The myth and memory of Eavan Boland's latest poems

New Selected Poems
Eavan Boland Carcanet €18.50,

My mother was my hero. Where the scars showed was in her indifference to the past. She didn’t want to remember or talk about history

IF you skip randomly through Eavan Boland’s New Selected Poems, you’ll most likely stumble across an image that plays with the concept of memory. Boland’s work has always distinguished between the past and history: two words that appear almost identical at first blush.

“As a young writer I began to see a real difference between the two. History was the official version. The past, on the other hand, was a place of shadows, losses, and silences,” says the 69-year-old poet.

Boland, who lives in Dublin, is perhaps the most important female poet to emerge from Ireland during the 20th century. Writers of her stature don’t achieve their success by accident. They usually tend to build their entire oeuvre around a single idea, or a point from which they can make sense of their own private space. The secret for the successful artist is in opening this private space and making it universal.

For Boland, meaning began with her mother, an orphan who lost both her parents at a young age. “When I looked at my mother’s life, I knew I wouldn’t find its meaning in a history book,” she says. “It belonged to a past where ordinary lives were lived, in whispers, and fragments of memory.

“My mother was my hero. For all her misfortune, her scars were hard to see. Where the scars showed was in her indifference to the past. She didn’t want to remember or talk about history. But this issue of the past was a real point of difference and sometimes of argument between us. Her past was important to me. I wanted her to remember it, to make sense of it. And she only wanted to forget.”

Boland has spent much of her career mythologising her mother’s past in her poetry. In fact, myth has become a central component of her work. But figuring out how to connect myth with her own life while producing quality poems at the same time took a while.

In the mid 1960s, when Boland started out as a writer, there was no place for women in the canon of Irish poetry. Moreover, the chances of making it as a poet seemed impossible when she moved to of Dundrum in south Dublin to raise a family. At the time, novelists like Richard Yates in the US were writing about the slow death of creativity in boring, bourgeois-suburbia.

But Boland understood that there are complexities in life worth documenting, if one has the sense to deconstruct them. “I was a woman in a house in the suburbs, married with two small children. It was a life lived by many women around me, but it was still not named in Irish poetry. From the beginning, I knew I would have to put the life I lived into the poems I wrote. If I didn’t I would end up writing someone else’s poem.”

The young ambitious artist was caught in a dilemma.

She wanted to acknowledge domestic rituals that were part of her daily existence — the sound of a kettle boiling, or hearing the pitter patter of rain in the garden, as she put her children to bed — but she also understood that these things by themselves would not make great poetry.

For a few years, Boland pondered how to overcome this obstacle. And through her careful analysis of the poetic past, she found a place for herself in the canon. “By the time I’d found my voice as a writer, I knew I was a poet of the past and not of history. That brought me to think about the merging of the public and private poem. To insist on the private experience, to bring it out of the shadows, and make it a central part of a poem,” she says.

Boland gradually came to a conclusion: If she could combine the interest of day-to-day experiences of Irish women with the false mythology of Irish history, she had a subject she could explore indefinitely and make her own.

Boland appears to be a lyrical poet with a traditional style. But her amalgamation of myth and the domestic makes her work revolutionary. This fragmentation in her work can be challenging in parts. It asks of the reader to draw together dissimilar portions of her poems. Often, this comes without any prior warning.

Poems like ‘Suburban Woman’ quickly switch from barbaric images like “the rape on either side” and “the smiling killing” to placid and mundane chores, such as the sight of “chairs dusted,” and to sweet rituals like the relaxing “morning coffee break”.

Similarly, in poems like ‘The Famine Road’, the poet juxtaposes an image of a woman waiting in a doctor’s office, hearing about her inability to bear children, against an image of a Victorian bureaucrat who insists that the starving Irish must build roads to nowhere, if they want to stay alive.

Boland admits she has a fascination with the 19th century, which then makes its way into her work; primarily because it’s a pivotal point in Irish writing and in Irish history, she says.

“It’s the century where writers engaged with all kinds of defeat and began to formulate their responses. It’s instructive to see them struggling at the crossroads of self-awareness and language.

“But of course it’s also the century of the Famine. And I see that as a watershed: A powerful once-and-for-all disruption of any kind of heroic history. The most wrenching part of the story of the Famine is how utterly defenseless people were in the face of a disaster they couldn’t control. It’s also surprising to see how little the writing of that time actually turns to what was happening.

“Looking at the 19th century was the first time I began to think that writing could add to a silence rather than break it. I was interested in turning a light on the silences and erasers that we learn to tolerate in the name of history.”

Boland has spent most of her career documenting the odd relationship between what we read of in history books, against the ordinary narratives that actually make up our lives. And there is a strange friction between the two if we look closely at them, her poetry seems to whisper.

The heroic narrative that the founding fathers of the State attempted to make a universal truth is also something that Boland’s poetry has challenged consistently. Lest we forget, the birth of the Irish nationalist myth was forged initially through poetry, which unapologetically glorified violence.

It must have felt like a strange moment, then, when her own poem ‘The Singers’ was read out at the inauguration ceremony for Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robinson, in 1990.

“Her social and political vision for the country was compelling,” says Boland,” with a tint of pride. “And I was very honoured to be quoted in that inspiring speech.

“I was moved not just by the occasion, but also by everything Mary Robinson had achieved. I’d known her as a student, as a young lawyer, as a wife, as a mother, and a member of the Senate. And now here, as a new president of Ireland, she was setting out her ideas about the Presidency in a very democratic and inclusive way.”

Reading through Boland’s poems, her prose pieces, and speaking to her today, I’m beginning to see that her artistic vision is about more than having a space to understand her own selfhood.

Contained within these multi-layered poems are silent murmurs from those who have slipped out of view from the national narrative. It’s important to remember those forgotten voices, Boland suggests.

Or, to put it another way, using a title of one of her own poems, to pay attention to those who are ‘Outside History’.

“In my poems I want to acknowledge those lives that were lived against the odds, and to which we all owe so much. A precious possession of mine is a poem my grandmother wrote. She was born on the shadow side of history. Her life was barnacled with limitations and restrictions imposed by the time she lived in. So it seems important to me to look back at those lives in poems. I know I can’t change them but I can imagine and reimagine them. It’s not a way of changing the matter of what happened. But it might change the meaning.”

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