in common with the Republicanism and I cannot share all the feminism" (The Best Of Nell, 13). "I am not a feminist poet." (Wilson, 85) "There is a separatist strategy where women are trying to make the structures again. And there is a subversive strategy. I am much nearer the second than the first" (Interview with Micheal O'Siadhail, Poetry Ireland Review 27, 22). "[Feminist separatism whispers temptingly that] to be feminine in poetry is easier, quicker and more eloquent than the infinitely more difficult task of being human" (Krino 1: 1, 34).
8. "In Defence of Workshops" in The Salmon Guide to Creative Writing in Ireland, ed. Jessie Lendennie and Paddy Hickson, Galway: Salmon Press, 1991 (20).
9. "I Am Ireland"—the title also recalls an 18th century poem, and a groundbreaking 1950s documentary/collage about the 1916 rebellion, directed and with music by Sean O'Riada.
10. "Wait till I get you" in Irish parlance can be a very severe threat to a child; if delivered in a stern voice, it almost obviates the need for follow-up action.
11. Jennifer Fitzgerald, in her review of "A Kind of Scar" for The Honest Ulsterman 91, finds the same correspondence of womanhood and nation in that essay: showing "that this relation for [Boland] is not just emblematical but a shared identity." (82)
12. Personal interview, June 1990.