- 1 Eavan Boland, Object Lessons, The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, New York, Norton, 19 (...)
1“[My poem] wants to unsay the cadences and certainties of one kind of Irishness1”, Eavan Boland states in “Turning Away”, the fifth essay of Object Lessons, published in 1994. By “one kind of Irishness” she means the Irish poem which she inherited when she started writing poetry in the Dublin of the 1960s. As she recalls in Object Lessons, instead of “clothing herself in an old and inherited sense of possession” (OL 71), she chose to explore “a place of fixities and resistances where the lineaments of tradition meet the intentions of an individual poet” (OL 207), thus getting involved in “a series of engagements and assessments with the place and the time and the poem.” (OL 94)
- 2 The War Horse, London, Gollancz, 1975, p. 42.
- 3 The Journey and Other Poems, Manchester, Carcanet, 1987, p. 24.
- 4 Against Love Poetry, New York, Norton, 2001, p. 46.
2 Within her impressive poetic opus, which runs from 1962 until today, three poems stand out as emblematic of this ethical and aesthetic endeavour, three poems entitled “Suburban Woman” with a difference: “Suburban Woman2”, the antepenultimate poem in The War Horse (1975),brings together Irish history and present-day Ireland, through the enigmatic confrontation of two women — an anonymous tribal “she”, a survivor of the Irish past who is also a woman now living in the suburbs, and the poet-speaker — “who are of one another the first draft”. “Suburban Woman: A Detail3”, published in The Journey (1987), offers a variation on the same theme, as the speaker meets with a female apparition coming from the past in the midst of the Dublin suburbs where she lives. Written some fourteen years later, “Suburban Woman: Another Detail4” closes Boland’s last but one collection, Against Love Poetry, or Code (2001), together with a poem significantly entitled “Is It Still the Same”. In this third poem, the “other woman” comes to substitute herself for the poet-speaker: “another woman is living my life. / Another woman is lifting my child.”
3 Thieving perspectives, adopting unfamiliar angles of vision, the three poems offer varying insights on the theme of self and other, in its relation to experience, vision and creation. After examining Eavan Boland’s conception of the Irish poetic tradition conveyed in Object Lessons,and probing the way in which she strives to infuse it with new perspectives, I shall deal with the three “Suburban Woman” poems as attempts to create a new variety of Irishness, and as landmarks introducing a cluster of variations in the poet’s work.
4By “one kind of Irishness”, Eavan Boland alludes to the poem which she inherited in “the puzzle of time and sexuality and nationhood” of the 1960s (OL xiii), and which she considers to be the product of a hybrid tradition merging of “two powerful histories of the European poem”. (OL 93)
It had come with difficulty out of the claims and counterclaims made on it by the previous half century. Its currency represented both a survival and a compromise. Despite Yeats’s example, the poetic model I encountered in Dublin was nearer to Joyce’s quatrain, and its pre-Raphaelite influence, than the modernist paragraph, bristling with syntax and argument, which Yeats had used. The stanza I wrote, almost without thinking, was a hybrid: half British movement poem and half Irish lyric. (OL 104)
5She also defines the Irish tradition (in a broad acceptation of the word) as male and nationalist, imposing “a certain sequence of importances and permissions for the Irish poem: for its themes, its language and purpose” (OL 192). As a consequence, she denounces the confusion between the political and the public poems, which creates a construct where “the difficult ‘I’ of perception bec[omes] the easier ‘we’ of a subtle claim.” (OL 177)
I was skeptical of the very structure of the Irish poem. Its inherited voice, its authoritative stance, its automatic reflex of elegy — these given qualities, from a technical perspective, accrued too much power to the speaker to allow that speaker to be himself a plausible critic of power. And the power he had was a sweet and venerable one, with its roots deep in the flattery of princes and a bardic outrage at losing protected status for poets. It gave to the Irish poets an authority long taken from or renounced by their British counterparts. (OL 190)
6 The outcome of this series of generic and genetic tensions is what Boland calls the “well-made compromise” (OL 250),
a hybrid of the Irish lyric and the British movement piece. […] It usually rhymed, was almost always stanzaic, had a beginning, middle and end. The relation of music to image, of metaphor to idea was safe, repetitive and derivative. “Ladies, I am tame, you may stroke me”, said Samuel Johnson to assorted fashionable women. If this poem could have spoken, it might have said something of the sort. (OL 250)
7 As she retraces in Object Lessons, The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, Boland’s artistic endeavour consisted in “bringing together a poet’s life and a woman’s” (OL 111) by “moving womanhood and Irishness to the center of the poem.” (OL 132) To this effect, she strove to introduce ordinary life into poetry (OL 109), fighting what she calls the “Romantic Heresy”, responsible for “a damaging division between what is poetic on the one hand and, on the other, what is merely human” (OL 241). In Object Lessons, she describes her poetic experience as “one adventure in perception” (OL 219). It looks indeed as if she has deliberately turned away from nationalist and romantic ways of seeing, thus “thieving perpectives” in order to substitute new perceptions — the metaphor comes from the fourth section of “Suburban Woman”:
Late, quiet across her garden
sunlight shifts like a cat
burglar, thieving perspectives,
leaving her in the last light
alone, where, as shadows harden,
lengthen, silent she perceives […]
8In the footsteps of Patrick Kavanagh, Boland values the power of individual vision:
I wanted to see the powerful public history of my own country joined by the private lives and solitary perspectives […] which the Irish poetic tradition had not yet admitted to authorship. (OL 187).
- 5 Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”, Arts of the Possible, Essays and Conve (...)
9Emphasizing the relation between voice and vision (here, more precisely, what Adrienne Rich would call “re-vision” — “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction5”), Boland trusts “the eloquent and destabilizing effect of the private voice”, capable of “throwing the conventional Irish political poem off-balance, offering it fresh perspectives and different alignments.” (OL 187) She affirms that the voice is hers, or more exactly that the voice is her:
- 6 Rebecca E. Wilson, “Eavan Boland”, Sleeping with Monsters, Conversations with Scottish and Irish w (...)
Yes, the voice is me. It isn’t just the voice of an ‘I’. It’s me in the Yeatsian sense, in that it is the part of me that connects with something more durable and more permanent in my own experience6.
- 7 In Object Lessons Eavan Boland denounces “those simplifications of women” in Irish poetry, and blam (...)
10The three “Suburban Woman” poems partake of her determination to write her life and herself into the poem — not as icon, emblem, muse, passive heroine or “decoration7”, but at “the point of intersection between the inward adventure and the outward continuum that we live” (OL 155). They all stage the poet-speaker, at work — watching on a new page “word, thought / look for ascendency” (SW1) —, “setting out for a neighbour’s house” (SW2), or at her desk again, “imagining” (SW3). They also stage three female personae. The first one is a mysterious “she”, merging a present-day woman living in the suburbs, “courtesan to the lethal rapine of routine”, and a tribal survivor of the Ireland of the past, the defeated witness of the violent creation of the suburbs referred to in the opening line, “Town and country at each other’s throat” — a warlike, disruptive metaphor, which also alludes both to Irish history and to the contemporary crisis in Northern Ireland.
11 The second persona is a female ghost rising from the national past, appealing to the poet’s attention and testimony, in a plea for remembrance. The third is a mysterious double of the poet-speaker reduced at this stage to a watching role, as the other woman is playing her part. The kitchen having been turned into a stage, the pulling of the curtains seemingly brings the scene, and the poem, to an end.
12The three poems, as their titles indicate, select the suburbs as their priviledged locus: through the violent realities of its settlement in “Suburban Woman” (conveyed by images of violation and mutilation: “they came, armed with blades and ladders”, “Haemorrageing to hacked /roads, in back gardens […] / tribal acres died”), the evocation of a suburban autumn evening in the second poem (“The last dark shows up the headlights / of the cars coming down the Dublin mountains”), and a scene in “an uncurtained front room” watched from outdoors in the third poem, stressing the constrast betwen the lighted inside and the dark mineral outside: “And the neighbourhood / is the colour of shadow, / the colour of stone.”
13 Challenging what Boland calls the “Romantic Heresy”, the three poems also impose life in the suburbs as their central subject, a routine life filled with domestic chores: “The chairs dusted and the morning / coffee break behind” (SW1), “the shrubs are prinked, the hedges gelded” (SW2). They evoke the daily life of a housewife and mother, metaphorically (“mistress of talcums, spun / and second cottons”), or plainly, even bluntly. In the third poem, the series of mechanical actions sound almost like stage directions: “lifting ”, “setting down”, “cutting”, “crushing”, “she goes” , “she lifts”, “she stares”, “pulls” and “puts herself beyond”.
14 Another common denominator of the three poems is the symbolic importance of dusk: the first opens at night and spans the length of a whole day; the second opens “by the last light”; “Dusk” is the monosyllabic first line of the third. Throughout her work, Eavan Boland explores the metaphoric possibilities of that time of day, which she evokes in “The Women” as
neither here-nor-there hour of evening
- 8 The Journey and Other Poems, Manchester, Carcanet, 1987, p. 27.
the hour of change, of metamorphosis,
of shape-shifting instabilities8
15Duskenables a “thieving of perspectives”, substituting unusual perpectives for habitual ways of seeing. Hence the awareness of the woman persona in “Suburban Woman”, whom the “burglar sunlight” enables to perceive botanic details and their symbolic (warlike) significance:
silent she perceives
veteran dead-nettles knapweed
crutched on walls, a summer’s seed
of roses trenched in ramsons, and stares
at her life falling with her flowers […]
16As a time of uncertainties, dusk opens up a new potential of perception, exemplified in “Suburban Woman: A Detail”. As Boland recalls in “Making the Difference”,
When I stood on my front doorstep on a summer night, the buddleia and the lamplight glossing the hedge were not just visible to me. I saw them with my body. […] And for some reason, although it was a radical difference in my life, I trusted this way of seeing. […] It was — at certain definable moments in that ordinary world — that I felt I stood in the place of myth and lyric and vision. (OL 219)
17The first two “Suburban Woman” poems combine these three components in order to denounce the violence imposed on women both in the past and the present. In the wake of Anna Akhmatova, whom she greatly admires, Boland brings together individual experience and communal grief and suffering. “I felt the time had come to rework these images by exploring the emblematic relation between my own feminine experience and a national past”, she writes in “Outside History”; “My womanhood and my nationhood were meshed and linked at some root. [...] I only needed to prove the first in order to reveal the second.” (OL 147).
- 9 Michaela Schrage-Früh, Emerging Identities, Trier, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2004, p. 30.
- 10 Jody Allen-Randolph, “Private Worlds, Public Realities: Eavan Boland’s Poetry 1967-1990”, Irish Un (...)
18 As Michaela Schrage-Früh states, “Suburban Woman” “places the Irish situation in a metaphorical relationship to a woman’s life9”, juxtaposing a past composed of war and defeat and a present made of strife and compromise, both in the public and the private spheres. Jody Allen-Randolph observes that in the last few poems of The War Horse, the poet “charts divisive violences within the individual psyche, finding disturbing correlatives of a public situation in a private world” in “a powerful imaginative struggle to bring together elements of artistic, national, and gendered identity10”.
19 In a combination of uncertainty and fear, “Suburban Woman: A Detail” gives voice to the defeated women of the past, Ireland’s “silent constituency, made of suffering and failed expression” (OL 248):
Suddenly I am not certain
of the way I came
or the way I will return,
only that something
which may be nothing
more than darkness has begun
softening the definitions
of my body, leaving
the fears and all the terrors
of the flesh shifting the airs
and forms of the autumn quiet
crying ‘remember us’.
