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Eavan Boland: the great Dublin poet and powerful feminist voice

Eavan Boland was a formidable voice in Irish poetry, challenging the male tradition dominated by Yeatsian writers. RTE

The death of poet Eavan Boland comes as a soft shock to my sense of the world. The creative connections she forged between her richly various poetry, Irish culture and the fierce determinations of feminism were mesmerising. Just as important was her faith in poems as places to think and feel in, where those connections could be offered as intricate gifts to all readers.

She is rightly celebrated for her breakthrough collection, the 1980 In Her Own Image, which pitted itself against the lazy assumptions of a male-dominated poetry world and voiced the bitter extremes of female experience, like the anorexic’s fanaticism (“Flesh is heretic./ My body is a witch. / I am burning it”), the beaten wife’s survivalist plural selving (“I was not myself, myself”), the menstrual visionary (“I leash to her {the moon}, / a sea, / a washy heave, / a tide”), the crazy poetics of the kitchen (“the tropic of the dryer tumbling clothes. / The round lunar window of the washer”).

A true challenger to Yeats

Such poems gave centre stage to female experiences and had a huge impact on the Irish poetry scene in particular, which had taken its time responding to the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Eavan Boland in 1996. Wikimedia

Their accurate representation of the marginalisation of women in history and by history (“still no page / scores the low music / of our outrage” It’s a Woman’s World, 1982) was belied by the poems as public and historical voices. A feminist collection, In Her Own Image showed the world that Boland’s was a powerful voice above all and a real challenge to the Yeatsian tradition of male poetics in Ireland.

The wonderful Mise Eire (1987), meaning “I am Ireland”, for instance, takes on the identity of the many emigrant women travelling from Ireland to the New World, and opens:

I won’t go back to it

my nation displaced

into old dactyls

and the poem is colourfully detailed about the historical record, as routines being played by Boland:

I am the woman –

a sloven’s mix

of silk at the wrists,

a sort of dove-strut

in the precincts of the garrison

The ancestral women whose being she inherits through her matriarchal line and her Irish identity, women under the control of the old dispensation, the women of Irish patriarchal history, molls to the men of power – that is what she won’t go back to. So what reads as a rich imagining of the emigrant glad to be leaving is also Boland’s coded challenge to the Irish lyric tradition with its old dactyls and assumptions about women poets as strutting doves; as well as a specific historical voicing of second-wave feminism – we are not going back to that old world.

Returning to Dublin

On the back of the extraordinarily febrile mind at work on her own culture and in concert with the feminism of her times, she built up a repertoire of voices that constitute some of the finest poetry in English.

Navigating between work in America and a full life in Ireland, she lived out that emigrant dream and made it real, made it her world. Her poems are intimately connected to the dailiness of her own life, to a sense of significances and exfoliations in the ordinary events in her patch of space and time. Equally, she writes poems of extraordinary power and complexity about the history of Ireland, about the Famine, the Troubles (the three-decade conflict between nationalists and unionists), about the acts of violence suffered by her people over time.

She was unafraid to make poetry do the work that once was most resolutely its task: the work of elegy, epic (her lyrics attend to history with the eye of an epic poet), lyric most of all and testimonial witnessing of experience with heart and mind.

For me, one of her tasks was to be the poet of Dublin, the Dublin she loved and cherished, and fought for and against too. Many of her very best poems bring that fabled city to new light. Her poem Anna Liffey (1997), which tussles with James Joyce’s representation of the female principle Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, is also a hymn of praise to Dublin’s river Liffey:

It rises in rush and ling heather and

Black peat and bracken and strengthens

To claim the city it narrated.

Again, subtly, it is a woman’s story-telling (Anna Liffey narrating) that lays claim to this new post-feminist Dublin. Born abroad, she adopted Dublin as an émigré Irish returnee – but that journey home was also this complex act of kinship and claim:

It has taken me

All my strength to do this.

Becoming a figure in a poem.

Usurping a name and a theme.

Thank goodness for her usurpation! Such a harvest of gifts, as well.

In the incomparably beautiful And Soul (2007), Dublin’s rain is praised at the same time as Boland is battling the cloudburst of her grief for her dying mother. In The Lost Land (1998), her daughters growing up and living faraway reprise her whole life story (“memory itself / has become an emigrant”). Nobody has written so fully and well about the intimate relationship between Ireland and the United States. Ireland has lost its most exquisite chronicler:

In the end

everything that burdened and distinguished me

will be lost in this:

I was a voice.

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