Eavan Boland (Sept. 24th, 1944 – April 27th, 2020) – Your Poetic Marvels – Poems to grow Old In. To Die In. And Now Your Very Real Death – R.I.P.

Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944-2020), Photo Credit 2015: Independent, IE

A WOMAN PAINTED ON LEAF

I found it among curios and silver
in the pureness of wintry light.

A woman painted on a leaf.

Fine lines drawn on a veined surface
in a hand-made frame.

This is not my face. Neither did I draw it.

A leaf falls in the garden.
The moon cools its aftermath of sap.
The pith of summer dries out in starlight.

A woman is inscribed there.

This is not death. It is the terrible
suspension of life.

I want a poem
I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.

I want to take
this dried-out face,
as you take a starling from behind iron,
and return it to its elements of air, of ending-

so that Autumn
which was once
the hard look of stars,
the frown on a gardener’s face,
a gradual bronzing of the distance,

will be,
from now on,
a crisp tinder underfoot. Cheekbones. Eyes. Will be
a mouth crying out. Let me.

Let me die.

Eavan Boland from New Collected Poems, W.W. Norton & Company, 2008

Eavan Boland one of the great Irish poets of her generation died yesterday, aged seventy-five. And may I add, one of the greatest poets of her generation worldwide. Boland may not be as well known as her near contemporary Seamus Heaney but make no mistake she is/was one of the great ones. Drop inside a Boland poem and you will come out changed. Hers a searing poetry of loss, love and suffering so often seen through her lens of a tragic Irish history and as important through her awareness of the importance of seeing the world through a woman’s eyes, a woman’s experience. Not a man’s.

The epigraph poem above. Oh how Boland wants to loose the woman painted on a leaf from the bounds of history. And how I do not want to imprison Eaven the same way! Not make you an object of my idea of what a woman poet is. And imprison you there. Not to objectivfy you but let you live, the hurting loving, erotic, praising woman you were. So, Eavan I will let you die. I will try not to freeze you into some lifeless portrait. I will try and let you fly back into elements of air. I will let you put out your wing, the erotic longing in it expressed in your poems, that extraordinary wing from your searing poem The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me :

The blackbird on this first sultry morning,
In summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,
Feels the heat. Suddenly she put out her wing –
The whole, full, flirtatious span of it.

Please forgive me for taking this stanza out of context. Afterall it comes from a poem that you call a back-to-front love poem. The black fan showcased in the poem given by your father to your mother. In an essay you said it was: “ A sign not for triumph and acquisition but for suffering itself. ”  A fan and its description full of signs of a troubled relationship. But then this out-of-the-blue image of a blackbird and its wing mimicking a black fan! Part of your craft and genius.

But Eavan before I let you fly I need to tell you that in my journey as a poet your poems were among the first of what became my teachers. The reading of them, their cadences, their spare language. Your use of myth, history and evocative images opened the vast possibility of poetry to me.

And here, I want to honour my first and most important teacher, Patrick Lane, who introduced me to you and your poems. In particular, Patrick featured three of your poems: as already mentioned, The Black lace Fan… but also the poem  4 In a Bad Light from her sequence, Writing in a Time of Violence and one of her most celebrated poems, Quarantine.

And here, I want to step aside for Patrick and take a passage out of an unpublished essay or reflection he wrote for a poetry retreat he co-led in 2009 with the theme of “Praise”. His reflection is titled Praise to the End. Here is an excerpt:

“Eavan Boland, in her poem ‘Quarantine,’ speaks of what must arise from great suffering.

Quarantine

In the worst hour of the worst season
     of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
     He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
     Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
     There is no place here for the inexact 
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for the merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
     Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Eavan Boland, ibid

She says: ‘There is no place here for the inexact / praise of the easy graces.’ There never is. But what are we to do with great grief? What are we to do when we are confronted by such words as: “Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.” Her denial wrenches us, for there is such love in her bare description of their terrible journey. A man and a woman who are a whole people. She takes upon herself the great grief of the Irish, their suffering through the terrible years of the 19th Century when the English landowners disenfranchised the peasants, the lowly farmers, the villagers, letting them starve during the famines the English helped create. But she says there is a darkness where love can be proved, when what “there is between a man and a woman” can be known, her poem in praise of that. But she says we must be exact in our naming of things.

Boland makes a plea in another of her poems, “Time and Violence,” and asks of us that we change:

……………………Make us human
in cadences of change and mortal pain
and words we can grow old and die in.

Perhaps it is at the heart of great suffering where praise is born.”

What a thought of Patrick’s and how he honours Eavan. And how he touches on something central to her writing. As she pulls real and imagined figures out of Irish history, especially the overlooked, those who suffered so often, nameless and faceless, she praises them in their suffering. She does not capture them in some lifeless evocation of beauty or degradation. She lets them be real, grow old and die. Oh, how she does that In a Bad Light. How from seeing a doll in an American museum she brings to life the Irish seamstresses who made the dress.

As you read the poem see how she creates what American poet Carl Phillips call the grammatical mood in the poem. The mood and energy she creates when she begins this poem. So matter of fact. Nothing fancy but the impact. The impact of declarations abnd sentence fragments. This is St. Louis….

In a Bad Light

This is St. Louis. Where the rivers meet.
    The Illinois. The Mississippi. The Missouri.
The light is in its element of Autumn.
    Clear. With yellow Gingko leaves falling.
There is always a nightmare. Even in such light.

    The weather must be cold now in Dublin.
And when skies are clear, frosts come
    down on the mountains and first
inklings of winter will be underfoot in
    The crisp iron of a fern at dawn.

I stand in a room in the Museum.
    In one glass case a plastic figure
represents a woman in a dress,
    with crepe sleeves a satin apron.
And feet laced neatly in suede.

    
    She stands in a replica of a cabin
on a steamboat bound for New Orleans.
    The year is 1860. Nearly war.
A notice says no comforts were spared. The silk
    is French. The seamstresses are Irish.

I see them in the oil-lit parlours.
    I am in the gas-lit backrooms.
We make in the apron front and from
    the papery appearance and crushable
look of crepe, a sign. We are bent over

    in a bad light. We are sewing a last
sight of shore. We are sewing coffin ships.
    And the salt of exile. And our own
death in it. For history’s abandonment
     We are doing this. And this. And

this is a button hole. This is a stitch.
    Fury enters them as frost follows
every arabesque and curl of a fern: this is
    the nightmare. See how you perceive it.
We sleep the sleep of exhaustion.

    We dream a woman on a steamboat
parading in sunshine in a dress we know
    we made. She laughs off rumours of war.
She turns and traps light on the skirt.
    It is, for that moments, beautiful.

Eavan Bolnd, ibid

How Eaven takes an object, a dress on a doll, a dress that turn its wearer into a object, an object of a man’s desire and in it she finds the hidden hands that made it. A very different expression of the feminine. And how she brings those women alive, their tragic history and how with her words Eawan sews this heartbreakingly into the poem. How she switches dramatically from the speakers’ I to the we of the women making the dresses. what a move!:

………………………We are bent over

in a bad light. We are sewing a last
sight of shore. We are sewing coffin ships.
And the salt of exile. And our own
death in it. For history’s abandonment
we are doing this. And this. And

this is a button hole. This is a stitch.
Fury enters them as frost follows
every arabesque and curl of a fern: this is
the nightmare. See how you perceive it.
We sleep the sleep of exhaustion.

The power in her short declarations: And this. And// this is a button hole. This is a stich. And how, as she often does, makes us see the less obvious hidden in expectations of the everyday. How she reminds us of the ugliness of history, both of Ireland and of womankind, sewn into a dress that I might have seen as only beautiful. Worn to show a certain kind of beauty. Not the heartbreaking beauty of the forgotten women making the dress. How I remain haunted by the beautifully crafted last line: It is, for that moment, beautiful. The infinite power of that middle phrase.

 
    We dream a woman on a steamboat
parading in sunshine in a dress we know
    we made. She laughs off rumours of war.
She turns and traps light on the skirt.
    It is, for that moments, beautiful.

Eavan Boland, mother, wife, professor, proud citizen of Ireland who also lived and taught in the U.S., how you wrote to release the frozen images of objectified womanhood in so many poems and books over the centuries. How you wanted to bring a more embodied vision of women to life in your words. As you do in this poem based on the myth of Daphne being chased by Apollo. The tension of being bound by customs and wanting to flee them. And how you turn a well-known myth on its head. A risky and brave poem. And I say this carefully as a man. The damage and abuse we have inflicted on women. So I find Eavan’s different take on a myth, arresting. What if Daphne wasn’t escaping rape and violence but her own fear of passion, Shocking. Empowering in an unexpected way.

‘Daphne with her thighs in bark’

I have written this

so that,
in the next myth
my sister will be wiser.

Let her learn from me:

the opposite of passion
is not virtue
but routine.

Look at me.
I can be cooking,
making coffee,
scrubbing wood perhaps,
and back it comes:
the crystalline, the otherwhere,
the wood

where I was
when he began the chase.
And how I ran from him!

Pan-thighed
satyr-faced he was.

The trees reached out to me,
I silvered and
I quivered. I shook out my foil of
quick leaves.

He snouted past.
What a fool I was!

I shall be here forever,
setting out the tea,
among the coppers and the
branching alloys and
the tin shine of this kitchen;
laying saucers on the pine table.

Save face, sister.
Fall. Stumble.
Rut with him. His rough heat will keep you warm.

You will be better off than me,
with your memories,
down the garden
at the start of March—

unable to keep your eyes
off the chestnut tree:

just the way
it thrusts and hardens.

Eavan Bolan from New Collected Poems, W.W. Norton & Company, 2008

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