Windows On Boland-the Poetry of Eavan Boland

boland

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By Ray Greenblatt

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          Eavan Boland is a consummate poet; the skills of her trade are luminous. Not one of her poems lacks vivid wording, musicality, or significant meaning. Of course poetry is a most pejorative art, as in preference for a favorite painting, a favorite piece of music, etc. I have chosen poems from her most recent selected works—New Collected Poems (2009)—to speak about. A key section of a poem by Boland can be a window into her mind, where we may observe the weaving of her fabric. After reviewing the ten volumes gathered in this compendium of work, I find that she primarily focuses on love and family.
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                                                              1-QUARANTINE
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                    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.
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This poem captures a specific incident in the tragic history of a nation. A couple were trying to escape the famine of the 1840’s. The workhouse where they were quarantined offered little hope. Where they were escaping to is a moot point. “Quarantine” can be expanded to become a symbol for the Irish people sealed off in their own sick country. I am sure this one event is emblematic of the uncountable horrors that befell Ireland. And yet amongst all this cruelty and chaos Boland delineates, this is a love poem.
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The language is extremely simple. Words are repeated, but they all contribute to movement, namely the couple’s tortuous trek: “walking, walking, west, west, and, and, last, last, worst, worst.”  The vividness of fragments captures the fits and starts of dying, but it also drives home actual elements from which they suffered: “Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history . . . Also what they suffered. How they lived.” Yet their loving sacrifice for each other endures in history.
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                                                                         2-ONCE
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                                        I do not want us to be immortal or unlucky.
                                       To listen for our own death in the distance.
                                        Take my hand. Stand by the window.
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                                        I want to show you what is hidden in
                                        this ordinary, ageing human love is
                                       there still and will be.
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As we can see, Boland is steeped in Irish history. In several poems she makes reference to Lir, the sea god, whose children encounter sadness. She also speaks of Etain, a noble woman; yet she lives a tragic life metamorphosed over a thousand year period from a pool of water to a worm to a butterfly and finally into a beautiful swan. Here is one of the legends: Deirdre is the best known tragic heroine of Irish lore who runs off with her lover to escape a cruel king only to die.
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But through these inevitably tragic tales, Boland parallels contemporary times. Depending on how you look at it, suburbia can be primitive: “Our suburb was a forest, our roof was a home for thrushes . . . The chilled-to-the-bone light clears and shows us Irish wolves.” Touchingly, as in QUARANTINE she reiterates that through the ages love between a couple stands fast. This eternal legend, this idea, is a real and solid and provable one: to love is fulfillment.
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                                     3-THE BLACK LACE FAN MY MOTHER GAVE ME
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                              These are wild roses, appliquéd on silk by hand,
                              darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly.
                             The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent,
                              clear patience of its element. It is
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                              a worn-out, underwater bullion and it keeps,
                              even now, an inference of its violation.
                              The lace is overcast as if the weather
                              it opened for and offset had entered it.
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Boland goes to the trouble to put her mother into this poem, so there must be an element of personal truth in it. Was this an old boy friend whose gift the mother still strangely treasures? Or was this the beginning of the relationship between Boland’s mother and father? No matter, the focus is on the fan and what it represents. The man is always late, the woman early: their characters defined. There is tension and the building storm intensifies that.
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Key words stand out: “bullion” can be a treasure, but a “violation” is suggested. The stormy weather seems to have entered the fabric of the fan itself. Then Boland abruptly shifts the focus in the last stanza of the poem to a crow. The crow’s wing is similar to the fan: “The whole, full, flirtatious span of it.” The mother wants to pass on this symbol to her daughter as a kind of advice.  If our natural feelings move us, we should fully enter into a relationship, whatever the chancy results might be.
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                                                                   4-THE GAME
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                              Then I was following the thaw northward and the air
                              was blonde with frost and sunshine and below me
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                              was only water and the shadow of flight in it
                              and the shape of wings under it, and in the hours
                              before morning I would be drawn down and drawn
                              down and there would be no ground under me
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                              and no more safe landing in the dawn breaking on
                              a room with sharp corners and surfaces on which
                              the red-jacketed and cruel-eyed fractions of chance
                              lay scattered where the players had abandoned them.
 ..
The game was the card-playing of her mother and father. But in that seemingly harmless interplay was the ominous word “quarrelling.” It could be minor jibes, but not to this sensitive child, as this poetic section describes.  It is not a game; her parents’ careless words and moods wound her.  She wants to flee this southern country—namely England—to return home—north to Ireland. She does not feel safe. The cards are “cruel-eyed fractions of chance.” She emotionally experiences being “abandoned.”
Compounding her anxiety about her parents is the foreign environment. The Irish do not “pray for the King”; nor do they worship in the Anglican Church for “the archangels trapped in their granite hosannahs.” The poet often employs blank verse in four-line stanzas. As shown in QUARANTINE and THE BLACK LACE FAN MY MOTHER GAVE ME, that poetic form is effective for narrating a story, especially suggesting movement from place to place, such as the girl’s imaginary flight.
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                                                               5-THE JOURNEY
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                              ‘But these are women who sent out like you
                              when dusk became a dark sweet with leaves,
                              recovering the day, stooping, picking up
                              teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets—
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                              ‘love’s archaeology—and they too like you
                              stood boot deep in flowers once in summer
                              or saw winter come in with a single magpie
                               in a caul of haws, a solo harlequin.’
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                              I stood fixed. I could not reach or speak to them.
                              Between us was the melancholy river,
                              the dream water, the narcotic crossing
                              and they had passed over it, its cold persuasions.
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This too is a four-line stanzaic form in blank verse, running to 96 lines, the length of some ballads. Boland has created her own myth paralleling the Greeks. Sappho, a fellow poetess, leads her to the Underworld where they see children who died without the chance to live out full lives. In the past “cholera, typhus, croup, diphtheria” were major childhood killers. Again, the repetition of words—“I would have, I would have, down, down, always, always, went on, went on, shadows, shadows, let me, let me, remember it, remember it —“ reinforces motion of the journey.
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Boland was in the midst of daily life: “My room was a mess—the usual hardcovers, half-finished cups, clothes piled up on a chair.” But she is brought up short when she imagines that she beholds the horror in the loss of a child. Sappho says: “What you have seen is beyond speech, beyond song, only not beyond love.” Boland writes two final wrenching lines: “The rain was grief in dreams; my children slept the last dark out safely and I went.”
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        6-HANGING CURTAINS WITH AN ABSTRACT PATTERN IN A CHILD’S ROOM
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                                        Observe
                                        how the season enters pure line
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                                        like a soul: all the signs we know
                                        are only ways
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                                        of coming to our senses.
                                        I can see
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                                        the distances off-loading colour now
                                        into angles as
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                                        I hang their weather in
                                        your room.
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We have now gathered the essential ingredients of Eavan Boland’s main poetic preoccupation: her loving marriage as well as her parents’, her feelings as a child and her love for her children. This poem further explores more intimately the one-on-one relationship with her daughter. As we have seen, Boland has written sentence fragments before. In this poem in addition she writes in sparse two-line stanzas, perhaps to echo a child’s simplicity; however, the thinking is adult.
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The choice of curtains is not the typical “prince” or “unicorn” design. Boland selects “ellipse” and “triangle.” They become what one can imagine: “frost on the spider’s web and on bicycle sheds.” “Observe how season enters pure line like a soul.” As we mature, she intimates to her growing daughter—much like Boland’s mother passed on to her by means of THE BLACK LACE FAN—there should be room in one’s life for  “dull morning,” “weather,” “disappointments.” All these elements—the delight and the sorrow—we must prepare for.
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                    7-FROM THE PAINTING Back from Market BY CHARDIN
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                    I think of what great art removes:
                    Hazard and death, the future and the past,
                    This woman’s secret history and her loves—
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                    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.
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Boland has words of wisdom for anyone who will read her poetry; these four following poems look at the role of modern woman. She has used Greek myth and Irish history to convey her thoughts. She has referred to famous paintings by Degas, Ingres or Renoir; this time by Jean Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779).  The colors in the painting are basic gray, blue and white. The scene is rendered pictorially, as would have been true in Chardin’s era, when artists like the Dutch school attempted to be more realistic.
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It is a scene of everyday country life in eighteenth century France.  But in striking poetic language the poet declares that the artist has missed the essential—not that it is possible to reveal in a frozen moment  “hazard and death, the future and the past, this woman’s secret history and her loves.” Only a novel or play or poem can delve deeply enough into human nature to reveal details of our souls.
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                                                           8-ODE TO SUBURBIA
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                              Six o’clock: the kitchen bulbs which blister
                              Your dark, your housewives starting to nose
                              Out each other’s day, the claustrophobia
                              Of your back gardens varicose
