The Lost Land: Poems
Release date: 10/01/1998
SOURCE: Hagen, Patricia L., and Thomas W. Zelman. “‘We Were Never on the Scene of the Crime’: Eavan Boland's Repossession of History.” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 4 (winter 1991): 442-53.
[In the following essay, Hagen and Zelman assert that Boland aims to “repossess” her place within the Irish literary tradition.]
From Yeats and the Celtic Revival onward, Irish poets have recorded, shaped, and criticized their nation's emerging independent identity. In the process, of course, they also attempted to reforge links to the past by creating for Ireland a literary tradition incorporating the myths, folklore, and symbols of a long-suppressed Gaelic heritage. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, the literary tradition wished into existence by Yeats has been expanded, modified, complicated, and virtually completed: it has become, so the argument goes, a “given” in Irish literature, a dead issue. Thus in Modern Irish Poetry, Robert Garratt “assumes a change among a younger generation of writers in their attitude toward tradition” (5). For today's poets, Garratt argues, the “need to create and establish a tradition in literature no longer appears foremost in their thoughts” (5); contemporary poets no longer feel compelled to write the “definitions” and “apologetics” that so obsessed their poetic forefathers.
Although Garratt does not use the word, forefathers is by implication a key concept in his formulation; the tradition Garratt traces (“from Yeats to Heaney”) is exclusively male. For women, who until recently have appeared only as subjects and objects of poems, not as their authors, the matter of tradition carries considerably more urgency than it does for their male counterparts. Indeed, just as the early Revivalists sought reconnection with a Gaelic heritage suppressed by centuries of English domination, so Irish women poets seek reconnection with a female heritage suppressed by centuries of male domination. Eavan Boland, a major figure in the current generation of Irish poets, is vitally concerned with the “ethics” underlying the Irish poetic tradition, most notably the ethical choices involved in a writer's selection of themes worth exploring in poetry, for these themes will naturally reveal the writer's—and, collectively, the tradition's—ability to bear witness to the truth of experience.
As a poet and a critic, Eavan Boland displays a painterly consciousness, a keen, painful awareness of the shaping power of language, and a fundamental sense of poetic ethics, three strands that merge into a vital concern with the artistic image and its relationship to truth. Art—poetry, painting, history—outlasts human lives; its images offer us a sense of the past which allows us to view and situate ourselves, individually and collectively, as heirs to tradition. As Boland notes, “we ourselves are constructed by our constructs” (Kind of Scar 20). Given the relation between image and selfhood, the poet—especially the woman poet—has an ethical obligation to de- and re-construct those constructs that shape literary tradition, bearing witness to the truths of experience suppressed, simplified, falsified by the “official” record.
In their broad strokes these issues are not, of course, uniquely Irish; as Boland acknowledges, “poetic ethics are evident and urgent in any culture where tensions between a poet and her or his birthplace are inherited and established” (Kind of Scar 7)—a view suggesting the difficulty women poets encounter as they approach a sanctioned national myth. Nevertheless, it is within the Irish poetic tradition that, by both birth and choice, Eavan Boland locates herself. Indeed, because of her upbringing, as she describes in “Irish Childhood in England,” issues of assimilation and estrangement, identification and exile—issues themselves central to an Irish tradition in literature—became significant for her at an early age. She arrived in England, a “freckled six year old”overdressed and sick on the plane when all of England to an Irish child was nothing more than what you'd lost and how. …
For this child in exile, “filled with some malaise / of love for what [she'd] never known [she] had” (50), educated in English schools, the songs and poems of her birth-country—the Irish poetic tradition—in many ways created Ireland for her. “Fond Memory” (Journey 52) juxtaposes her early sense of identification with the Ireland of song and poem against her adult sense of estrangement from that construction. Evoking her disturbingly peaceful childhood in postwar England, one in which she “wore darned worsted” and… learned how wise the Magna Carta was, how hard the Hanoverians had tried …
Boland moves from her primary-school experience in the first half of the poem to her home in the second, where her father plays the “slow / lilts of Tom Moore” at the piano. She is affected strongly by the music and… as much as I could think— I thought this is my country, was, will be again, this upward-straining song made to be our safe inventory of pain. And I was wrong.
