The Great Gift of Women Poets – Another Poem in Memory of Eavan Boland (1944-2020)

Irish poet Eavan Boland. Photo Credit: The Sunday Times, 2018

Time and Violence

The evening was the same as any other.
I came out and stood on the step.
The suburb was closed in the weather

of an early spring and the shallow tips
and washed out yellows of narcissi
resisted dusk. And crocuses and snowdrops.

I stood there and felt the melancholy
of growing older in such a season,
when all I could be certain of was simply

in this time of fragrance and refrain,
whatever else might flower before the fruit,
and be renewed, I would not. Not again.

A car splashed by in the twilight.
Peat smoke stayed in the windless
air overhead and I might have missed it:

a presence. Suddenly, in the very place
where I would stand in other dusks, and look
to pick out my child from the distance,

was a shepherdess, her smile cracked,
her arm injured from the mantel pieces
and pastorals where she posed with her crook.

Then I turned and saw in the spaces
of the night sky constellations appear,
one by one, over roof-tops and houses,

and Cassiopeia trapped, stabbed where
her thigh met her groin and her hand
her gloittering wrist, with the pin-point of a star.

And by the road where rain made standing
pools of water underneath cherry trees,
and blossoms swam on their images,

was a mermaid with invented tresses,
her breasts prints with the salt of it all and all
the desolation of the North Sea in her face.

I went nearer. They were disappearing.
Dusk had turned to night but in the air –
did I imagine it? – a voice was saying:

This is what language did to us. Here
is the wound, the silence, the wretchedness
of tides and hillsides and stars where

we languish in a grammar of sighs,
in the high-minded search for euphony,
in the midnight rhetoric of poesie.

We cannot sweat here. Our skin is icy.
We cannot breed here. Our wombs are empty.
Help us to escape youth and beauty.

Write us out of the poem. Make us human
in cadences of change and mortal pain
and words we can grow old and die in.

Eavan Boland from In a Time of Violence, W.W. Norton, 1994

Last night as I began to write a blog post in honour of the Irish poet Eavan Boland I came back to this mysterious poem of hers. A shepherdess, a mermaid? What gives, I thought. Then I read a passage in her book Object Lessons – The life of the Woman and the Poet in our Time and there was the key. Images of the feminine trapped in masculine-dominated tropes. Women as figurines trapped as shepherdess, as mermaid.

And here I realized how important it was for Eavan to discover her female poetic voice and liberate the feminine from shopworn images. And here, I want to celebrate the female poets I have grown up with in workshops and retreats in my almost twenty-year journey to become a poet. To those brave and flesh and blood voices who are saying: here is what it is to be human, human in the body, soul and mind of woman. As woman poet.

So here I celebrate Pam, Liz M., Heidi, Martha, Rosemary, Sue G, Donna F, Micheline, Susan Z., Lesley-Ann, Mary Ann, Terry Ann, Barb, Anne S, Ann G-W, Tonya, Sarah A and W and D, Kathie, Liz P, Nancy, Somae, Christine, Roberta, Amrita, Sandra, Ameeta, Linda T and Linda C, Chelsea, Barbara B, Kathie J, Patricia K, Donna B, Sheila C, Sheila R. Madeleine N, Vivian, Joan, Leanne M, Wendy D., Arlene P, Yvonne and the list goes on and on! Thank God! And thank you all, mentioned here or not!

And here’s what Eavan says that unlocked the central images in this poem for me:

The true difference women poets make as authors of the poem is in sharp contrast with the part they were assigned as objects in it. As objects they were once images. As images they were eroticized and distanced. A beautiful and compelling language arose around them, In pastorals, lyrics, elegies, odes they were shepherdesses, mermaids, nymphs. The accoutrements of their persons became images within images; their jewels, silks, skin, eyes became tropes and figures, at once celebrated and silenced.

How we create prisons of understanding in our words. Like bees in amber we can freeze forever what is living and dynamic and changes! What great reminder to not stylize or idealize anything in our poems. Sure, let’s celebrate youth and beauty but also the beauty of older age of all us us as how we are in our gritty days not just as objects of desire or distaste!

Thank you Eavan for these words! May all us poets write words we all can grow old and die in.

This is what language did to us. Here
is the wound, the silence, the wretchedness
of tides and hillsides and stars where

we languish in a grammar of sighs,
in the high-minded search for euphony,
in the midnight rhetoric of poesie.

We cannot sweat here. Our skin is icy.
We cannot breed here. Our wombs are empty.
Help us to escape youth and beauty.

Write us out of the poem. Make us human
in cadences of change and mortal pain
and words we can grow old and die in.

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