Rebuilding Archetypes

Eavan Boland reinvented Irish poetry to make room for female poets.

By Carmine Starnino
Poetry Media Services

We open on a tiny flat in Dublin. A young poet sits by a window, writing. But something is wrong. The poem—eloquent, sonorous, carefully crafted—feels off. Studying the page, she suddenly realizes why, and the reason hurts harder for having been so easy to miss: she edited herself out.

“Being a woman,” Eavan Boland later explains in her memoir Object Lessons (1995), “I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” No name because Ireland had no models for writing about being a mother, daughter, or wife. Here was a cause begging to be espoused. But championing the poetic merit of “wholly female” subjects is useless if a poet is still at the mercy of inherited doubts about what she can say about those subjects. Old styles, argues Boland, can’t be trusted for shifts of consciousness. After all, by clogging the psychological channels between self and style, convention doesn’t just trick us into seeing certain attitudes as trivial, it ensures that we don’t catch on until too late. Boland’s dilemma, therefore, was intriguing: she had an open field, but not necessarily a free hand. Using existing forms to register what she felt as a woman meant tradition’s decorum police could—and did—quietly impose their own artificial perceptions. How, then, to speak for yourself? The answer was to reboot Irish poetry’s available modes, an achievement Boland clinched with two key books: The Journey (1987) and Outside History (1990).

New Collected Poems (which updates the 1996 collection, An Origin Like Water) brings together Boland’s 11 titles, along with two early poems and verse-play excerpts. The book lays bare the drama of Boland’s breakthrough, as well as the drop-off in what followed. As it is, the trailblazing is fascinating to track. A first stage—New Territory (1967), The War Horse (1975), and In Her Own Image (1980)—is full of false starts, wheel spinnings, and wet fingers in the wind. We’re given retellings of Irish myths, intricately and audibly rhymed. We’re given allegorized landscapes and historical colloquies. Luckily, such ideas soon find sharper expression, hinted at by the arrival, in In Her Own Image, of a Plathian defiance:

Flaming
tindering
I’ll singe

a page of
history
for these my sisters.
—From “Witching”

Second stage begins with Night Feed. Thanks to Plath, Boland’s line lengths tighten visibly, assume a curt cadence. Bishop’s influence also grabs hold, and under her intervention Boland begins to shed the notion of poetry as a staged arrangement of images and themes. Having moved from city to suburb and given birth, she now logs her surroundings—a washing machine, nappies, milk bottles—with the intensity of someone aware that an entire way of life risks lapsing unrecorded without her: “And still no page / scores the low music / of our outrage.” Fully achieved poems where we hear this “low music” (“Domestic Interior,” “Degas’s Laundresses,” “Woman in Kitchen”) tinker with a discovery that keeps its powder dry until her next book: diction as iconoclasm. Refusing to be cowed by accents not her own, Boland uses plainspokenness (“my mother tongue”) to cut ties with the canon.

The Journey (1987) completes Boland’s aesthetic dissent, unveils a voice “hardened by / the need to be ordinary.” The poems mark time, take stock, note the hour. Pent-up, they pack in a lot: “Irish whisky, lipstick, / an empty glass, / oyster crêpe-de-Chine.” The nervous energy of so much internalized sense data leads to an exceptionally wide tonal range: satiric, skeptical, tender, impertinent. All this Boland joins up in stanzas of sumptuous clarity that practically beg to be read aloud. It’s also a clarity that trusts its own power of description, and thus feels no anxiety about being misunderstood. In this way, poems like “The Oral Tradition,” “The Women,” and “Nocturne” deliver major feminist statements that rely, for their effect, on a counterpoint of “singing innuendoes.” One of the high points, surely, of English-language poetry, and a hard act to follow.

Except that she did it again. Outside History (1990) is an absolute page-turner. Much of the book is given over to filling in the “sequence of evicted possibilities” that, for Boland, defines female history. Sound programmatic? It isn’t. Feverishly creative, more like it. Irish myths, those she blames for womankind’s archetypal reputation as passive, are rebuilt from scratch with entirely new ingredients. And at the heart of the project stands Boland: housewife, daughter, and mother, seeking to set “the truth to rights” as much for her own good as for her historical sisters. We get strange alter egos or speakers who, looking back, emerge with vivid, accumulated memories of a reimagined past. Shouldering much of this work is Boland’s language, which has finally caught up with its ambitions and, in its achieved state, persuasively redefines poetic originality not as virile distinctiveness (à la Heaney) but as verbal subtlety that keeps adding surprises to itself. Her vocabulary is so discriminating (“losses in the air so fractional / they could be // fragrances which just fell from it”) that each word wears the complex self-investigation that brought it into being. The result is a form that feels uniquely hers: disciplined, compressed, unemphatic, and airy. What next?

Third stage. Boland, now teaching in the U.S., tries to catch the slipstream of her last two books, and nearly does it with In a Time of Violence (1994). I say “nearly” because, alongside exemplary poems like “Lava Cameo,” we find a high number of strained epiphanies. Most of these can be blamed on thematic doggedness: a poet desperate to find the sorts of moments that throw up the big questions. But while In a Time of Violence has some good pieces, The Lost Land (1998) and Against Love Poetry (2001) arrive with their innovatory force entirely mislaid. Boland has become someone who knows what she’s known for, and overindulges expectations. This is what happens, you realize, when the message runs on after the music for it has fallen away. Boland is eager to take her place in literary history, and portrays herself accordingly. At the end, she curates a return visit to that long-ago desk, now occupied by another young woman. “I wrote like that once. / But this is different. / This time, when she looks up, I will be there.” True, but tuneless.

Carmine Starnino’s newest book of poems, This Way Out, is forthcoming from Gaspereau Press in spring 2009. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.

© 2009 by Carmine Starnino. All rights reserved.

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~ by ericedits on May 12, 2009.

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