Monday, 25 January 2010

Eavan Boland: Women Writing Outside History

Living and writing in twenty first century Europe, it’s easy to take much for granted where the politics of women and poetry are concerned; to forget that there was a time when the two words existed across a gulf of gender prejudice and cultural assumptions. There are also, in Britain, other problems to be surmounted. As Deryn Rees-Jones writes in ‘Consorting with Angels’, ‘the legacy of British Imperialism, and the divisions and difficulties set up within notions of Britishness in relation to both Black and Asian as well as Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh identities’ extends far beyond the gender question, and adds another level of complexity.

Reading Eavan Boland’s account of what it was like to become a woman poet in post-war Ireland, confronting all these issues, is fascinating. She clearly felt a lack of permission to write, as a woman, about ‘the feminine’, her body, her experience, her politics. ‘I know now that I began writing in a country where the word woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed. One word was used to invoke collective nurture, the other to sketch out self-reflective individualism. I became used to the flawed space between them. In a certain sense, I found my poetic voice by shouting across that distance.’ She reminds us that there was a time when female experience was considered either an unsuitable subject for a poem, or one of only minor significance - male experience was ‘universal’; female experience ‘domestic’. Boland’s volume of autobiographical essays, ‘Object Lessons’ records her struggle to make her life and her womanhood the central subject-matter of the poem. ‘I wanted there to be no contradiction between the way I made an assonance to fit a line and the way I lifted up a child at night.’

I find a lot of resonances in Eavan Boland’s poetry. I am third generation Irish - part of the Irish diaspora in England, brought up in a welter of story-telling and music, still influenced by it, still aware of the traditions, but with a strong sense of displacement. So, I find her elegiac poems of people and places fill me with a kind of cultural longing, for a history of belonging, that I can never have.

I found the first collection in a second-hand shop - The Journey, published in 1987 - containing titles such as ‘The Oral Tradition’, ‘The Emigrant Irish’, ‘The Woman takes her Revenge on the Moon’. It didn’t disappoint. ‘Oral Tradition’, with its account of two women overheard telling the story of a woman who gave birth in the fields, reminded me of my childhood and the whispered conversations of adults, telling the stories of ancestors who had done forbidden things, passing the stories on like heirlooms, forming an unbroken memory line that went back two hundred years.

‘The oral song
avid as superstition,
layered like an amber in
the wreck of language
and the remnants of a nation.

... singing innuendoes, hints,
outlines underneath
the surface, a sense
suddenly of truth,
its resonance.’
I went on to buy ‘Outside History’, published by Carcanet in 1990. It contains the long poem-sequence ‘Object Lessons’, from which her prose volume borrows the title. In it she writes about writing, in ‘The Rooms of Other Women Poets’.

I wonder about you: whether the blue abrasions
of daylight, falling as dusk across your page,

make you reach for the lamp. I sometimes think
I see that gesture in the way you use language.

And whether you think, as I do, that wild flowers
dried and fired on the ironstone rim of

the saucer underneath your cup, are a sign of
a savage, old calligraphy: you will not have it.’

I was fascinated by the story of ‘The Shadow Doll’, which was created by dressmakers to show a bride what her wedding dress would look like, and was kept under a dome of glass.

‘Now, in summary and neatly sewn -
a porcelain bride in an airless glamour -
the shadow doll survives its occasion.

Under glass, under wraps, it stays
even now, after all, discreet about
visits, fevers, quickenings and lusts ...’

Other poems, such as ‘The Latin Lesson’ are directly autobiographical. Forced to learn Latin for university entrance, Boland hated it. From her tutor’s room, struggling with the complexities of the ablative absolute, ‘I could watch friends walking to and from class, carrying tennis rackets and hockey sticks, laughing and talking, free of the burdens and worries of a dead grammar. I envied them.’ But then one day, she suddenly began to understand ‘how the systems of a language which could make such constructs ... Stood against the disorders of love and history..... the precision and force of these constructs began to seem both moving and healing.’ She had realised the power of grammar to reveal minute shades of meaning or organise complex arguments - ‘I had never known words as power.’
Another sequence gives the collection its title, ‘Outside History’, and these poems are about female experience - particularly Irish female experience - unrecorded by history. The images sometimes seem a little cliched but the poet’s personal connection with the subject matter lifts them out of it - the elderly Achill Woman struggling up the hill with buckets of water for a young girl on holiday in the Gael-tacht, a woman sewing by candlelight with a child beside her, the white, unlucky wash of hawthorn in the hedgerows, frosty stars ‘these iron inklings of an Irish January’ that symbolise history’s own distancing from the suffering they witness.

But my favourite Boland poem comes from her 1994 collection ‘In a Time of Violence’, which was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize . I like it because it describes perfectly that brief pause that seems to come at dusk, when you stand in the half-dark, hearing children calling, the first bats beginning to flit across the sky and all time seems to be suspended and the ordinary seems invested with significance.

A neighbourhood.
At dusk.

Things are getting ready
to happen
out of sight.

Stars and moths.
And rinds slanting around fruit.

But not yet.

One tree is black.
One window is yellow as butter.

A woman leans down to catch a child
who has run into her arms
this moment.

Stars rise.
Moths flutter.

Apples sweeten in the dark.
In her prose essays, Boland describes what was for her an epiphanic moment. It’s a summer evening in a Dublin suburb. ‘I am talking to a woman in the last light. I have just finished cutting the grass at the front, and we are outside, between her house and mine .... She lives across the road from me. Her children are teenagers. Mine are still infants, asleep behind the drawn curtains in the rooms upstairs. As we talk, I feel the shadow of some other meaning across our conversation, which is otherwise entirely about surface things. That it is high summer in my life, not in hers. That hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost. And then the conversation ends. I turn to go in.’
But once inside, sitting at her table in the upstairs room, she finds herself unable to write about her experience. ‘It is in the foreground of the poem that the difficulties exist. That the poem falters. Where the women stand and talk - deep within that image is, I know, another image. The deeper image is that shadow, the aging woman, the argument that the body of one woman is a prophecy of the body of the other. Here, at the very point where I am looking for what Calvino calls "that natural rhythm, as of the sea, of the wind, that festive light impulse," the exact opposite happens. I cannot make her real. I cannot make myself real.’ The book, Object Lessons, is really Boland’s attempt to answer the question ‘why’ as well as her search for a solution and an account of the distance she has travelled between that moment and the present time.
Though declaring herself neither a ‘separatist nor a post-feminist’, she ends the book by stating that ‘the personal witness of a woman poet is still a necessary part of the evolving criteria by which women and their poetry must be evaluated. Nor do I wish to imply that I solved my dilemma. The dilemma persists; the crosscurrents continue.’
I find this very sad, and wonder how true it is that women’s poetry is still undervalued and marginalised because its subject matter is seen as ‘minor’ rather than universal. I have spent half my life chronicling the struggles of woman writers to be published and recognised, from the 17th century Duchess of Newcastle (A Glorious Fame), through Dorothy Wordworth and Sara Coleridge (A Passionate Sisterhood), to Christina Rossetti (Learning not to be First) and Catherine Cookson. Are women writers still unequal? Am I misguided to think that is all in the past? In 2010 I’m not aware of any glass ceilings as a writer. But perhaps I owe that sense of freedom to women like Eavan Boland and my other literary ancestors.

Eavan Boland, ‘Object Lessons: the life of the woman and the poet in our time’, Carcanet, 2006
New and Collected Poems, Carcanet, 2006
The Journey, Carcanet, 1987
Outside History, Carcanet, 1990
In a Time of Violence, Carcanet, 1994
Deryn Rees-Jones, ‘Consorting with Angels’ (essays on Modern Women Poets) Bloodaxe, 2005.


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