A perennial theme in poetry is the meaning of words like nationality and citizenship. Today, in the early years of the twenty-first century, as globalization settles into being an uncomfortable but undeniable fact of life, as wars and disease outbreaks and economic hardships continue to create communities of refugees eking out an existence far from the soil that their ancestors once called home, the labor of untangling the connotations of these knotty words feels as urgent as it ever has. Growing up as a daughter of Vietnam War refugees who, by an ironic twist of fate, ended up scraping out a life in the snowy northern reaches of Minnesota, I often ran headlong into these questions: What does it mean to have a country, or to belong to one? How long must a person or a person’s family inhabit a country before they become part of it? Does it take a very long time? And finally, with trepidation: What if it never happens?
Eavan Boland has built a career out of wrestling with difficult questions like these: since the early 1960s, she has written over a dozen books of poetry and prose that interrogate complex ideas ranging from history, mythology, and violence to womanhood, motherhood, and love. In her latest, A Woman Without a Country (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), Boland takes up some of the threads she began spinning decades before, using deep wisdom accumulated over many years of poetic practice to explore what nuances comprise the idea of citizenship as it relates to women specifically.
A Woman Without a Country is a tightly unified collection of poems, many of which relate to the book’s melancholy title. The collection begins with a Virginia Woolf epigraph: “…as a woman, I have no country.” Boland uses this as a starting point in her quest to honor and memorialize women such as her own mother and grandmother who, either partly or entirely because of their gender, were marginalized and erased, disinherited and disenfranchised by their societies.
“Art of Empire,” a poem that resurrects the chillingly mute specter of Boland’s Irish grandmother, could be considered representative of this thread of woman-centered poems that courses through the book:
think of this as the only way
an empire could recede—
taking its laws, its horses and its lordly all,
leaving a single art to be learned,
and one that required
neither a silversmith nor a glassblower
but a woman skilled in the sort of silence
that lets her stitch shadow flowers
into linen with pastel silks
who never looks up
to remark on or remember why it is
the bird in her blackwork is warning her:
not a word not a word
not a word not a word
Boland recruits two figures from Greek myth to symbolize the plight of all women who are evicted from their homelands: Eurydice, who was banished from the world of the living by an untimely snakebite, and Persephone, who was forcibly carried off to the underworld by the sex-hungry god Hades. This is not the first time Boland has co-opted Persephone as a symbol; she first did so over two decades ago in her much-anthologized poem “The Pomegranate”: “The only legend I have ever loved is / the story of a daughter lost in hell…”
Like “The Pomegranate,” Boland’s newest Persephone-centered poem, “Amethyst Beads,” is more interested in Persephone’s role as the goddess Demeter’s imperiled daughter than in her role as Hades’s reluctant queen. In Boland’s feminist interpretation of the myth, the mother-daughter relationship overshadows the husband-wife relationship, rendering the latter scarcely worth a mention:
Rosemary, say, or tansy. Or camomile
which they kept to cool fever.
Which they once used to soothe a child
tossing from side to side, beads of sweat catching
and holding a gleam from the vigil lamp.
A child crying out in her sleep
Wait for me. Don’t leave me here.
For Boland, it is Demeter’s qualities of maternal devotion and survival-enabling diplomacy that make the myth of Persephone worth returning to, just as those are the qualities that make the life stories of countless anonymous women throughout history worth returning to and retelling anew.
Boland’s poems, like those of Elizabeth Bishop (the first great poet to tutor readers in the “art of losing”), are suffused with a far-reaching sense of loss: loss of loved ones, neighbors, villages, homes, springtime, youth, potency, certainty, intimacy, memory, carnality, liberty, life, art, and, finally, language itself. Of note, however, it is not loss in general that Boland mourns but thoughtless loss in particular: in the poem “Nostalgia,” she pinpoints the cause of her sorrow as “what we were about to lose without thinking” (italics added by reviewer) (p. 16). As a corollary, Boland’s poems can be interpreted as exhorting us readers to cultivate a practice of mindfulness, lest our thoughtless negligence of the things we hold most dear causes us to suffer ever steeper losses.
In addition to loss, another subject that consumes Boland in these poems is the inadequacies of language. Over and over, Boland laments how verbal discourse is impotent to remedy loss, how literature is incapable of ending war or preventing death, how a single word may often have multiple conflicting meanings, how the science of etymology is riddled with uncertainties, how the art of translation is plagued by ambiguities, and how myths and metaphors are misleadingly distorted mirrors of reality. Boland expresses her dissatisfaction with the limitations of language most succinctly in the poem “Sea Change”:
[E]ven if I turned to legerdemain
To bring land and ocean together,
Saying water meadow to myself for instance,
The distances remained
From the observation that the simplest constructions of language do not do what we intend them to do, it follows that poetry is a battlefield of infinite contradictions. In the poem “Mirror. Memory,” Boland cannily points out that art has the power both to “mist” reality and to “reveal” it (p. 57). Caveat lector.
While all dishonest uses of language appear to vex Boland, the poet takes especial issue with the slippery language that has historically been used to cloak the sins of western imperialism. The poem “Reading the Victorian Novel” is a searing indictment of the myriad elisions of unsavory experiential details that 19th-century novelists were regularly guilty of; the poem “Edge of Empire” likens this shameful tradition of literary evasiveness to “A linen cloth hiding its past of beaten flax… out of the reach of forgiveness” (p. 71). Finally, in “Song and Error,” a poem about the exiled Roman poet Ovid, Boland reminds us that Ovid’s slave boy—a casualty of imperialism himself—is no less deserving of our sympathies than Ovid himself: “When evening comes a boy he cannot speak Latin / Reaches to light the lamp…. / He has no language for the Empire that owns him” (p. 21).
This book has the potential to enrich the lives of all kinds of readers, be they poetry-lovers, Ireland-lovers, or simply women and men scattered throughout the world in imperialism’s wake who are struggling to comprehend their own alienation. These are poems that speak directly to the heart of anyone who has ever paged through a history book and thought, as Boland does in “Marriages” (p. 61), “Not our names. Not our wars. Never our victories.”