Beloved Irish poet Eavan Boland
Ireland is deeply mourning loss of Eavan Boland one of the greatest of her contemporary poets who died yesterday at the age of 75 at her Dublin home. Her prolific body of work wrestled with often thorny issues of Irish identity and insisted on the recognition of the role of women including their domestic situations. It became so central to the conversation about evolving modern Ireland that her poems are studied by are studied by Irish students who take the Leaving Certificate, the final exam of secondary students required for admission to a college or university. Mary Robinson selected her to read a poem at her 1990 inauguration as the first woman President of Éire and Barack Obama quoted her at a White House St. Patrick’s Day reception.
Eavan Frances Boland was born on September 24, 1944 in Dublin to career diplomat Frederick Boland and his wife noted painter Frances Kelly. When she was six in 1950 her father was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom to the most important Irish diplomatic post at a time when relations between the country were tense over Ireland’s neutrality during World War II and continuing claims on Northern Ireland. As a child in London she first experienced anti-Irish sentiment which strengthened her identification with her Irish heritage which she later described in her poem An Irish Childhood in England: 1951.
At 14, she returned to Dublin to attend Holy Child School in Killiney and them Trinity College where she was a classmate of Mary Robinson and where she published a first pamphlet 23 Poems in 1962. She earned her BA with First Class Honors in English Literature and Language from Trinity in 1966.
Since then she held numerous teaching positions and published poetry, prose criticism, and essays. Boland married the novelist Kevin Casey in 1969 and had two daughters. Her experiences as a wife and mother influenced her to write about the centrality of the ordinary, as well as providing a frame for more political and historical themes.
She taught at Trinity College, University College, Dublin, and Bowdoin College in Main, and was a member of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She was also writer in residence at Trinity and at the National Maternity Hospital.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Boland taught at the School of Irish Studies in Dublin. From 1996 she was a tenured Professor of English at Stanford University and divided her time between Palo Alto, and her home in Dublin.
Boland’s first book of poetry was New Territory published in 1965 followed by The War Horse in 1975, In Her Own Image (1980) and Night Feed (1982), which established her reputation as a writer on the ordinary lives of women and on the difficulties faced by women poets in a male-dominated literary world.
Boland reading in a pub.
She published dozens of collections most recently Eavan Boland: A Poet’s Dublin edited by Paula Meehan and Jody Allen Randolph and A Woman Without A Country both in 2014.
Boland’s many honors and awards on both sides of the Atlantic are too numerous to mention. Her work best speaks for itself.
My friend and radical poet Jerry Pendergast selected this apt poem about the Irish famine and the typhoid epidemic that accompanied it to remember Boland.
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
This one cuts to the quick of shame and guilt.
It was winter, lunar, wet. At dusk
Pewter seedlings became moonlight orphans.
Pleased to meet you meat to please you
said the butcher's sign in the window in the village.
Everything changed the year that we got married.
And after that we moved out to the suburbs.
How young we were, how ignorant, how ready
to think the only history was our own.
And there was a couple who quarreled into the night,
Their voices high, sharp:
nothing is ever entirely
right in the lives of those who love each other.
In that season suddenly our island
Broke out its old sores for all to see.
We saw them too.
We stood there wondering how
the salt horizons and the Dublin hills,
the rivers, table mountains, Viking marshes
we thought we knew
had been made to shiver
into our ancient twelve by fifteen television
which gave them back as gray and grayer tears
and killings, killings, killings,
then moonlight-colored funerals:
nothing we said
not then, not later,
fathomed what it is
is wrong in the lives of those who hate each other.
And if the provenance of memory is
only that—remember, not atone—
and if I can be safe in
the weak spring light in that kitchen, then
why is there another kitchen, spring light
always darkening in it and
a woman whispering to a man
over and over what else could we have done?
We failed our moment or our moment failed us.
The times were grand in size and we were small.
Why do I write that
when I don't believe it?
We lived our lives, were happy, stayed as one.
Children were born and raised here
and are gone,
As for that couple did we ever
find out who they were
and did we want to?
I think we know. I think we always knew.
Finally one on the complex interactions of history, the natural world, love, and art.
How We Made New Art on Old Ground
A famous battle happened in this valley.
You never understood the nature poem.
Till now. Till this moment—if these statements
seem separate, unrelated, follow this
silence to its edge and you will hear
the history of air: the crispness of a fern
or the upward cut and turn around of
a fieldfare or thrush written on it.
The other history is silent: The estuary
is over there. The issue was decided here:
Two kings prepared to give no quarter.
Then one king and one dead tradition.
Now the humid dusk, the old wounds
wait for language, for a different truth:
When you see the silk of the willow
and the wider edge of the river turn
and grow dark and then darker, then
you will know that the nature poem
is not the action nor its end: it is
this rust on the gate beside the trees, on
the cattle grid underneath our feet,
on the steering wheel shaft: it is
an aftermath, an overlay and even in
its own modest way, an art of peace:
I try the word distance and it fills with
sycamores, a summer's worth of pollen
And as I write valley straw, metal
blood, oaths, armour are unwritten.
Silence spreads slowly from these words
to those ilex trees half in, half out
of shadows falling on the shallow ford
of the south bank beside Yellow Island
as twilight shows how this sweet corrosion
begins to be complete: what we see
is what the poem says:
evening coming—cattle, cattle-shadows—
and when bushes and a change of weather
about to change them all: what we see is how
the place and the torment of the place are
for this moment free of one another.