(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Hearth and history provide a context for the poetry of Eavan Boland. She is inspired by both the domestic and the cultural. Her subjects are the alienating suburban places that encourage people to forget their cultural roots, her children with their typically Irish names, demystified horses in Dublin streets that can still evoke the old glories from time to time, and the old Irish stories themselves, which at times may be vivid and evocative and at others may be nostalgic in nature. Boland’s distinctly female perspective is achieved in several poems about painting that note the dominance of male painters—such as Jan van Eyck, Edgar Degas, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir—in the history of art from the Renaissance to the Impressionists. Women were painted by these artists in traditional domestic or agrarian postures. Boland perceives women as far less sanitized and submissive. Her collection In Her Own Image introduces such taboo subjects as anorexia, mastectomy, masturbation, and menstruation.

Night Feed

Two of Boland’s works, In Her Own Image and Night Feed, deal exclusively with the subject of women. Night Feed for the most part examines suburban women and positively chronicles the daily routine of a Dublin homemaker. The book has poems about diapers, washing machines, and feeding babies. The cover has an idyllic drawing of a mother feeding a child. However, In Her Own Image, published two years before Night Feed, seems written by a different person. Its candid and detailed treatment of taboo subjects contrasts sharply with the idyllic world of Night Feed. Boland’s ability to present both worlds testifies to her poetic maturity.

The need for connection is a major theme in Boland’s poetry. Aware of traditional connections in Irish and classical myths, she longs for an earlier period when such ties came instinctively. Her sense of loss with respect to these traditional connections extends beyond mythology to Irish history as well, even to Irish history in the twentieth century. Modern-day Dubliners have been cut off from the sustaining power of myth and history. Their lives, therefore, seem empty and superficial. Surrounded with the shards of a lost culture, they cannot piece these pieces together into a coherent system.

The alienation of modern urban Irish people from their cultural roots is the subject of Boland’s “The New Pastoral” (from Night Feed). She considers alienation from a woman’s perspective. Aware of the myths that have traditionally sustained males, Boland desires equivalent myths for females. She longs for a “new pastoral” that will celebrate women’s ideals, but she finds none. She encounters many domestic “signs,” but they do not “signify” for her. She has a vague sense of once having participated in a coherent ritual, of having “danced once/ on a frieze.” Now, however, she has no access to the myth. Men seem to have easier access to their cultural roots than women do. The legends of the cavemen contain flint, fire, and wheel, which allowed man “to read his world.” Later in history, men had pastoral poems to define and celebrate their place in the world. A woman has no similar defining and consoling rituals and possesses no equivalent cultural signs. She seems a “displaced person/ in a pastoral chaos,” unable to create a “new pastoral.” Surrounded by domestic signs, “lamb’s knuckle,” “the washer,” “a stink/ of nappies,” “the greasy/ bacon flitch,” she still has no access to myth. Hints of connection do not provide a unified myth:

I feelthere was a past,there was a pastoraland thesechance sights—what are they allbut late amnesiasof a riteI danced onceon a frieze?

The final image of the dancer on the frieze echoes both John Keats’s Grecian urn and William Butler Yeats’s dancers and golden bird. The contemporary poet, however, has lost contact. Paradoxically, the poem constitutes the “new pastoral,” which it claims is beyond its reach. The final allusion to the dancer on the frieze transforms the mundane objects of domestic life into something more significant, something sacred.

Boland seems in conflict over whether women should simply conform to male stereotypes for women or should resist these pressures to lead “lesser lives,” to attend to “hearth not history.” Many poems in Night Feed accept this “lesser” destiny, poems such as “Night Feed,” “Hymn,” and “In the Garden.” The several poems in this volume that deal with paintings, “Domestic Interior,” “Fruit on a Straight-Sided Tray,” “Degas’s Laundresses,” “Woman Posing (After Ingres),” “On Renoir’s The Grape-Pickers,” all deal with paintings by male painters that portray women in traditional domestic or rural roles. The women in these paintings appear content with their “lesser lives.” Poems such as “It’s a Woman’s World” seem less accepting, however, more in the spirit of In Her Own Image, which vigorously rejects basing one’s identity on male stereotypes. “It’s a Woman’s World” complements “The New Pastoral” in its desire for a balance between hearth and history.

as far as history goeswe were neveron the scene of the crime. . . . And still no pagescores the low musicof our outrage.

Women have had no important roles in history, Boland asserts. They produce “low music,” rather than heroic music. Nevertheless, women can have an intuitive connection with their own “starry mystery,” their own cosmic identity. The women in those paintings, apparently pursuing their “lesser lives,” may have a sense of “greater lives.” The male world (including male artists) must be kept in the dark about this, must keep believing that nothing mythic is being experienced.

That woman there,craned to the starry mysteryis merely getting a breathof evening air,while this one here—her moutha burning plume—she’s no fire-eater,just my frosty neighbourcoming home.