                              With shrubs make an ugly sister
                              Of your suburbia.
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                              How long ago did the glass in your windows subtly
                              Silver into mirrors which again
                              And again show the same woman
                              Shriek at a child, which multiply
                              A dish, a brush, ash,
                              The gape of a fish
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                              In the kitchen, the gape of a child in the cot.
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From the opening of this slyly humorous ode, a housewife’s life is revealed in the worst light: “bulbs which blister,” “housewives starting to nose,” “claustrophobia of your back gardens,” “an ugly sister of your suburbia,” “shriek at a child,” “a dish, a brush, ash, the gape of a fish in the kitchen, the gape of a child in the cot.” Are the “sh” sounds the attempts to shush the frustrations in life; or are they the beginning of a gigantic “shriek!” We get our first hint of a fairy tale, “nosing” into the poem, with “ugly sister” and “silver into mirrors.”
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The proof mounts up: “silver slipper on your foot,” “a wand,” “a coach,” “rat without leather reins.” Cinderella’s lot comes into focus! We laugh at the childlike end rhyme of “reins” and “sliming your drains.” But Boland has been facetiously rhyming all the time, from half-rhymes like “subtly” and “multiply” to a final full stanza: “may—day” and “house—mouse.” Boland infers that no amount of daydreaming will save you; in actual life you must take the bitter with the sweet.
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                                                                   9-ANOREXIA
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                                                  till I renounced
                                                  milk and honey
                                                  and the taste of lunch.
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                                                  I vomited
                                                  her hungers.
                                                  Now the bitch is burning.
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                                                  I am starved and curveless.
                                                  I am skin and bone.
                                                  She has learned her lesson.
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                                                  Thin as a rib
                                                  I turn in sleep.
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This brutally shocking poem is again a modern look at what dilemmas some women  encounter. Whether Boland herself experienced this problem, we don’t know. However, she could have readily observed many other women caught in this sad plight. The structure of the poem is (I do not pardon the pun) down to bare bones: many three-line stanzas with very short staccato lines. The lines are spit out, a literal act of an anorexic. So many powerful lines in addition to the ones above: “Flesh is heretic. My body is a witch. I am burning it. Yes, I am torching her curves and paps and wiles. They scorch in my self denials.”
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The anorexic denies what she sees in the mirror; she is never “perfect” enough, physically or emotionally. Not only is her body whittled down to “sticks,” but she has lost her faith for which she feels she will be burned like a heretic. Her mental state sounds like a penance: “Only a little more, only a few more days sinless, foodless” and “Caged so I will grow angular and holy.” Boland knows neither hope nor prayer can solve this condition. As a modern woman, who is a housewife as well as lover, she can sympathize.
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  .                                      10-DAPHNE WITH HER THIGHS IN BARK
                                        Save face, sister.
                                        Fall. Stumble.
                                        Rut with him.
                                        His rough heat will keep you warm and
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                                        you will be better off than me,
                                        with your memories
                                        down the garden,
                                        at the start of March,
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                                       unable to keep your eyes
                                       off the chestnut tree—
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                                        just the way
                                        it thrusts and hardens.
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This final poem that I wish to discuss is also written in a wildness of lines—very short and long, and stanzas—some one line to six. But the outcome is positive, if you work through the storyline. We have returned to Greek myth as in THE JOURNEY. Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, did not want to marry. Many men pursued her, but being a fast runner she always eluded them; until the god Apollo shows interest. Boland alters this tale by substituting Pan for Apollo, perhaps because the poet wanted the man to be homely, earthy, more man-like.
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Daphne eventually negates his advances by changing into a tree. As she suggested in ODE TO SUBURBIA, Boland paints the bleak scene: “I shall be here forever, setting out the tea, among the coppers and the branching alloys and the tin shine of this kitchen; laying saucers on the pine table.” The poet states that modern woman must daringly follow her instincts and live life to the fullest. For “the opposite of passion is not virtue but routine.”
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          In a quite cursory survey of ten poems from the ten volumes of her poetry, we have visited the house of Eavan Boland and have seen the most intimate rooms.  Of her ten books, five have dedications, which further prove her emotional and mental structure is based on family.  Two books are dedicated to her mother, two to her husband Kevin Casey, and her entire oeuvre is dedicated to her family. Her powerful poetry gives a solid posterity to those she knows and loves.
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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/New-Collected-Poems-Eavan-Boland/dp/0393337308/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

 

 

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