Eavan Boland is one of the foremost female voices in Irish literature and a pioneer in women’s writing. The Journey and Other Poems, published by Carcanet Press in 1987, is her fifth published poetry collection but is her first collection to be made readily available in the United States. The collection’s publication in the U.S. signifies the increasing appreciation of American readers for Irish poetry that doesn’t romanticize Ireland or evade the Irish woman. Boland herself points out that what has typically caught the American reader’s eye about Irish poetry is the romantic stance (Reizbaum and Boland 478). Ireland’s attempt to establish itself as a nation with a common language, culture, and historical identity included the creation of a national literature and prompted the Irish Literary Revival. The literature that emerged during this period presented the romantic stance on Ireland and the experience of Irish people. Early Irish writers were members of the privileged class, “adept at English verse forms and familiar with lyric poetry that extolled the simple dignity of the Irish peasant and the natural beauty of Ireland” (Eds. Of Ency. Brit). This romantic stance, however, has always been problematic. It is a “refusal to consider the darker reality of a country, both suffocating and poor . . . a place of pain, hardship, and indomitable human spirit, filled with poets and paupers” (O’Malley 2). It ignored and devalued real Irish people and their realities. In the early twentieth century, literature and theater turned toward realism and began to account for those real people and experiences. Boland writes:
Between 1900 and 1950 Irish poetry was tempered by far-reaching change. A new nation. A lexicon of new freedoms. An urgent need for self-expression . . . The excitement of those years and those exigencies pushed Irish poetry in new directions. Yeats, Kavanagh, MacNeice, Devlin—all, in various ways and with various success, responded to the challenge. Yet, with few exceptions, women were not part of this. One of the reasons may be that their relation to the new nation was as complex and shadowed as to the literary tradition. (Three Irish Poets, xiv-xv)
Even as Irish writers began to illuminate the reality of Ireland and its people, which the romantic stance previously overshadowed, the roles and experiences of Irish women remained in the shadows. Boland argues that Irish poets, particularly male Irish poets, have in some sense erased women from Irish history and nationhood (Boland, “The Woman Poet”). Work by women writers, such as Edna O'Brien, attempted to counter that erasure and revolved around the inner feelings of women and their problems relating to men and society; however, their work was often censored in Ireland. O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, is credited with breaking the silence on sexual matters and social issues during a recessive period in Ireland following World War II. Her book was banned, burned, and denounced from the pulpit.
Boland’s work and the work of other women Irish poets recover the once seemingly irrevocable past. Boland’s poems comprise a “language of lived experience, of daily encounter, of the ordinary world,” expressing the domestic and shifting “the political poem into a private realm where priorities are re-examined . . . [re-writing] and [reclaiming] and [adding] immeasurably to the rich store of the past” (Boland, Three Irish Poets, xvii; xv). Elizabeth O’Reilly beautifully articulates that Boland’s work:
Examines, demystifies and revises images of women in society and literature, particularly in myths of Irish national identity. Boland writes from her own personal experience, but takes this much further so that the personal and the domestic become a starting-point for exploring the public and the universal.
In an interview with Marilyn Reizbaum, Boland observes:
The great tension for women poets is between a tradition which has shouldered off the experiences they value and therefore devalued them, and the separatist movement that seeks to shoulder off rather than to subvert the existing tradition. (Reizbaum and Boland, 473)
She continues, “in women’s poetry over the last ten or fifteen years, the issue is between separatists and subversives” (Reizbaum and Boland, 473). Separatists and subversives both address the devalued experiences that have been left out of poetry; however, how they choose to include those devalued experiences differs. Separatists include these devalued experiences in separatist structures whereas subversives include these devalued experiences instead “by subverting the pre-existing structures so that they have to include them” (Reizbaum and Boland, 473). Boland claims that she consciously attempts this subversive inclusion.