As an adult, she rejects the “safe inventory of pain,” with its manifold falsifications and simplifications, but nonetheless retains a fundamental sense of identity as an Irish poet. “I didn't know what to hold, to keep” (Journey 50), the speaker claims in “An Irish Childhood in England: 1951.”
“On the one hand,” Boland writes, “I knew that as a poet, I could not easily do without the idea of a nation. … On the other, I could not as a woman accept the nation formulated for me by Irish poetry and its traditions” (Kind of Scar 8). The only reconciliation possible for her was to “repossess” that tradition. By affirming herself as an Irish poet, and thus rejecting the common notion that women's poetry should be quarantined from mainstream literature, Boland is in essence claiming her birthright, her say in that tradition, her right to “establish a discourse with the idea of a nation” (Kind of Scar 20).
As Boland cautions, such “repossession” is neither a single nor a static act, but a fluid process of de- and re-construction. It is as if she has been presented with a seemingly completed jigsaw puzzle, but herself holds a series of additional pieces. In defiance of those who suggest she create a nice border around the original, Boland would break apart the completed picture and reconstruct a new image. In this model, the first part of the tradition to be shattered must be its alienating “fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both” (Kind of Scar 7). Instead of real lives, the tradition offers Dark Rosaleen, the Old Woman of the Roads, and Cathleen Ni Houlihan, images that by their mythic and ornamental nature necessarily reduce the complex feelings, aspirations, and lives of real women—but not only of women. Boland views these emblematic women, “passive projection[s] of a national idea” (Kind of Scar 13), as “an underlying fault in Irish poetry; almost a geological weakness” because “all good poetry depends on an ethical relation between imagination and image. Images are not ornaments; they are truths” (Kind of Scar 23). By recasting a defeated nation into a triumphant woman, the Irish literary tradition may have gained aesthetically, but it lost ethically: gone were the “human truths of survival and humiliation” and in their place were the “hollow victories … the rhyming queens” (Kind of Scar 13).
Boland's poems, then, attempt to unseat the rhyming queens and reinscribe the human truths they have suppressed, to “repossess” those portions of history ignored by the Irish canon and to reassess the truth of the national identity. In this task, her starting point is frequently the driving of a wedge into the “almost geological weakness” of the Irish poetic tradition. In its simplest terms, the resulting division is the distance between male and female—the split, in Boland's terms, between “hearth and history,” her hearth and his story. Her world, if seen at all, is confined to the margins of his story, the celebration of the grand sweep of Irish heroism. As Boland notes, while the nation's “flags and battle-cries, even its poetry” at times use feminine imagery, “the true voice and vision of women are routinely excluded” (Kind of Scar 19). “It's our alibi / for all time,” she writes in “It's a Woman's World,” “that as far as history goes / we were never / on the scene of the crime” (357). In the official records—the history books, battle-cries, songs, and poems—women exist largely as lamenting voices, mouthpieces, ornaments: the Young Queen, the Old Mother, the Poor Old Woman. “So when the king's head / gored its basket,” the speaker notes, “we were gristing bread”or getting the recipe for a good soup to appetize our gossip.
“Like most historic peoples,” women are “defined / by what we forget, by what we never will be: / star-gazers, / fire-eaters” (357). The unsensational and therefore unwritten sufferings of ordinary women, ordinary people, are doomed to become unhistory: “And still no page / scores the low music / of our outrage” (358). Within his story, gristing bread is of no consequence, despite its overwhelming importance in sustaining life; her hearth (a precondition of the “heroics” celebrated by his story), trivialized into recipes and gossip, is...