The epigraph for Eavan Boland’s latest collection is taken from Virginia Woolf’s essay, Three Guineas – “The outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country.’” Boland might herself be, “a woman without a country”, given her peripatetic life, dividing her time between Dublin and California where she is Director of the Creative Writing programme at Stanford University.
In this collection, she explores aspects of exclusion, oppression and loss, drawing on her own life as well as memories of her mother and grandmother, to expose how women have been written out of history and denied a voice. She also excavates how we have lost words and skills and how, with each loss, we have also eroded our capacity to articulate feeling. In the opening poem, “The Lost Art of Letter Writing”, about the letters sent home by emigrants, she writes, “An art is lost when it no longer knows /How to teach a sorrow to speak”.
In the opening section, “Song and Error”, Boland’s lyricism adds a succinct precision to her work. In “Talking to my Daughter Late at Night”, she evokes something of the feel of that time of night – its darkness and stillness – as well as something of how conversations go in the wee small hours:
This is the hour
When one thing pours itself into another:
The gable of our house stored in shadow.
Boland is interested in the power of words to convey aspects of our humanity – not simply words as signifiers but other, more slippery dimensions of words. “Salt”, for example, becomes much more than a mineral or flavouring agent when elevated by human thought and language:
What a man is worth
What is rubbed into the wound.
What is of the earth.
(“Advice to an Imagist”)
Elsewhere, Boland explores more personal associations with words – the look and sound of them beyond their meaning. So, in “Cityscape”:
I have a word for it –
the way the surface waited all day
to be a silvery pause between sky and city –
which is elver.
And another one for how
the bay shelved cirrus clouds
piled up at the edge of the Irish Sea,
which is elver too.
I am, indeed, persuaded that there’s something about the word “elver” that means it could signify both of these watery aspects.
Boland is equally fascinated by lost words and all that vanishes with them. “Nostalgia” considers the etymology of the word “cobbler” and how words disappearing from our day-to-day vocabulary represent the abandonment, often unthinkingly, of whole areas of life:
Ceapail perhaps, meaning binding or fettering?
Klabba from the Swedish?
More likely cobolere to mend shoes.
As if the origin of a word we used
without thinking could help us deal
with what we were about to lose
a small room
gloomy with machines, with
a hand crank and a leather treadle
In the second section entitled “A Woman Without a Country”, Boland considers the lives of her mother and grandmother, and how notions of nationhood might exclude women. Prose fragments or “Lessons” are interspersed with poems, linking experiences of exclusion, marginalisation and loss; Boland concludes, “My grandmother lived outside history. And she died there.”
The final two sections, “The Trials of our Faith” and “Edge of Empire” include poems about spirituality amidst violence and the processes of colonialism and subjugation – “The first loss is through history./The final one is through language.” (“Re-reading Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Deserted Village’ in a Changed Ireland”)
This is a quiet collection, at once lyrical, contemplative and political, best savoured over several readings.