In a Time of Violence
by David Barber
Until fairly recently, it would not have been entirely capricious to argue that the most estimable woman in modern Irish poetry was Maud Gonne -- or, come to that, Crazy Jane. Although Ireland's collateral line of poets is one of the century's richest literary traditions, it has also been one of its staunchest fraternal orders. Yeats wrote famously in "Adam's Curse" of how he and two sisters of fond acquaintance "talked of poetry," but for the most part that colloquy has been a one-sided conversation.
Eavan Boland has changed all that. Outside History, a decade's harvest of poems that appeared in 1990, assured her a place in any serious discussion of contemporary Irish poetry. She's not Ireland's only woman poet of stature, to be sure -- Medbh MacGuckian and Nuala Ni Nhomhnaill, both younger than Boland by roughly a decade, are also carving out careers of distinction -- but she is certainly the most accomplished and widely known on this side of the Atlantic, where her poems appear in a number of prominent periodicals and her books are brought out by the same house that publishes Adrienne Rich.
It isn't difficult to understand Boland's popular appeal. Her poetry is smart, artful, and poised, written in an open, accessible style that is nonetheless charged with lyrical suggestion and implication. To American readers, her prevailing tone is apt to sound almost disarmingly familiar: the poems entertain very little of the provincial idioms and local inflections that can jar the Yankee ear in the work of Muldoon, Mahon, and even Heaney. She's a poet of both painterly and worldly engagements, equally attentive to the dance of the intellect and the testimony of the senses.
Yet it's fair to say that Boland's rising star is principally owing to her pronounced feminist bearings. And even those of us inclined to share Elizabeth Bishop's prickly impatience with the packaging of poetry by gender (or other separatist taxonomies) have little recourse in Boland's case. Outside History, while spanning an impressive range of subjects, moods, and settings, took as its overarching motif the irredeemable historical anonymity of women, in particular the psychic fallout from what Boland brands the "dumb-show of legend" that turns female ancestry and expression into "a sequence of evicted possibilities." With In a Time of Violence that slant is more inescapable still; Boland's preoccupation with womankind's abridged heritage assumes all the driven concentration of a ruling passion.
The book begins with an updated variation on the ancient practice of invoking the muses -- not the classical goddesses of Parnassus, as it happens, but "the women who were singers in the West/. . . on an unforgiving coast." "Writing In a Time of Violence," the seven-poem sequence that follows, similarly cuts against the grain of convention and expectation. Such a title, in the hands of an Irish poet, would seem inevitably to refer to the harrowing generation of the Troubles, but that is precisely the kind of conditioned response that Boland wants to overhaul. For her the period in question is wide-angled and open-ended, stretching back to the Great Famine and the Age of Reason, and encompassing not merely clashes in the streets but the undocumented torments in "a city of whispers/and interiors" or the unspoken anguish that hangs over the "airless peace" of a glass museum case arrayed with cultural artifacts.
Boland has long been partial to the ripples and echoes that a sequential form affords, and she musters through this constellation of set pieces with an air of grim command. Although their common strain is victimhood -- an Augustan portrait model who becomes "anonymous beauty-bait for the painter," immigrant Irish seamstresses "bent over/in a bad light," Edwardian dolls that represent "the hostages ignorance/takes from time and ornament from destiny" -- only rarely does Boland's language veer toward stridency or special pleading. If the poems are deliberately provocative, the best of them are also admirably contained: in "The Dolls Museum in Dublin," "The Death of Reason," and "In a Bad Light" Boland's steely declarative measure induces not only dramatic immediacy but a resolute moral complexity. "There is always a nightmare," Boland avows in the latter poem, encountering an Antebellum silk dress made by Irish immigrants that now reposes in a St. Louis museum. Yet what makes the poem nightmarishly disquieting is its unflinching particularity and its self-implicating pronoun shift: "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 appearances and crushed/look of crepe, a sign."
"Writing in a Time a Violence" gains a cumulative power from just this sort of calculated tension between the historical and the personal, between flaring empathy and formal remove. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the book's other expansive undertaking, "Anna Liffey." Here all distance (and all equipoise) dissolves, as Boland herself takes center-stage in a diva-like whirlwind of rapture and gesture:
Narrate such fragments for me:
One body. One spirit.
One place. One name.
The city where I was born.
The river that runs through it.
The nation that eludes me.
Fractions of a life
It has taken me a lifetime
Such histrionics quickly swamp Boland's oracular designs; ostensibly embodying Dublin's spirit of place, "Anna Liffey" collapses under the weight of its overblown self-dramatization. Boland seems to have conceived the poem as a bardic apotheosis of her art and Irishness and womanly destiny -- "It has taken me/All my strength to do this.//Becoming a figure in a poem./ Usurping a name and a theme" -- but in doing so, she's abandoned her customary exactitude and economy of scale. Its center does not hold.
The runaway melodrama of "Anna Liffey" is an aberration, however, and one turns back gratefully to the book's more outwardly modest poems, those Boland entrusts to darting inferences and elliptical undercurrents. And it's here, in quietly haunting poems like "The Pomegranate," "Lava Cameo," "The Water Clock," and "The Parcel," that Boland's soundings of female consciousness find their most fluent and lucid expression. What emerges in these pieces is nothing so doctrinaire or abstract as a feminist "position" but rather a supple transliteration of the "dialect of the not-found" that Boland divines in domestic rituals, mythic archetypes, and romantic emblems.
Boland's remorseless locution is revealing. While certainly no advocate of the unholy ideological trinity of "lies, secrets, and silence," Boland seems to hold an increasingly chastened view of what a women-centered literature can revise and reclaim, much less correct and subvert. Nowhere is this more evident than in "The Pomegranate," which at first seems to promise a fashionable appropriation of myth ("The only legend I have ever loved is/The story of a daughter lost in hell") with a drearily predictable revisionist twist ("And the best thing about the legend is/I can enter it anywhere. And have"). However, Boland cultivates the mythic subtext to enact an intimate metamorphosis of her own, emblematically relinquishing her hold over her teenage daughter in moving acknowledgment that no amount of motherly love or wisdom can spare one's child from the complications of experience: "The suburb has cars and cable television . . . /It is another world. But what else/Can a mother give her daughter but such/Beautiful rifts in time?/If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift./The legend must be hers as well as mine."
The autumnal tenor that's crept into Boland's poetry might seem premature for a writer in thriving mid-career. Yet it's a tide of feeling that's indicative of how gravely mindful Boland remains of the foreshortened postures women have tended to assume under the greater sway of the Tradition -- in amorous sonnets and religious allegories and fertility myths. "Help us to escape youth and beauty," she has a wraith implore in "What Language Did," "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." A daunting request, no question, but for a poet of Boland's large-scale sympathies and finetuned nerve it marks the natural progression of dovetailing ambition and compassion.