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Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. The daughter of a diplomat and a painter, Boland spent her girlhood in London and New York, returning to Ireland to attend secondary school in Killiney and later university at Trinity College in Dublin. Though still a student when she published her first collection, 23 Poems (1962), Boland’s early work is informed by her experiences as a young wife and mother, and her growing awareness of the troubled role of women in Irish history and culture. Over the course of her long career, Eavan Boland has emerged as one of the foremost female voices in Irish literature. Throughout her many collections of poetry, in her prose memoir Object Lessons (1995), and in her work as a noted anthologist and teacher, Boland has honed an appreciation for the ordinary in life. The poet and critic Ruth Padel described Boland’s “commitment to lyric grace and feminism” even as her subjects tend to “the fabric of domestic life, myth, love, history, and Irish rural landscape.” Keenly aware of the problematic associations and troubled place that women hold in Irish culture and history, Boland has always written out of an urge to make an honest account of female experience. In an interview with readers on the website A Smartish Pace, Boland herself described the “difficult situation” of her early years as a poet: “I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’…I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.”

Boland’s poetry is known for subverting traditional constructions of womanhood, as well as offering fresh perspectives on Irish history and mythology. Her fifth book, In Her Own Image (1980), brought Boland international recognition and acclaim. Exploring topics such as domestic violence, anorexia, infanticide and cancer, the book also announced Boland’s on-going concern with inaccurate and muffled portrayals of women in Irish literature and society. Her next books, including Night Feed (1982) and her first volume of selected poems Outside History (1990), continue to explore questions of female identity. Though Boland has been described as a feminist, her approach is not an overtly political one. Perhaps this is because she is not content, as a poet, to uphold one view of things to the exclusion of all others: hers is a voice, in the words of Melanie Rehak in the New York Times Book Review, “that is by now famous for its unwavering feminism as well as its devotion to both the joys of domesticity and her native Ireland.” In a Time of Violence (1994), winner of a Lannan award and shortlisted for the prestigious T.S. Eliot prize, contains poems that gesture towards private and political realities at once. In poems such as “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” and “Anna Liffey,” Boland constructs a world that is influenced by history, the present-day and mythology and yet remains intensely personal. It is a recipe that Boland has perfected in her work since.

Against Love Poetry (2001), published as Code in the UK, displays the scope of Boland’s knowledge and her awareness of tradition. “So much of European love poetry,” she told Alice Quinn of the New Yorker online, “is court poetry, coming out of the glamorous traditions of the court…There’s little about the ordinariness of love.” Seeking a poetry that would express the beauty of the plain things that make up most people’s existences, she found that she would have to create it for herself. It is “dailiness,” as Boland called it, that reviewers often find, and praise, in Boland’s poetry. By focusing on “dailiness,” Boland is also attempting to delineate the contours of a new vision of history. Reviewing Code for the Times Literary Supplement, Clare Wills noted that “Boland is a master at reading history in the configurations of landscape, at seeing space as the registration of time. If only we know how to look, there are means of deciphering the hidden, fragmentary messages from the past, of recovering lives from history’s enigmatic scramblings.” Domestic Violence (2007) weaves different and competing kinds of history—the national, the personal, the domestic—together in poems that also meditate on the legacy of Irish poetry itself. Reviewing the collection for Poetry Review, Jay Parini noted: “The literal site of these poems is often Ireland itself, with its heroic gestures, high rhetoric, and (sometimes pretentious) symbol-making held in abeyance, even fended off. Boland brilliantly attacks, and nullifies, this tradition.” Parini added that “Boland is, in her quiet way, as melodramatic as any of her forbears. This is always what I have liked about her, the clash of intention and manifestation.”

Boland’s second volume of collected work, New Collected Poems, was published in 2008 to glowing reviews. Salvaging numerous poems from her first books, as well as a previously-unpublished verse play, the book demonstrates Boland’s restless and incessant attempt to escape from, or at the very least complicate, the Irish lyric tradition she inherited. Anne Fogarty, in the Irish Book Review declared New Collected Poems “acts as a timely reminder of the significance and innovatory force of Boland’s achievement as a poet and of the degree to which so many of her texts…have lastingly altered the contours of Irish writing. Modern Irish poetry would be unthinkable without her presence. New Collected Poems valuably updates the record of Eavan Boland’s artistic output. More vitally, it underscores the vibrancy of her ongoing project as a poet who is doubtless one of the foremost writers in contemporary Ireland.”

I don’t normally take to poems with a lot of symbolism in them. I’m not literate enough, poetically, to figure them all out. But I liked this one because I think as parents a lot of us feel this way when our kids leave home for the first time, be they a daughter or a son. One lady commenting on the poem in the book said:

I am in the time of my life where my first child is leaving home and it is a time of grief and thankfulness mixed together. It is an experience like no other. This poem was, to me, the very essence of this experience from a mother‘s perspective. I cling to it in my moments of grief and my moments of pride and joy. (Denise Fleming, 47, Harrison, Arkansas)


The Blossom

A May morning.
Light starting in the sky.

I have come here
after a long night,
its senses of loss,
its unrelenting memories of happiness.

The blossom on the apple tree is still in shadow,
its petals half-white and filled with water at the core
in which the freshness and secrecy of dawn are stored
even in the dark.

How much longer
will I see girlhood in my daughter?

In other seasons
I knew every leaf on this tree.
Now I stand here
almost without seeing them

and so lost in grief
I hardly notice what is happening
as the light increases and the blossom speaks
and turns to me with blonde hair and my eyebrows
and says —

imagine if I stayed here,
even for the sake of your love
what would happen to the summer?
To the fruit?

Then holds out a dawn-soaked hand to me
whose fingers I counted at birth
years ago

and touches mine for the last time.

And falls to earth.