Eavan Bolands The Wifes Lament, a translation from the Anglo-Saxon, begins: I sing this poem full of grief. / Full of sorrow about my life / Ready to say the cruel state / I have endured, early of late. It is a splendid performance, full of chancy verbal energy and rich historical witnessing. Its also quite uncharacteristic of A Woman Without a Country, not in its subject matter, but in its ready embrace of rhyme and regular metre. Where themes of history and loss are concerned, Boland more usually inclines to the jagged and the elliptical, and this collection is no exception.
The book is about loss and, to paraphrase Robert Hass, in this it resembles all other Boland books. In the typical Boland poem, it is always late in the day, literally and historically; the heroes and villains of history have fled the scene; and their victims have been arranged into decorative postures of melancholy rebuke. The details of history are sketched in a kind of knowing shorthand: 1890. Empire, attitude. / A rainy afternoon in Dublin (Edge of Empire). Neglected lives are juxtaposed with the overweening narratives of empire and nation state: My grandmother lived outside history. And she died there (Sea Change). Did she find her nation? Boland asks of her grandmother, adding: And does it matter? The frequent questioning in Bolands work over the last four or more decades, and the continuing shortage of answers, suggest a challenge that is it not just difficult but well-nigh impossible.
One of the oddities of Bolands critique of nationalism is that her poems preserve that phenomenon in something like 19th-century aspic. The revisionist view of Irish nationalism has been with us for more than half a century, after all, but the picture of Irish history that emerges from these poems is strangely timeless and unalterable. The juggernaut of the nation – callously, insensitively male – annihilates the rich particularity of female experience, but Bolands poems gravitate with grim inevitability to a hobbled, abstract mourning. Her addiction to the full stop instead of the comma quickly grates, and the plonked-down sentence fragment as a shortcut to poetic significance (And will never heal, And nothing more, Who will never remember this, So many names for misery, And then I leave) produces melodrama. In the title poem, not for the first time, Boland depicts a male artists portrayal of the female form as an act of invasion and dissection (cutting in / To the line of the cheek). She has written sensitively of her mothers work as an artist, but the male/female dichotomy she codes into the act of perception remains notional rather than proved.
In her article Inside and Outside History, Anne Stevenson takes issue with Bolands dialectic of history versus myth, and accuses the Irish poet of creating a new myth of paralysed victimhood, trapping her subjects a second time over even as she seeks to honour their suffering. As the recent, tragic case of an asylum seeker – another woman without a country – refused an abortion in Ireland reminded us, the road from mythic passivity to free subjective agency remains all too comprehensively blocked for many women in 21st-century Ireland. If I harbour misgivings about Bolands performance as poetic mater dolorosa, it is not because I believe that liberal narratives of progress are sufficient to lift the awful burden of history, but because of the reductive effect of her one-size-fits-all approach to historical elegy. The overwhelming majority of men and women in history have lived and died with no recognition from the nation state, but Bolands unique tone of static incomprehension before this fact tends more to quietism than to radical indignation.
If patriarchy never changes, the stasis of Bolands poems might be interpreted as a desperate irony, designed to underline the helplessness that is the female poets lot. Yet this side of her work coexists with an unfailing belief in her mandate to speak for, or over, the heads of others, including other women. To cast oneself in such a representative role requires a rare artistic will to power, given the drama Heaney made in North of precisely not wanting to take up this role. Could it be that Boland prefers to relate to an antiquarian Romantic Ireland, the better to preserve her role as our deliverer from it?
The most effective poems in A Woman Without a Country are those of its first section, Song and Error. Modern poets, from Montale to Heaney, have done well by the eel, and Cityscape offers a luminous salute to its translucent visitor / yearning for the estuary. Advice to an Imagist counsels the reader to keep her wounds fresh, packing them in preservative (if painful) salt. All too soon, however, the living conversation of poet and reader steers towards the familiar shadowlands of myth and history. It would be patronising in the extreme to suggest that Boland writes best when she leaves her politics to one side. The question, rather, is whether this work frames its political questions in ways best conducive to recovering the past from EP Thompsons enormous condescension of posterity. The suspicion lingers, however, that having begun as a protest against the lost lands of history, and in spite of their best efforts, these poems may have ended up becoming one themselves.