In Her Own Image

The “woman’s world” and the “starry mysteries” are presented far less romantically in In Her Own Image. The poems in this volume refuse to conform to male stereotypes of woman as happy domestic partner. They explore male-female conflicts in the deepest and most intimate psychic places. The title In Her Own Image indicates the volume’s concern with the problem of identity. Boland wishes to be an individual, free to determine her own life, but other forces seek to control her, to make her conform to female stereotypes. A woman should be perfect, unchanging, youthful, pure—in short, she should be ideal. Male-dominated society does not wish women to explore their own deepest desires. Women transform these social messages into the voice of their own consciences, or, in Sigmund Freud’s terms, their own superegos: “Thou shalt not get fat!” “Thou shalt not get old!” “Thou shalt not get curious.”

These naysaying inner voices dominate the first three poems of In Her Own Image: “Tirade for the Mimic Muse,” “In Her Own Image,” and “In His Own Image.” The “mimic muse” in the first poem urges the speaker to “make up,” to conceal aging with cosmetics. The illustration for this poem shows a chubby and unkempt woman gazing into a mirror and seeing a perfect version of herself—thin, unwrinkled, and physically fit. The phrase “her own image” in the second poem refers to another idealization, the “image” of perfection that the speaker carries around inside herself. She finally frees herself from this psychic burden by planting the image outside in the garden. The illustration shows a naked woman bending over a small coffin.

The third poem, “In His Own Image,” considers the pressures of a husband’s expectations on a wife’s sense of self. The speaker in this third poem does not try to reshape her features with makeup. She is battered into a new shape by a drunken husband. No illustration appears with this poem.

The speaker’s “tirade” in “Tirade for the Mimic Muse” begins at once and establishes the intensely hostile tone of much of In Her Own Image: “I’ve caught you out. You slut. You fat trout.” She despises the impulse in herself to conform to a stereotype, to disguise the physical signs of time passing: “the lizarding of eyelids,” “the whiskering of nipples,” and “the slow betrayals of our bedroom mirrors.” In the final section of the poem, the authentic self has suppressed those conforming impulses: “I, who mazed my way to womanhood/ Through all your halls of mirrors, making faces.” Now the mirror’s glass is cracked. The speaker promises a true vision of the world, but the vision will not be idyllic: “I will show you true reflections, terrors.” Terrors preoccupy Boland for much of this book.

“In Her Own Image” and “In His Own Image” deal with different aspects of the “perfect woman.” The first poem has a much less hostile tone than does “Tirade for the Mimic Muse.” The speaker seems less threatened by the self-image from which she wishes to distance herself. Images of gold and amethyst and jasmine run through the poem. Despite the less hostile tone, Boland regards this “image” as a burdensome idealization that must be purged for psychic health: “She is not myself/ anymore.” The speaker plants this “image” in the garden outside: “I will bed her,/ She will bloom there,” safely removed from consciousness. The poem “In His Own Image” is full of anxiety. The speaker cannot find her center, her identity. Potential signs of identity lie all around her, but she cannot interpret them:

Celery feathers, . . .bacon flitch, . . .kettle’s paunch, . . .these were all I had to go on, . . .meagre proofs of myself.

A drunken husband responds to his wife’s identity crisis by pounding her into his own desired “shape.”

He splits my lip with his fist,shadows my eye with a blow,knuckles my neck to its proper angle.What a perfectionist!His are a sculptor’s hands:they summonform from the void,they bringme to myself again.I am a new woman.

How different are these two methods of coping with psychic conflict. In “In Her Own Image,” the speaker plants her old self lovingly in the garden. In “In His Own Image,” the drunken husband reshapes his wife’s features with violent hands. The wife in the second poem says that she is now a “new woman.” If one reads this volume as a single poem, as Boland evidently intends that one should (all the illustrations have the same person as their subject), one understands that the desperate tone of other poems in the book derives from the suffering of this reshaped “new woman,” a victim of male exploitation.

The next four poems of In Her Own Image deal with very private subjects familiar to women but not often treated in published poems: anorexia, mastectomy, masturbation, and menstruation. Both the poems and Constance Hart’s drawings are startlingly frank. The poet wants readers to experience “woman” in a more complete way, to realize the dark side of being female. The poems further illustrate Boland’s sense of alienation from cultural myths or myths of identity. She desires connections, but she knows that she is unlikely to have them. She is therefore left with images that signify chaos rather than coherence, absence rather than presence, emptiness rather than fullness.

Two of the four poems, “Anorexia” and “Mastectomy,” read like field reports from the battle of the sexes. The other two poems, “Solitary” and “Menses,” have a female perspective but are also full of conflict. In the illustrations for “Anorexia,” a very determined and extremely thin naked woman, arms folded, looks disapprovingly at a fat woman lolling on a couch. An anorectic woman continues to believe that she is fat, despite being a virtual skeleton. Boland introduces a religious level in the first three lines: “Flesh is heretic./ My body is a witch./ I am burning it.” The conviction that her body is a witch runs through the whole poem. Here, in an extreme form, is the traditional Roman Catholic view that soul and body are separate. The body must be punished because since the Fall, it has been the dwelling place of the devil. The soul must suppress the body in order for the soul to be saved. This tradition provides the anorectic with a religious reason for starving herself. In this poem, she revels in the opportunity to “torch” her body: “Now the bitch is burning.” A presence even more disturbing than the witch is introduced in the second half of the poem, a...

(The entire section is 5803 words.)