Boland has found her Boswell

Thomas McCarthy on a perceptive analysis of Eavan Boland’s work and an attempt “to put the layers of gold back into contemporary poetry”.

Eavan Boland
Jody Allen Randolph
Cork University Press, €49

The Hidden world of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic Mythology in
Contemporary Irish Poetry

Adam WyethSalmon Poetry, €14

SCHOLARSHIP, and particularly gender scholarship, teaches us that there is no such thing as simply reading. You come to the page drunk or rabid with prejudice: “Boland’s work has been tested by various critiques, from the feminist to the postcolonial, from the postmodern to the environmental, from visual studies to film theory to diaspora theory,” writes UCD research fellow, Jody Allen Randolph, as she sets up the dissecting table under these theories.

What distinguishes the complex and intellectually trenchant Boland is her respectful relationship with such theorists: academic by nature and nurture, she trusts the process of intellectual dialogue.

No Irish poet, not even Seamus Heaney, was so prepared for a lifelong dialogue with a highly motivated readership. One of the great delights of this book, part of the Cork University Press series on Irish writers, is that it is an exhausting and thrilling narrative of that intellectual, mainly feminist, dialogue between the poet and her demanding congregation of listeners.

These chapters are singed with controversy and a great ferment in the public domain; the smell of a public burning comes off the pages.

As scholar and theorist, Allen Randolph would eschew the poet Joseph Brodsky’s warning that a writer has but a life and a work.

The new scholarship has ensured that we now read poems through the highly glazed window of theory. In Allen Randolph’s and Boland’s cases, this is a happy match: this book is a monument to a long and scholarly relationship. Here is Boland’s Boswell, or Joseph Hone. By the age of 30, Boland had abandoned the simplistic Brodsky viewpoint; she had re-orientated her conventional thinking. In an act of defiance, mainly against herself, she abandoned the poet-woman of the old ‘Aisling’, the woman as national metaphor, and embraced the body imperfect. Womanhood, motherhood, sisterhood, bodily function, rather than the table-tapping theosophists of Yeats, became the basis for her new theory of art. A new architecture of historic and personal feeling was born that was every bit as radical as the concave house of her famous architect godfather, Michael Scott; a place from which Boland remembers gazing upon Joyce’s Martello tower. Joyce, of course, is the great untoppled omphalos of fearful Jesuits and exploitative male ambition.

The resistance to Boland’s re-centring, the creation of her self as the centre of a canon, was both heated and illuminating.

Most of the commentary in Ireland between 1980 and 1990 has never found its way into print. It was the snide and nasty put-down, a shrewd short-selling of what she was attempting to do. Regressive elements in a culture rarely want to be placed on the record, but always hope, like the cowards they are, that some ill-advised fool will do the hatchet-job for them. By 1990, certainly by 1994, Boland’s trajectory had sent her well beyond the reach of Irish hatchets, regressive or otherwise.

Her eyes were always on the main prize, which was to come into possession of her fully integrated self. Allen Randolph, here, follows Ms Boland’s marvellous journey, from suburban The War Horse to mystical Night Feed to the kitchen and shadow kitchen of Domestic Violence:

‘nothing we said not then, not later,fathomed what it isis wrong in the lives of those who hate each other.

With Boland it is always more than the poems, though. The theoretical garden where the poems grow is a product of invented belonging, a deliberate, Yeats-like act by someone who was never at home in a simply defined Irish house.

Boland’s greatest years of personal happiness and fulfilment were when she created a ‘territory’ that became the poetry of The Journey. Those were years of living poetry rather than living a theory. Allen Randolph charts this old ‘territory’ and new ‘territory’ in her very early discussion of Boland’s two collections of essays, Object Lessons and A Journey with Two Maps: ‘While Object Lessons was a book by a woman poet negotiating with a national tradition, A Journey with Two Maps is transnational in reach, engaging the question of how women poets are made, and what goes into that making ... ” Indeed, in the early ’80s I remember reciting Boland poems to mainly female tyro-poets at Iowa University: their response to her work was wonder-filled, welcoming, thrilled.

I had to put my own two books, and talk of poor old Éamon de Valera away and, instead, field a torrent of questions on Night Feed and In Her Own Image. I remember thinking ‘I hope this woman finds this audience.’

The narrative of Allen Randolph’s book is how such a first-rate poet found such a first-rate readership, despite a distance of air miles and cultural background. Allen Randolph seems a generous, expansive intelligence, both analytical and affirming, in a ground-marking work of literary synthesis.

THE poet Adam Wyeth, a youthful propagandist for Middle Earth, has created a marvellous project of Celtic rescue in his new prose book.

Like an icon-restorer, he wants to put the layers of Irish gold back into the fabric of our contemporary Irish poetry. He is obsessed not so much with what is contemporary as with what is Celtic and golden within contemporary voice. His choice of Eavan Boland’s ‘The Making of an Irish Goddess’ is apt in the present circumstances:

‘Myth is the wound we leave in the time we have

as Boland writes; and Wyeth is hugely interested in that time we have to define what we are. Boland’s poem of mother and daughter reverberates with the myth of Ceres and kidnapped Persephone.

“Musically,” says Wyeth, “the sounds SEE and REES from Ceres are peppered throughout the beginning of the poem.”

Such a reading of this poem is trusting and instinctive, qualities that Wyeth has in abundance.

These qualities he brings to the analysis of poems by Paula Meehan, Leanne O’Sullivan, Derek Mahon, Muldoon and others. In ‘Synge Dying’, Mahon writes

‘I was in two minds about my right to be there writing up the rough holy ground the roads, the ceilí and the hiring fair.’

And Wyeth interrogates this ‘two minds’ to reveal the cultural stress of Synge, caught half-way between the Anglophone reason and Celtic maelstrom. His analysis here of Maurice Riordan’s ‘Badb,’ the crow and carrion creature of Celtic battlefields, is also wise and powerful, teaching us to see ‘the look known to legend and folk belief.’ The Hidden World of Poetry is an idiosyncratic, and even a pugnacious, project; and illuminating precisely because few poets would have attempted to do what Wyeth has done: to codify and propagandise, in the manner of Douglas Hyde or Robert Graves, the undeclared Celtic mythologies behind our resolutely banal contemporary lyricism.

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