- 11 E. Boland, “ Interview ”, Caffeine Destiny, www.cafeinedestiny.com.
- 12 Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 2.
20The poem opens out onto “the darkness which no domesticity, no household, no love and no security is safe from11”, in Boland’s own words; the irruption of the uncanny into the familiar, well-defined, ordered world of suburbia “unsettling time, space, order, and sense12”. A similar atmosphere pervades “Suburban Woman: Another Detail”. The poem is fraught with a sense of alienation and duality, in a world characterized by silence and vacuity (the November twilight is “featureless”; in an inverted metaphor, it has been “drained” by the moon). The division is here complete between the poet-speaker and her alter ego. On the other hand, although it emphasizes division, “Suburban Woman” deals with the nightly confrontation and meeting of the woman poet and the woman persona. As Jody Allen-Randolph observes,
- 13 J.Allen-Randolph, “Private Worlds”, p. 9.
In the last stanza, Boland sets up a dramatic encounter between the suburban woman and the woman poet as divided elements of a single psyche. Here, images of division culminate in the split image of a woman caught between her identity in a traditional woman’s role and her station as a poet. The main weakness of the poem is its failure to achieve a unified sensibility; this is also its theme.13
- 14 Eavan Boland, “The Weasel’s Tooth”, Irish Times, 7 June 1974.
21The three poems can indeed be read as articulating individual and communal disunity. In an essay entitled “The Weasel’s Tooth”, Boland affirms that “there is […] no unity whatsoever in this culture of ours. […] This unity, this disunity of selfhood, of individuality is […] the only true adventure for poetry.14” In the three “Suburban Woman” poems, anguish, absence, silence and pain are associated with a sense of unhomeliness within the domestic and suburban worlds. In Homi Bhabha’s words,
- 15 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London, Routledge Classics,1994, p. 13.
The recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it isdisorienting.15
- 16 J. Allen-Randolph, “An Interview with Eavan Boland”, p. 125.
22Yet from “Suburban Woman” to “Suburban Woman: A Detail” and “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” the vision is not fixed, and the perspective varies, as the titles of the poems suggest. Indeed the last two titles hint at a narrowing of the perspective, since they announce two successive close-ups on elements supposedly present in the first poem. Eavan Boland herself would probably repudiate such an interpretation, when she affirms that her poems “have nothing to do with perspective; they have to do with the unfinished business of feeling and perception”16.
23 In an interview, Boland once said that when writing the poems included in Outside History, she was “writing about the lost, the voiceless, the silent. And exploring [her] relation to them. And — more dangerous still — feeling [her] ways into the powerlessness of an experience through the power of expressing it”17. This seems to be precisely what is at stake in the three poems, in which the power of expression modulates in form and intensity.
- 18 Adolphe Haberer, “Outside History: A Sequence, d’Eavan Boland: l’Écriture en marge”, Etudes Irland (...)
- 19 Terence Browne, “Heart Mysteries There: The War Horse”, Irish University Review, p. 36.
- 20 M. Schrage-Früh, Emerging Identities, p. 30
- 21 J. Allen-Randolph, “Private Worlds”, p. 13.
- 22 T. Browne, “Heart Mysteries There”, p. 36.
24 “Suburban Woman” has been criticized for its obscurity (A. Haberer mentions l’“opacité des vers18”), its self-consciousness (T. Browne considers some of the poems in the War Horse as “self-consciously fraught and violent19”), its incoherence (according to M. Schrage-Früh, “it seems impossible to join the various elements and arrive at a coherent interpretation of the poem”20.), its lack of homogeneity (J. Allen-Randolph points at “difficulties in the angles of distance between the rhetorical voice and the experience, betwen the lyrical persona and the material21”) and its unbalance and formal discontinuity (T. Browne notes that “formally too the poems in The War Horse suggest disruption, invasion, even violation22”). In the other two poems, we can note a progressive paring down — a “stripping of ornament”, as Boland puts it — associated with an increased personal involvement, paradoxically infused with a growing sense of estrangement.
25 “Suburban Woman” and “Suburban Woman: A Detail” both rely on the conjunction of myth and national history. The third section of the first poem offers an unconventional perspective on the classical myth of Ceres and Proserpine, in relation to procreation and motherhood, both associated with loss and compromise:
[…] where once in an underworld
of limbs, her eyes freckling the night like jewelled
lights on a cave wall, she, crying, stilled,
bargained out of nothingness her child,
bartered from the dark her only daughter.
Waking, her cheeks dried, to a brighter
dawn she sensed in her as in April earth
a seed, a life ransoming her death.
26 The myth of Ceres recurs in section two of the second poem in a less personal, more explicit, yet negative mode:
This is not the season
when the goddess rose
out of seed, out of wheat,
out of thawed water
and went, distracted and astray,
to find her daughter.
27Although the treatment of the classical myth is less subjective here, the themes of loss and separation remain pervasive; they are related to “the fears and all the terrors / of the flesh”, which haunt the poet-speaker as much as the defeated women of the past. “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” moves away from myth and history, only to deepen the themes of loss and alienation. Through the medium of the speaker’s imagination, the poem focuses on a sensory world, visual (the poet watches, while the woman “stares”), tactile (the air is “wintry”, the rind “oily”), and olfactive (with the “smart of peat” outside, and the smell of the lemon inside). The physicality of the sensations, as “the bitter, citric fragrance stays against [the other woman’s] skin”, emphasizes the poet-speaker’s sense of estrangement and exclusion.
28In Object Lessons, Eavan Boland reflects on her determination “to turn elements of experience into elements of expression”, her main concern being the relation between the voice and the line. In her introduction to The Making of a Poem, she writes:
- 23 E. Boland, “Poetic Form: A Personal Encounter”, The Making of a Poem, edited by Mark Strand and Ea (...)
Without realizing it, I have come upon one of the shaping formal energies: the relation of the voice to the line. […] I begin to see how I would be able to work with the line by working against it, pushing the music of dailiness against the customary shapes of the centuries […] using the voice against the line, rather than with it as the nineteenth-century poets did.23
- 24 Eavan Boland, “Essay from The Literary Review”, http://www.theliteraryreview.org/poems/bolandessay (...)
- 25 R.T. Smith, “Altered Light: Ouside History”, Irish University Review, p. 86-99.
29This preoccupation prompts her to experiment with line length. “I had painfully and determinedly come to a more fractured and open-ended line and stanza, where the acoustics for the voice were better24.” “Suburban Woman” testifies to Boland’s early interest in where the line breaks. As R.T. Smith observes, “the initial pairs of well-behaved rhyming couplets giv[e] way to snagged enjambments and unpredictable, emphatic caesuras25”, the poem combining a “dominant twelve syllable line legislating for order” and “a less stable rhetorical moment”. In Gus Martin’s words,
- 26 Augustine Martin, “Quest and Vision: The Journey”, Irish University Review, p. 84.
A turbulent set of emotions involving race, nation, gender, history, class — as well as that neglected factor, personality — are still struggling for expression […] within the creative ferment. The sense of energy is enormous both in its achievement and its promise.26
- 27 Patty O’Connell, “An Interview with Eavan Boland”, Poets and Writers Magazine, 22.6, Nov-Dec. 1994 (...)
30Discussing formal experimentation, Boland explains: “I began to work on the ways in which the music and meaning of each line could either flow together or clash [...] while writing the poems that were eventually published in The Journey27”, In “Suburban Woman: A Detail”, the line is shorter than in the preceding poem; the well-ordered first section gives way to two sextets, each made up of one sentence. Composed of irregular short lines and stanzas, section three introduces a form of instability, leading to a flux released by “suddenly”, and the poem ends in a long, flexible twelve line sentence.
31 “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” combines short (even monosyllabic) lines with ten, twelve or thirteen syllable lines. Strikingly, most sentences are short and punctuated. Out of twenty-five lines, nine are made up of a brief, most often elliptical, sentence: “Is setting her down. / Is cutting oily rind from a lemon.”; “Then pulls the curtains tightly shut. / And puts herself and my child beyond it.” It sounds as if the poem was, this time, “using the line against the voice”, in order to fight back the upsurge of emotion, the flux of anguish, fear and pain which runs through the first two poems.
32 This growing alienation is expressed in a poem entitled “Anna Liffey”, composed half-way between the second and the third “Suburban Woman” poems. Here, the poet-speaker finds herself excluded not only from her life, but from language itself:
An ageing woman
Finds no shelter in language […]
Words she once loved […]
Have suddenly become dwellings
For someone else —
Rooms and a roof under which someone else
Is welcome, not her.
- 28 J. Allen-Randolph, “Private Worlds”, p. 22.
33As Jody Allen-Randolph observes, Eavan Boland’s poetry “challenges the notion of a centralised, orthodox Irishness through a perspective both subtle and daily, fully attentive to culture as it is constituted not necessarily in tradition but always in human interaction and suffering28.” As the poet explains in Sleeping with Monsters:
- 29 R.E.Wilson, Sleeping with Monsters, p. 81.
I make a clear distinction between feminizing the material, which I think is unethical and restrictive, and humanizing the feminine parts of experience […] A lot of what we now call ‘feminine experiences’ […] are, in fact, […] powerful metaphors for types of humiliation, types of silence, that are there throughout human experience. But you need to unlock the metaphor […]. You can only do it by humanizing it.29
34This need to humanize the material may be the reason why the last section of “Suburban Woman: Another Detail”, published in the American collection entitled Against Love Poetry, was excised from the British edition, Code, and from New Collected Poems, published in 2005:
I can see nothing now.
I write at my desk alone.
I choose words taken from the earth,
from the root, from the faraway
oils and essence of elegy:
Bitter. And close to the bone.
- 30 Domestic Violence, New York, Norton, 2007, p. 77.
35 This radical statement of solitude and loss may open the way to a poem like “Instructions”, published in March 2007 in Domestic Violence30:
To write about age you need to take something and
(This is an art that has always loved young women.
And silent ones.)
A branch, perhaps, girlish with blossom. Snapped off.
Close to the sap.
Now take syntax. Break that too. What is left is for you
and you only:
A dead tree. The future. What does not bear fruit. Or
- 31 R.T. Smith, “Altered Light: Ouside History”, p. 94.
- 32 Ibid., p. 56.
36 Yet the poet chose to excise the last stanza from Code, thus lightening the tone of “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” and, as a consequence, of the whole collection. As R.T. Smith points out, “what one finds in Boland’s poetry is […] a socket of uncertainty where negociations and accommodation of contrarieties continue31”. Published together with “Instructions” in Domestic Violence32, “Neighbors” can be read as a follow up to the “Surburban Woman” poems, closing this series of poetic variations on a more conciliatory, almost pacified note — although it is not devoid of ambiguity. Through the spectrum of memory, the poem shifts from an individual to a communal, shared perspective, opening up the vista onto the neighbourhood and the starry sky, and suggesting — “unusually”, and at the price of a sharper vision — a possible sense of purpose and reconciliation:
The skies above Dundrum tonight, unusually,
are clear of rain and wide.
This is the hour of gathering.
We call the children in.
We stow the bikes and close the garage doors.
The worker-stars are up. They lift and carry —
a child, a sheaf of wheat, a whole horizon.
They have till dawn to set
the ships on course, the compasses dead straight.
We look up the distances are lost on us.
Everything seems near and purposeful.
And bright. And side by side.