by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
On April 27, 2020, Ireland lost one of its great poets.
Eavan Boland (1944-2020) was born in Dublin, Ireland, but her father was a career diplomat, so she spent part of her childhood in London, where she first came up against prejudice toward the Irish, and in New York City. At 14, she went home to Ireland for secondary school, and in 1966 earned a Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honors in English Literature and Language from Dublin’s Trinity College.
Boland was still a student when she published her first poetry collection, 23 Poems (1962). She married novelist and playwright Kevin Casey in 1969, and they had two daughters.
She will also be remembered as a teacher. Boland taught at Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, at Bowdoin College in Maine, and she was a member of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She also spent time as a writer in residence at Trinity, and at Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital. She taught at the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, and was a Professor of English at Stanford University in California.
Eavan Boland died in Dublin at age 75, after suffering a stroke.
She said in an interview at A Smartish Pace: “I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet.’ I found that a difficult and resistant atmosphere in which to write. I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.”
When asked “Does the poet have a role in our society or is it a personal endeavor?” This was her answer:
“The true obligation of the poet is to make the poem well and truly. In doing that, she discharges every obligation an artist owes a society.”
In Which the Ancient History
I Learn Is Not My Own
The linen map
hung from the wall.
The linen was shiny
and cracked in places.
The cracks were darkened by grime.
It was fastened to the classroom wall with
a wooden batten on
a triangle of knotted cotton.
We have no oracles,
no rocks or olive trees,
no sacred path to the temple
and no priestesses–
the teacher’s voice had a London accent.
This was London.
This was England. 1952.
It was Ancient History class.
Ireland was far away.
And farther away
I was nearly an English child.
I could list the English kings.
I could place the famous battles.
I was learning to recognize
God’s grace in history.
were faded out
so the red of Empire–
the stain of absolute possession–
the mark once made from Kashmir
to the oast-barns of the Kent
coast south of us was
And the waters
of the Irish Sea,
their shallow weave
and cross-grained blue-green,
had drained away
to the pale gaze
of a doll’s china eyes:
a stare without recognition or memory.
She put the tip
of the wooden
pointer on the map.
She tapped over ridges and dried-
out rivers and cities buried in
the sea and sea-scapes which
had once been land.
And came to a stop.
The Roman Empire
was the greatest
Empire ever known.
(Until our time of course.)
Remember this, children.
In those days,
the Delphic Oracle was reckoned
to be the exact centre of the earth.
to stand in front of it.
I wanted to trace over
and over the weave of
my own country and read out
names I was next to forgetting.
Wicklow. Kilruddery. Dublin.
was my old house?
With its front door.
Its brass One and Seven.
Its flight of granite steps.
Its lilac tree whose scent
stayed under your fingernails for days?
she was saying, even months,
the ancients travelled to the Oracle.
They brought sheep and killed them.
They brought questions
about tillage and war.
They rarely left with more
than an ambiguous answer.
“In Which the Ancient History I Learn Is Not My Own” from In a Time of Violence: Poems, © 1994 by Eavan Boland – W.W. Norton & Company
Becoming Anne Bradstreet
It happens again
As soon as I take down her book and open it.
I turn the page.
My skies rise higher and hang younger stars.
The ship’s rail freezes.
Mare Hibernicum leads to Anne Bradstreet’s coast.
A blackbird leaves her pine trees
And lands in my spruce trees.
I open my door on a Dublin street.
Her child/her words are staring up at me:
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
We say home truths
Because her words can be at home anywhere—
At the source, at the end and whenever
The book lies open and I am again
An Irish poet watching an English woman
Become an American poet.
“Becoming Anne Bradstreet” from Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries, © 2012 by Eavan Boland – published by the Folger Shakespeare Library
The Fire Gilder
She loved silver, she loved gold,
my mother. She spoke about the influence
of metals, the congruence of atoms,
the art classes where she learned
these things: think of it
she would say as she told me
to gild any surface a master craftsman
had to meld gold with mercury,
had to heat both so one was volatile,
one was not
and to do it right
had to separate them and then
burn, burn, burn mercury
until it fled and left behind
a skin of light. The only thing, she added—
but what came after that I forgot.
What she spent a lifetime forgetting
could be my subject:
the fenced-in small towns of Leinster,
the coastal villages where the language
of the sea was handed on,
phrases bruised by storms,
by shipwrecks. But isn’t.
My subject is the part wishing plays in
the way villages are made
to vanish, in the way I learned
to separate memory from knowledge,
so one was volatile, one was not
and how I started writing,
building heat until all at once
I was the fire gilder
ready to lay radiance down,
ready to decorate it happened
with it never did when
all at once I remember what it was
she said: the only thing is
it is extremely dangerous.
“The Fire Gilder” was published in the May 11, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
I was land.
I lay on my back to be fields
and when I turned
on my side
I was a hill.
under freezing stars.
I did not see.
I was seen.
Night and day
words fell on me.
Chips of frost.
From one of them
I learned my name.
I rose up. I remembered it.
Now I could tell my story.
It was different
from the story told about me.
And now also
it was spring.
I could see the wound I had left
in the land by leaving it.
I travelled west.
I looked with so much love
at every field
as it unfolded
its rusted wheel and its pram chassis
and at the gorse−
I had been
That they misunderstood me.
Come back to us
Trust me I whispered.
“Mother Ireland” was published in the October/November 1996 issue of Poetry magazine
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
“Quarantine” from New Collected Poems, © 2008 by Eavan Boland – W.W. Norton & Company
Irish women have long been inspirations for manly Irish poets, but the “role of women” in the Arts is expanding, in Ireland and everywhere else. Eavan Boland has often been called “one of the foremost female voices in Irish literature.” It’s been stated both condescendingly and with admiration, but over time, the admiration has won out, as she opened a way for others to follow.
- New Territory (1968) – Allen Figgis Publishing
- The War Horse (1975) – Arlen House
- In Her Own Image (1980) – Arlen House
- Night Feed (1982) – M.Boyars Publishing
- The Journey and Other Poems (1986) – Carcanet Press
- Outside History: Selected Poems 1980–1990 (1990) – W.W. Norton & Company
- In a Time of Violence (1994) – W.W. Norton & Company
- An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987 (1996) – W.W. Norton & Company
- The Lost Land (1999) – W.W. Norton & Company
- Against Love Poetry (2001) – W.W. Norton & Company
- Domestic Violence (2008) – W.W. Norton & Company
- Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries (2012) – Folger Shakespeare Library
- The Historians: Poems (expected October, 2020) – W.W. Norton & Company
- 19th century map of Italy and Greece
- Anne Bradstreet
- 16th century Italian gilded armor – Metropolitan Museum NYC
- Irish hills
- Stars in winter night sky
- Photo of Eavan Boland
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud