A Woman Without a Country by Eavan Boland
Eavan Boland writes strong, crisp poetry that doesn’t disappoint and rarely surprises. This makes her, in a meaty way, no less interesting. The daughter of an Irish diplomat, she has directed the creative writing program at Stanford for many years. She has adult children, and a reader can be forgiven for yawning at the title of a piece from her latest book, A Woman Without a Country, called “Talking to My Daughter Late at Night,” suspecting something tailor-made for another dreary anthology that tells us nothing we don’t know.
The piece isn’t dreary at all. From its still-life beginning , with “We have a tray, a pot of tea, a scone,’’ to its affirmation that her daughter is now a grownup, Boland returns to a realization that there was nothing she could have done to erase an incident that made her little girl cry. This is what mothers do, I want to write in italics. They try. They fail. The most gifted mothers don’t forget. The most gifted poets, like Boland, remember and make lasting music. They ache for proof that, as Boland says toward the end of the poem, “The world is not stern.” With Boland’s balance of showing and telling, beautiful comfort is born, despite the stern world.
On every page Boland displays the necessity of surpassing easy nostrums memory can impose. In “Nostalgia,” when a cobbler shop closes in her home village, she riffs, as I just have by using the word nostrum (which means a medicine that doesn’t do what its maker or seller says it will) on the fact that “nostos” means the return home. She contemplates a home that can’t be returned to and she means hers and ours, and the whole thing works. She will always be kind. She will work hard to be honest in naming what she sees and feels. And readers will be rewarded by her efforts.
The title poem is not about Boland herself, a woman with more than one physical home. It is about an engraver and his portrait of a Dublin woman during the great famine :
Dublin wakes to horses and rain.
Street hawkers call.
All the news is famine and famine.
The flat graver, the round graver
The angle tint tool wait for him.
He bends to his work and begins.
He starts with the head, cutting in
To the line of the cheek, finding
The slope of the skull, incising
The shape of a face that becomes
A foundry of shadows, rendering-
With a deeper cut into copper-
The whole woman as a skeleton,
The rags of her skirt, her wrist
Is a bony line forever
Her body from its native air until
She is ready for the page,
For the street vendor, for
A new inventory which now
To loss and to laissez-faire adds
The odor of acid and the little,
Pitiless tragedy of being imagined.
He puts his tools away,
One by one; lays them out carefully
One the deal table, his work done.
This composition works for many reasons, the most devastating being that Boland has created a stand-in for the famine and its causes, without resorting to pontification or a hint of propaganda. The engraver is making a portrait, but he is, along with Boland, dissecting a dead woman representing the countless unnamed victims of what took place. The woman has neither name nor country, but she lives outside her “native air” and “pitiless tragedy,” in a place we can claim if we are brave enough. It is the country of sorrow without mawkishness or bombast. It is the country of stone that endures.
Boland is always immersed in large and small reminders that we cannot escape what has gone before. The poems in A Woman Without a Country serve as a lamp that illuminates a universal text, the text of specific complexities of connection. “A Soldier in the 28th Massachusetts” makes my point, using, once again, without appearing overwrought, another image of engraving.
If his cause is American
and his gun British –
a muzzle-loading musket
made in Enfield-
the features underneath
the blue forage cap are
Irish : a rough-cut intaglio
incised in a hidden history
of a shoreline receding
into a rainy distance
that eased out in the end
to reveal another coast
whose leaves are turning
this September evening
by the green incline
of Antietam creek.
And if this soldier in
the 28th Massachusetts is
to hold himself in readiness
for the reckoning
with his new countrymen,
let him not remember,
his old ones. Better to forget
the deep-water harbor,
the ship waiting, his father
on the dock with a contract
ticket for his wife and son,
in the arms of his brother.
The 28th fought bravely at Antietam, and we know by the title and by the detail of the blue (as opposed to gray) cap that these Irish-American soldiers bled against the cause of slavery. This is a universal stand-in for any ethnic group taking the right side in a truly just war. It is journalism and compact saga, and reminds me of a comment made in the seventies by the wise editor of an East Coast newspaper: “Poetry and journalism have a lot in common. They are both trying to say as much as possible in as few words as possible.” Again and again Boland serves as teacher/journalist/lyricist, without going didactic.
There are countless ways to come to grips with citizenship, and how that must be acted with and honored. “Conversion is ongoing,” declared an astute Jesuit official I heard many years ago. So is literary citizenship. Boland understands this, and with straightforward brilliance she names paradoxes and necessities that help individuals and communities approach wholeness .
The first loss is through history.
The final one is through language.
Boland affirms this in a poem toward the end of the book, about reading Oliver Goldsmith. A Woman Without a Country helps us cut losses, helps us build on what language and memory we still have.