A Journey With Two Maps

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Becoming a Woman Poet is brisk, each indicator of geography reinforcing the urge to break barriers.

Born in Dublin, Eavan Boland is the youngest child of a painter and a diplomat. Author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry and nonfiction, she is also a professor and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford.

Becoming a Woman Poet–A Journey With Two Maps is quirky and personal, and most of it was published in literary journals. “Poetry begins where language starts: in the shadows and accidents of one person’s life,” she writes in the preface. Soon after, she delivers Muriel Ruykeyser’s question: “How shall we tell each other of the poet?” This suggests a feminist stance to those familiar with Ruykeyser and helps frame her premise that her exposure to poetry had two maps, one drawn in Ireland, the other drawn in the United States. Both maps are outlined in countless configurations by awareness of herself as daughter, wife, mother, citizen. In compelling ways she restates her belief that “the journey toward being and becoming a poet cannot happen with one set of directions only.” She provides intriguing detail, including the fact that there are questions of credit (authorship( surrounding at least one of her mother’s artworks.

Becoming a Woman Poet is brisk, each indicator of geography reinforcing the urge to break barriers: “In the sense that my life as a poet has been marked by boundaries, this book allows me to unwrite them–moving freely between countries and poems and histories.” “Unwriting” is an apt invention for “the rooms of other women poets,” the chapter that reels off a collection of names, some familiar, some not, “unwriting” an unheralded literary history on both sides of the Atlantic.

Becoming a Woman Poet is also appropriately unconventional in each approach to Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov, and Charlotte Mew, who killed herself using a poison that guaranteed a particularly gruesome death. Mew transgressed, not just because she was a lesbian in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but because she challenged “the false pastorals of Georgian England and the dead sweetness of pre-Modernist, post-Victorian poetry,” in this oddly, unidentified excerpt:

I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart,
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell,
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide
Rooms where for good or for ill things died.

Boland discovered Mew in her thirties, in Ireland in the fifties, and her appreciation for Mew was not instant, but expanded over time. It is not lost on Boland that the decade of her own young adulthood needed later transgressions, and she acknowledges that that era was and still is critical to all citizens.

Upheaval is constant, and Boland writes with immediacy of her student days, walking past statues of Parnell and other major participants in Irish history. She paused outside the home of Oscar Wilde’s mother, pondering the life and work of one who took the pen name Speranza and produced poorly-written polemic. Later in this chapter, “Becoming and Irish Poet,” Boland goes back to the eighteenth century, to a piece by young Eiblhin ni Chonaill, in which the writer puts her hand in the blood of her martyred husband. The poem was hijacked to make it palatable to opponents of Home Rule, and was rescued largely by scholar Angela Bourke. Crediting her, Boland also credits Frank O’Connor for his “incantatory” translation. Boland is too fair not to liberally quote and credit men, sometimes different men in different centuries on the same page, so don’t be surprised when she bursts forth Dryden or Lowell.

As someone who has heard Gaelic, here and in Ireland, I was surprised that Boland did not provide some transliteration for a clearer sense of the sound of Irish poetry that weaves in and out of all she has written. As she notes, her younger years away from Ireland kept her from learning the language. I hope this volume stays in print and that future editions will either add that, or be in the form of a paperback with a CD.

Boland’s treatment of writers she names is generally admiring. Edna St. Vincent Millay has been poorly served by two biographers and many critics, and Boland helps correct that without sounding shrill. Her first exposure to Elizabeth Bishop was a poem called “Moose” in an anthology of American poetry she (disappointingly) doesn’t name, that she was sent to review. “I read the first stanza. I read the second and marked the place. later that night, with the children in their cots and the house quiet, I began to read her again.” Bishop’s poplars became “hairy, scratchy things” in New Brunswick, Canada’s woods, and Boland gladly got lost.

It is startling that he misquotes part of Bishop’s famous poem “One Art.” “A joking gesture” is hat Boland supplies, instead of “(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)” set in parentheses in my 1983 edition of the Complete Poems, and on the Academy of American Poets home page. Nor does she mention Bishop’s alcoholism or the fact, so essential here, that she lived in Brazil with a woman who committed suicide. These misdemeanors are the only off notes in an otherwise fine volume, though it is surprising that in her chapter about the correspondence between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan and the tensions in it, she neglects to mention Levertov’s prose classic The Poet in the World.

The last chapter on this journey is called “Letter to a Young Woman Poet,” and it is powerful and encouraging. On the final page she declares that “women poets, from generation to generation, will be able to befriend one another.” This is old news, made fresh on almost every page. Becoming a Woman Poet is a welcome guide, for women and men who write, or who care about the lettered life, to befriend one another and the literature that sustains them.

Barbara Berman’s poetry collection, Currents, will soon be published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →