Eavan Boland: Here is Her Name

by Anna Blanch on November 28, 2008

Eavan Boland is wonderful. It is as simple as that. Yet, it isn’t simple.
In reading criticism of her poetry it has become apparent that there is great confusion about the distinction between feminist and feminine. Moreover, the possibility that you can be a woman intellectual who challenges the objectification of woman in poetry and art and endeavors to write the experience of a woman and yet not be a militant feminist seems to escape the intellectual grasp.

Here is Her Name

In Boland’s search for her own past, the importance of naming is evident. Indeed, naming and names are central to Boland’s poetic ethic. Necessity, it seems, prevails again as the mother of invention. The exercise of naming herself and of finding names for those events, people, and places, is intimately connected to her distinction between the history and the past and ultimately the declaration of her poetic ontology. Indeed, the significance of personal names is amplified by Boland’s acknowledgment that they signal English influence in the distinct Irish political and socio-cultural landscape. In naming her past, and herself, Boland is validating reality and giving a voice to that which has not had a voice: women in Irish history, and the women poet. Sometimes, Boland suggests, the most powerful action of agency is silence; she argues that:

the way to the past is never smooth. For a woman poet it can be especially tortuous. Every step towards and origin is also an advance towards a silence (24).

Object Lessons is the record of Boland’s search for a name; for herself as a woman, a poet, and for her grandmother, Mary Ann.

In the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century’s the poet was a lauded and exemplary figure and women were objects for those poets. While Boland has taken upon the project of writing as a woman, and taking the experience of herself as a woman as one of her subjects, she acknowledges that, in conjunction with first and second wave feminism, the late Twentieth century saw a major shift in the power relationship between men and women. Simultaneously, the status of the poet diminished sharply and substantially. In Object Lessons, Boland does not claim to be speaking for all women or even women poets; she is specifically and particularly speaking of her own journey with her own voice – a voice and a name she reiteratively searches for throughout Object Lessons. Furthermore, she acknowledges that her memoir or her experience may not be empathetically relevant to future generations though implicitly she is seeking to be the exemplar for which she had yearned.

It should be noted that Boland is particularly careful to distinguish between the role of poet and her identity as a woman: “A woman poet is now an emblematic figure in poetry” even as she later conflates the concept of an emblem with the powerful symbol of a name and concedes the poetic “images are themselves a nomenclature” (xv, 32-33). Yet, Boland’s “two lives, of a poet and a woman” are as complex as ever leading Boland to lament the apparent absence of name for her voice on more than one occasion: “Was there really no name for my life in poetry?” (23).

Significantly, Boland specifically notes that “politics and social change, except as it touched her immediate circumstances” were distant to her grandmother (7-8). While Boland distances herself from associations with the kind of militant feminism Adrienne Rich advocates, the emancipation of woman from the role of object is, nonetheless, revealed as a central tenet of Boland’s mature poetic ethic. Instead of being a passive object viewed through the “active lens of the poem” by virtue of “metaphors and invocations, similes and muses” Boland seeks, because in part she is a woman-poet, to make the experience of women the subject of her poetry, (of which – it should go without saying – she is the author,) even though she herself acknowledges that her maturation was hard fought as she found and named her own poetic voice (27-28, 126).

Boland’s poetry is fascinating and beautiful, but it is her self awareness of her identities as a woman and a poet which is fundamentally illuminating in Object Lessons. Boland’s various names result in a complex series of identities. Her roles include woman, poet, mother, feminist, Irish; and all possible combinations of these, including woman-poet, Irish-poet – but not including feminist-poet which she explicitly disavows elsewhere in a 1993 interview (Allen-Randolph “Interview” 125). In the third section of “Lave Cameo” she experiments with various names for her poetry:

War poetry. Nature poetry. Love poetry. Pastoral poetry. The comic epic. The tragic lyric (23).

But, in doing so, Boland reflects that none of the myriad of names seems an appropriate fit:

Surely there were names enough for any and every life. Even if the name of my experience, of what I felt and saw, was not specifically entered there, then why not represent my life as one which those conventions, those traditions could name and therefore recognize? (23)

Boland’s experience is one of intellectual knowledge being disconnected from emotional experience. Which is why, in part, she speaks of her search for a vocabulary for her poetic experience as “a new sensory idiom” (56). Even as she is able to say of her grandmother, “here is her name,” Boland is obliquely saying of herself that in understanding the names of those who make up her past she is on the way to being able to name herself but that this is a winding journey (29). The power of a name is as substantial as it is subtle:

I was all too aware of how a nuance here and a shadow there could turn me into a woman already recognizable to poetic convention (23).

Boland also links naming to the action of memory and acknowledgment (59, 125). The naming of the story is in one sense owning the story in her recognition that she is part of the making of the past. In naming her grandmother’s story, and later her mother’s story, she names and identifies part of why and who she is as a woman – her mother’s daughter, Mary-Ann’s grand-daughter, a great-grand-daughter, wife and mother – and, ultimately, who she is as a poet (13, 67). The reiteration and reframing key phrases within the narrative function as poetic refrains; examples include “a year on the edge” and “a place on the edge” (7).

In emphasizing the importance of naming the past, Boland is also flagging the absence and negation of the story of women in Irish history:

Names. Every art is inscribed with them. Every life depends on them. I was to find out, as I searched for information about her, just how wounding their absence can be (18).

Moreover, the absence of the story of women in Irish history is linked intimately with the absence of names for Boland’s art (190). Boland explicitly declares, even as she distances herself from the possibility of being a feminist and a poet, that she has “accepted that the story of Irish history is not her story” (32). It is important to note that the emphasis is mine and not Boland’s, and this is much to her credit. The tensions inherent in Boland’s experience as a woman and a poet were apparent to her:

As a woman the life I lived – its daily-ness and complexity – had been given a place of passivity and silence in the very tradition that had given me my voice as a poet (184).

It is in this moment that Boland strikes out to create a new space, or in fact employs the space that exists in the acknowledgment of the negated voice, in which she could write poetry in a new mould, with a new name. At the same time, Boland is aware that a poet that is also a woman is inevitably a politicized voice which she acknowledges but does not necessarily accept (186). Moreover, Boland challenges the necessity for the poetic voice to be a public voice, arguing that there is a place within political poetry for the private voice (187).

Boland links her search for a name for her poetic aesthetic with her own confusion about her national identity and what she describes as her “[missing] vocabulary of belonging” (55):

The Street names, the meeting places – it was not that I did not know them. It was something more. I had never known them. I had lost not only a place but the past that goes with it and, with it, the clues from which the construct a present self (56).

Boland makes it clear that this is a vocabulary and not a dialogue that she seeking – a monologic interaction: “They test me; They do not silence me” (205). She explicitly links “Language” with “Ownership” in relation to place and home, but also implicitly in relation to her identity as a poet and finding names for her past (102). Her endeavor to find a name for her poetic ethic speaks also to the relation to “imagination and image” as it “violated” the complex whole of what it is to be an Irish woman that was so often and so dangerously simplified by generations of Irish poets who invoked a mythologized feminine image to represent Ireland (152).

Ultimately, Boland finds her names: Irish. Woman. Poet. Although it could be more accurate to say that she found images and emblems to which could be attached those names in such as fashion that Boland was not confident within herself that these names, and the images they represent, adequately and appropriately name her experience and enterprise as a poet.

I plan on writing a little more about Boland but in the mean time I encourage you to read her on her own terms. This Literary Review article exploring “The Science of Cartography is Limited” is an interesting reflection on the art of poetry and the process of writing poetry.

Related posts:

Previous post:

Next post: