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Review of New Collected Poems - John Greening, TLS, 27 October 200627 October 2006
John Greening, Times Literary Supplement, 27th October 2006.Previous review of 'New Collected Poems'... Next review of 'New Collected Poems'... To the 'New Collected Poems' page...
On the Sunny Side
The narrative behind the development of Eavan Boland's poetry is told in her prose book, Object Lessons, with its confrontation of the way 'Irish women poets had gone from being the objects of the Irish poem to being its authors'. Her studies of suburban life, a kind of seething pastoral, offer rich pickings for feminism, and her middle period poems reveal the influence of Adrienne Rich, among others. But she doesn't just describe domestic bonds, she makes us hear her feelings in the very dullness of the half-rhymes: 'The stilled hub / and polar drab / of the suburb'. These lines are from a poem ('monotony') in the early collection Night Feed (1980), the book in which Boland begins to go beyond the ordinary by writing about it; she escapes the angry jabbing of In Her Own Image (also 1980) in a series of quieter interiors. She had already been tuning up in the title poem of The War Horse (from 1975 - here, sadly, reprinted with 'crop' for 'clop'): the image of a powerful beast trampling leafy suburbs provides a key to later poems. 'Did you know our suburb was a forest?' she is asking in 2001, reminding us that there is folklore beyond the net curtains. The early sequence 'Suburban Woman' and 'Ode to Suburbia' suggest that there is 'no magic here', yet there is a Yeatsean need for something like magic - myth, fairy tale.
Boland would find it with astonishing assurance (after a seven-year struggle) in the poems from her great Rasumovsky period: The Journey (1987), Outside History (1990) and In a Time of Violence (1994). In 'The Oral Tradition', the half-heard talk of local women catches her ear, 'the oral song / avid as superstition, / layered like an amber in / the wreck of language / and the remnants of a nation'. In 'The Achill Woman', the islander plays counterpoint to the student Eavan's reading of 'The Court Poets' with its 'harmonies of servitude'.The strange harmonies Boland herself creates in these books (together with their compelling 'oral' narratives) are what deservedly brought her a wider readership. relying more on sound and syntax, subtleties of tone, line-break and caesura than the trampling warhorse of metre, her most celebrated poems are beautifully balanced: 'That the Science of Cartography is Limited', gradually revealing to us the presence of the old famine road; or 'The Water-Clock', dripping musically down the page:
Thinking of ageing on a summer day
of rain and more rain
I took a book down from a shelf
and stopped to read
and found myself -
how did it happen? -
the absurd creation of the water-clock.
on the bell-tongues of fuchsia
outside my window.
Not much contemporary free verse is as easy as this to memorize. Many of Boland's best poems begin with light, often in summer (a favourite word), many with rain or impending gloom, with the 'in-between, / neither here-nor-there hour of evening': 'The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me' is a well-known example, its brooding opening equalled only by the cinematic brilliance of the fan transformed to a blackbird's wing: 'the whole, full, flirtatious span of it'.
If Boland knew where she was heading by her middle period, there were plenty of diversions along the way: art, movies, memories of her school years in England, encounters with ancient Irish poets, with Horace, Mayakovsky, Nelly Sachs. There is a delightful poem about 'Anon'. But in more recent collections, those since her first Collected Poems of 1995, there is a sense that the poems are not surprising her quite enough, although there are fine individual pieces in both The Lost Sand (1998) and Code (2001). The former in particular shows the danger of knowing too clearly what you want to write about - too much of the sunlight she loves, not enough of the 'tenant moon'. It could be that working in California, where she is now a professor at Stanford University, has (besides keeping her on the sunny side) led her to this uncluttered, unironic style - she implies as much in 'The Necessity for Irony'. These poems shun the loaded word, employ less showy syntax, shorter sentences. There is little internal music. Boland has always liked rhetorical repetitions, but now she freeze-frames single words or phrases: 'The earth shows its age and makes a promise / only myth can keep. Summer. Daughter. Yet, ironically, there is some danger of drifting into a neo-Celtic twilight in some of the poems, such as 'The Colonists'.: 'They are holding maps. / But the pages are made of failing daylight. / The tears, made of dusk, fall across the names'. Code, however, seems to be reclaiming some of her earlier richness: a return to form in more ways than one - and a return to her suburban omphalos. But the title poem, dedicated to Grace Murray Hopper, 'maker of a computer compiler and verifier of COBOL', suggests that this is a poet still looking for 'a new language' (something she dreamt of back in Night Feed. Though she may have written some poems 'to grow old in', she has yet to make for herself a language fit for a memorable 'Late Period'. Yet Eavan Boland has already come so far, it would be no surprise if she suddenly produced a Grosse Fuge.
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