Eavan Boland: Giving poetic voice to women.

‘Will you make me a hero?’

A tribute to the Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944 – 2020) by Roxanne Bodsworth

How do you write a tribute for someone you’ve never met, never encountered, in real life and real time but who nevertheless changed the course of your life? After hearing one poem, I went from someone who had never known of an Irish poet called Eavan Boland to someone who would seek to emulate her in my own approach to poetry. The poem was ‘Tirade for the Mimic Muse’. I remember the day, the moment, the place, the poem. I was an exchange student undertaking a subject in Irish literature under the tutelage of Mary Breen at UCC. She gave us the poem as a handout and read aloud the first few stanzas. I felt like it exploded from the page with generations of pent-up anger and frustration at how women were made to please, to perform, to inspire, but not to speak.

Your luck ran out. Look. My words leap
Among your pinks, your stench pots and sticks.
They scatter shadows, swivel brushes, blushers.
Make your face naked.
Strip your mind naked.
Drench your skin in a woman’s tears.
I will wake you from your sluttish sleep.
I will show you true reflections, terrors.
You are the Muse of all our mirrors.
Look in them and weep.

This was a woman who was speaking and I had not known, until that moment, that poetry could be like that, could so assault the senses that I felt like all those pots and powders had been up-ended and I was covered in them. If I had looked in the mirror, I would have seen a different person to the one that had stepped into the classroom that day. I had gone to Ireland looking for the romance of it and all that was stripped away, laid bare, and I had to decide what I would wear that could maybe come somewhere near the raw truthfulness and courage of the poet who had written these words.

In 1977, Boland wrote a letter to a young woman poet, a ‘talking across time and distance’ and what she talked about was changing the past because ‘if we do not change that past, it will change us.’ Boland’s father was a diplomat and that meant leaving Ireland at five years of age to live in London and from there moving to New York, and only returning as a teenager to Dublin, where she went on to study at Trinity College. She said in interview that ‘like a daughter in a legend, I had been somewhere else.’ The time away gave her a unique perspective on Irish tradition and Irish nationalism, both from the outside and from the inside.

Boland learned the fine art of crafting words from the past traditions of Irish and English poets, but she found that those traditions did not speak to her experience as a woman, did not speak to the lives of women. She became increasingly aware that the traditions were in many ways irrelevant to the women living their real lives with their everyday struggles. If the poems were about women, they were idealized representations that supported a nationalist agenda. This was the view of history that she needed to go into and change.

In her letter to the young woman poet, Boland said that her words ‘were agents rather than just extensions of reality. That they made my life happen, rather than just recorded it happening.’ Writing poetry changes the self, changes the person. Reading poetry changes the reader, invites them into the poet’s world where they can find echoes of their own experience. Boland could not find the experience of women in the poems she read, and while she explored the mythological stories of Irish women in poems such as ‘Song’ which describe Gráinne teasing Diarmaid, and wrote of romantic love in ‘The Winning of Etain’, included in her earlier collections. It was the collection of poems entitled In Her Own Image that truly launched her into a new direction where she became what I would consider a banfhile, an Irish woman poet with a powerful voice to stun those who had thought to limit the female representation to poetic inspiration without sharing the honoured place by the fireside. To call Boland a woman poet was not to lessen her standing as a poet but to increase it. She wrote poems of domestic violence, anorexia, masturbation, menstruation, motherhood, mastectomies. She wrote women’s experience and showed that it could be the stuff of poetry.

I should perhaps have responded by writing a letter across the ages and the generations to tell her that I had read her words and been changed by them, that my view of history was not the same, that my view of poetry was not the same, that I was being changed by the words I wrote as she was changed by hers. But I never dared try to make that contact. Boland had taken the aisling, the dream woman who inspired patriotism in men, and replaced this figure instead with real women, bringing them out of the kitchen and the bedroom and off the streets and down from the hills, but I put her on that pedestal instead and made her out of reach.

When Boland was sixteen, she worked as a housekeeper in a hotel at the end of O’Connell Street in Dublin, alongside the Liffey river. Every day on her way to work she walked past the statues of the male patriots and orators who had been instrumental in the fight for an Irish republic ‘with plaques and wreathes and speeches at their feet’. In her poem, ‘Heroic’, she wrote:

The patriot was made of drenched stone.
His lips were still speaking. The gun
he held had just killed someone…
I moved my lips… and whispered so that no one
could hear it but him.  Make me a heroine.

For me, Boland was that heroine, and I whispered those same words to her. But she was not encased in stone; she was living, breathing, writing. The breadth and scope and significance of her poetry easily equals that of W B Yeats and Seamus Heaney. She wrote of the wounds carried on the Irish psyche through the death of its heroes in ‘Naoise at Four’, drew on Greek mythology in ‘Daphne with her thighs in bark’ where one woman warns another not to repeat her mistakes and become so trapped. In ‘Outside History’ she wrote of deliberately moving out of the mythological past into a fully-fleshed existence. In ‘The War Horse’ she evokes the underlying thread of terror that persists even after a war is over. In ‘Mise Eire’ she wrote of immigrant women leaving the nation behind and turning towards a new life. The scope of her subject matter was matched only by the artistry of her words, rich in metaphor and form, with intricate harmonies and deliberate dissonance.

But it is unlikely that Boland will be recognised with Nobel Prizes or statues or museums in her honour. What she will be most remembered for is that she was a woman who wrote of women’s lives and challenged the establishment that built the monuments. Yet, her voice was so lyrical and so clear and intelligent that she was heard, and she changed the literary landscape of Ireland so it will never be the same, and that must be monument enough. Boland said that in a relatively short time, ‘women have moved from being the subjects and objects of Irish poems to being the authors of them’. Perhaps they were always authors but unrecognised. Now they can make themselves heard and it is a different way of looking on the world, on history and on contemporary struggles. In both her essays and her poems, Boland was generous in sharing her struggles in learning to understand herself as a poet, as Irish, as a woman. She questioned herself as much as she questioned the institutions and traditions, and showed that our personal narrative is not separate from our intellectual pursuits. And should not be separate because it is an integral part of the story.

In ‘What Language Did’, Boland wrote of looking out on a springtime dusk and meditating on growing older:

in this time of fragrance and refrain
whatever else might flower before the fruit,
and be renewed, I would not. Not again.

Eavan Boland has had her time on this earth and is now gone, passing away after a stroke at home, but in her 75 years she wrote words that will continue to flower, to bear fruit, to fall and die and be renewed. And for that, we are grateful.

Roxanne Bodsworth

Roxanne Bodsworth is a writer, poet, sheep farmer and celebrant who has almost completed her PhD by Creative Project at Victoria University, Melbourne.