The Historians, by Eavan Boland, Carcanet, 80 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1784109141
A great life in poetry came to a close this year with the passing of Eavan Boland. This is neither the time nor the place to offer an estimation of where her life’s work will come to rest in the long story of Irish poetry; suffice it to offer, here, my personal conviction that the work will endure, that it has radically changed how we come to think of that story, and that both in influence and achievement her poetry and her commentary on that poetry have already altered forever the topography of what has been done and what can, should and will be done.
As well to invoke the shades and vagaries of history at the outset, then, since her life’s work was concerned with what history includes and excludes, with writing herself as a woman poet into history, with recovering from the darkness of exclusion and neglect so many lives that have flared and died outside history.
Steadily, poem by poem and book by book, Eavan worked her way into the heart of darkness, not in the Conradian sense of course, but into the centre of those marginal, penumbral zones outside the spotlight of what was “officially” deemed worthy of being remembered. Hers was a double journey ‑ the poet finding her way into the self-granted warrant of her craft, the citizen struggling for the vindication of women, for a more amplified and more truthful narrative of Ireland. Her method was her purpose: in confronting exclusion, in the historical sense, she simultaneously chose to examine her own path into permission, into the poem, ever-present to herself, always questioning her step-by-step progress into her own gathering experience of making. And at the same time, not as a polemicist but as a citizen, she was attempting to formulate, or reformulate, a more ample and truthful vision of Ireland. By the time she had arrived at the pared back landscapes and poemscapes of Outside History and Against Love Poetry, it seems to me that she had succeeded in fusing her double quest: she had found a way to speak plainly of and for all those whom history had cast aside, a neglect, often deliberate, that was both political and moral; and at the same time she had found in herself a voice she could finally consider adequate to her subject and to the unforgiving demands of her craft.
Tracing that arc to myself while awaiting a copy of this present book, I had expected a particular kind of composure, poems that would speak at last of a history in which she could, finally, begin to feel at home, a history of inclusion, of comfort with contradictions, to the birth of which she had herself made a mighty contribution. A resolution of what had been, to adopt a particular perspective, neither more nor less than a vision quest.
This is not that book, this is not that composure.
The poems, all of them, have that familiar, spare, feel to them ‑ the clarity of cold water, the measured cadence, the plain diction and the leaping insight so characteristic of her mature work ‑ but there is grief here of a depth and of a kind that chills the heart, a near-hopelessness at times, over and over a sense of self-accusation. The last line of “Lost” is “I should have taken more care.” Or take these lines from “Margin”:
It was colder now and the intimate unsettled colors (sic)
showed me up, a transient …
She figures herself as a transient in a region
I found for myself,
described for myself in my own language
so I could stand if only for one moment
on its margin.
Just before this, in the section “Enough” from “Three Ways in Which Poems Fail”, we find
I remember how I longed
to find the plenitude and the accuracy needed
to brings words home …
Now I wonder
if it was enough.
Enough for what? Her surprising answer: enough “to make us weep”.
Few would doubt ‑ I certainly don’t ‑ that Eavan, in the long span of the work, in poems certainly, but also in her incisive and provocative essays, succeeded in bringing words home. Nobody who has read the work can doubt that she brought herself and her work to the centre of a new narrative of empowerment, a narrative that had its first impetus in her words; she was a dignified, civil and persuasive path-breaker, especially in the empowerment of women, most particularly women poets. So, what is it that she doubts, at this late stage in the life and in the work? I think that perhaps the answer, or a pointer to the answer, is to be found in “For a Poet Who Died Young”‚ the poet in question being, surely, Sylvia Plath. “You died young,” she says. “Your words helped me live.” She goes on: “Your words disturbed my earth. They changed my mind” ‑ but would not any of us say of Eavan’s words what she says here of Sylvia’s? The poem comes to a grim conclusion, unforgiving of self:
So many years later
forgive the fact my words unlike yours
offer little comfort and less peace.
A poet whose every instinct was to put language under pressure to yield up all its shades of meaning cannot have been unaware that, as far as her readers are concerned, her words have brought comfort and peace in abundance, not least the peace and comfort of permission, so we are forced to conclude that words, poems in other words, have brought the poet neither comfort nor peace. She says as much, or comes close to it, in “The Lamplighter”:
How often I long to lift
my words high. How
often nothing is raised
and nothing brightens.
And yet, and yet … against the darkness that eddies and gathers in this, the last book we will have from her hand, there is indeed redemptive light, and it is found in the poems that bracket the collection. In the poem that closes the book, the very title sounds a bright note: “Our Future Will Become The Past of Other Women”. The commission came from the Royal Irish Academy and the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations, to mark the centenary of Irish women exercising the right to vote in 1918. Consider the brass clash of echoes here, that Royal, the fact that the right to vote was granted by the occupying power which was shortly to be displaced in an insurgent Ireland, that her father would become a free Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations ‑ what a confluence of warrant, permission, resistance and continuity! Granted that all commissioned work is dragged back in one way or another by the very fact that it is commissioned, nevertheless Boland manages, driven forward perhaps by the accumulated energy and insight of her life’s work to that point, to find and put forward a song of hope. Freedom, she says, can be “a hope raised, then defeated, / then renewed”. She offers that moment, the memory of a women’s victory in achieving suffrage, as a talisman of
Justice no longer blind.
Inequity set aside.
And freedom redefined.
Stirring and heartening as her conclusion may be, rising somehow above the rhetoric of its occasion, the crowning glory of The Historians is the poem that opens the book, “The Fire Gilder”. Opening on a memory of her mother, the painter Frances Kelly, describing the near-alchemical, mesmerising, process of gilding by melding gold with mercury, then the daughter drops through a trapdoor into
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 …
And then this reach, easy or not, this flight from the sacred self-involvement of art into a kind of pastoral, is repudiated:
My subject is the part wishing plays in
the way villages are made
to vanish …
There in the half-attention of a childhood afternoon, or in the memory of that moment, the great theme announces itself: absence. What is elided, forgotten erased, marginalised …
What beckons next is the seduction into craft. The young writer finds she has become
… the fire gilder
ready to lay radiance down
ready to decorate it happened
with it never did …
Take the life in poetry for what it has been, consider all that Boland has achieved, and then consider the late-breaking remembered phrase that concludes this poem:
all at once I remember
what it was she said: the only thing is
it is extremely dangerous.
Take the poem as an ars poetica, take note of its place as the opening poem of the book, and as you make your way through so many following rehearsals of grief, intimations of failure, instances of doubt, consider that you have been amply warned: poetry is dangerous business; beauty may not save us, either from history or from ourselves, when the cold winds blow.
Theo Dorgan is a poet and writer.