Q | 29 APRIL, 2020
Remembering Eavan Boland – Poetry Unafraid of Their Completion
As a young exchange student at Trinity College, Eavan introduced me to Dublin
On the night of April 27, Eavan Boland - an Irish woman and poet - succumbed to a stroke in her home in Dublin at the age of 75. Of the manifold identities she embodied, after years of being one of the most prominent voices in Irish literature, why select these specific characteristics – Irish, woman, and poet? Eavan, in her foresight, possessed the indomitable strength and ability to give answers to questions even before they were posed, and furthermore acknowledge when there was none to be found. Yet she wrote:
"Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’ … I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.”
In 2017, as a young exchange student at Trinity College, Eavan introduced me to Dublin. I will call her by her first name, for the familiarity I feel for her as a guide and a friend. Her poem, 'Anna Liffey' refers to a woman and the river Liffey that passes through Dublin. She wrote: "The river took its name from the land. / The land took its name from a woman."
She asked – does a city have a spirit? What makes a place home?
"Is it only love
That makes a place?"
And then she answered:
"Where is home now?
Follow the rain
Out to the Dublin hills.
Let it become the river.
Let the spirit of place be
A lost soul again."
I remember being that lost soul, meeting the girl of my dreams there, in Ireland, with Eavan's poetry collecting the scattered love at my feet and drawing a trail of breadcrumbs to begin following. Like the will-o'-the-wisp, I to this day continue to follow them. She wasn't conventional in any sense -- her poetry spoke of cancer, anorexia, infanticide, and domestic violence. She was a mother at a very young age; her life was easy in no manner of speech. And her manner of speech was poetry – a cartography of sorrow, rooted in the coast, motherhood and motherland fusing together into an utmost sense of rebellion. She recognized that loss wasn’t an emotion felt by the body, but only the feet; rooted in the land we occupy, and the communities we belong to.
"what we see is how
the place and the torment of the place are
for this moment free of one another." (How We Made a New Art on Old Ground)
“and memory itself
has become an emigrant,
wandering in a place
where love dissembles itself as landscape…” (The Lost Land)
Eavan was as Irish as she was “a woman without a country”: her knowledge of the land was never divorced from its history, its coloniality, its spectres of civilizations, and its undocumented pasts.
“The colours / were faded out / so the red of Empire – / the stain of absolute possession – / the mark once made from Kashmir / to the oast-barns of the Kent / coast south of us was / underwater coral.”
(In Which the Ancient History I Learn Is Not My Own)
And yet, her morality was born from the senses she fostered, grew, and carefully moulded as an Irishwoman. In prose, she remembered her father witnessing the caoine in the 1920s, attempting to use his memory to answer Sandra Gilbert’s question: “Is poetry in fact consoling as a performance of grief—that is, is poetry a genre that helps mourners confront loss and overcome sorrow?”
At the time that I discovered this essay, I was no longer with the girl I’d first met in Ireland, forced now then to ask myself the very question every poet at some point posits to the moon – where do we place our worlds of unspent love? Not in pursuit like the Romantics of old, that’s passé, we now know not to impose our affections and admirations on beauty that does not seek it. Eavan showed us and me, that we place it within the people, the family, and the village. She wrote of public imaginations, referring to Yeats’ “imaginative possessions” and how this cannot remain purely private. Her every word was a nudge, a push towards a larger truth – not merely of an Andersonian imagined community but of a collective consciousness that held grief, possessed unfathomable sorrow, treasured every unspoken word, celebrated the undeniable importance of elegy, and lingered in the air. She wrote:
“The origins of elegy are not private: they are sacred and public. Those origins shaped the poet and gave poetry one of its historic identities. If poets dismantle that series of references—even in the name of the private imagination—they may well desert a constituency and leave unimagined the adventures and ordeals of their generation. I understand that these things change from culture to culture, and age to age. Nevertheless I, as an Irish poet, would certainly want to be there on that dock with the keeners. I would want to feel that those people—on both sides of those farewells—could count on a language for their loss.”
And now, we who listened as she read, as entire countries stood quiet as she addressed the UN, proudly speaking of legacy and all that is to come in the same breath as she spoke of change (“Our future will become the past of other women”), we are left attempting, admirably failing, and trying once again to do what she had always asked us to – to give tribute to quietened suppressed sobs, to write histories, myths, and legends of women and the oppressed, to know where we came from as well as we know where we’re going, to make maps of our souls, and find a language for our loss.
Today, we are all there on that dock, with the keeners, with two farewells – to her, and to who we were when she existed, a family “unafraid of their completion”:
“In the end
It will not matter
That I was a woman. I am sure of it.
The body is a source. Nothing more.
There is a time for it. There is a certainty
About the way it seeks its own dissolution.
They are always en route to
Their own nothingness. From the first moment
They are going home. And so
When language cannot do it for us,
Cannot make us know love will not diminish us,
There are these phrases
Of the ocean
To console us.
Particular and unafraid of their completion.
In the end
Everything that burdened and distinguished me
Will be lost in this:
I was a voice.” (Anna Liffey)