Boland expresses her impression that there has been a shift in American poetry, “that younger women poets . . . are very aware of the complexity of their position and are also now aware of the advantages of that complexity” (Reizbaum and Boland, 474). American women poets’ recognition of their own powerful and valuable complexities and the work they produce in response to that recognition accounts for American readers’ increasing visibility of and openness to the powerful and valuable complexities of all women, including Irish women. This shift in American poetry and in American readers creates space for the increasing appreciation and awareness of the work of Irish women poets in the U.S., demonstrated by the publication of Boland's The Journey and the emerging work of other contemporary Irish poets in the U.S.
Irish poets often address the issue of nationhood and struggle to confront Ireland’s problematic political history. The nationalist rhetoric of Irish poetry has thematically framed the Irish nation in terms of feminine icons (e.g. W. B. Yeat's Cathleen Ni Houlihan). which perpetuate representations of Irish women as synonymous with representations of the nation, dissolving the identities of and objectifying real Irish women. In the effort to combat this troublesome tradition and essentially follow the crucial advice that W. B. Yeats is said to have given to J. M. Synge in 1897, “Express a life that has never found expression,” the subject of Boland's work is the Irish woman. She attempts to represent her own past and experiences to set a framework for redefining women's subjectivity that other Irish poets hoping represent the pasts of Irish women that have long been ignored can work within.
The Journey and Other Poems
The Journey is the first and probably most important collection of Boland's poems that attempt this historical recovery. At the center of this collection is her poem "The Journey," in which the Greek poet Sappho appears to the speaker in a dream and tells her that her wish to be the witness of women is futile and self-defeating. Sappho explains:
"what you have seen is beyond speech, / beyond song, only not beyond love; / "remember it, you will remember it" . . . I have brought you here so you will know forever / the silences in which are our beginnings, / in which we have an origin like water." (79-81, 86-88)
Remembering threads through Boland's collection The Journey and essentially her own remembering is her tactic for remembering and therefore representing Irish women who have been forgotten by the poets and the people of Ireland and beyond. With "an origin like water," women identity cannot be precisely located in the massive ocean-like body of water, the national literature, the all-encompassing representation, that exists. Rather, to find the origins, the water needs to be traced from that ocean into rivers and then streams that run into the land. Singular women's lives, all different, unique, bubbling out from the ground somewhere.
The journey "down down down . . . beside a river in what seemed to be / an oppressive suburb of the dawn" is a journey into a sort of suburban purgatory where sits "the melancholy river, / the dream water, the narcotic crossing" with "its cold persuasions" ("The Journey:" 33, 43-44; 74-75; 76). Around it, women and children who at first appear to be "shadows, only shadows" ("The Journey," 46). Sappho cautions the speaker not to define these women by their work:
She took my sleeve and said to me, "be careful. / Do not define these women by their work: / not as washerwomen trussed in dust and sweating, muscling water into linen by the river's edge / "nor as court ladies brailed in silk / on wool and woven with an ivory unicorn / and hung, nor as laundresses tossing cotton, / bricking daylight with lavender and gossip. / "But these are women who went out like you / when dusk became a dark sweet with leaves, / recovering the day, stooping, picking up / teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets — / "love's archaeology — and they too like you / stood boot den in flowers once in summer / or saw winter come in with a single magpie / in a caul of haws, a solo harlequin". ("The Journey," 57-72)
The repetition of "like you" connects the speaker and the shadow-women by the river. It is a stark reminder these shadow-women lived a life as complex, beautiful, and meaningful as the speaker's real life in the real world. It also connotes warning. Should the speaker not heed Sappho's caution not to define these women by their work, should the speaker not find a way to represent or reimagine these women as herself, she too will join them at the river's edge, which the speaker perceives with "horror," and be forgotten in "an oppressive suburb of the dawn" ("The Journey," 53; 44).
When Sappho tells the speaker that "there are not many of us; you are dear / "and stand beside me as my own daughter," "us" refers to women poets and includes the speaker, specifically women poets who have the ability to reimagine these women and their histories, identities ("The Journey," 84-85). The speaker begins "The Journey" in anger:
"somewhere a poet is wasting his sweet uncluttered meters on the obvious / "emblem instead of the real thing. / Instead of sulphate we shall have hyssop dipped / in the wild blood of the unblemished lamb, / so every day the language gets less / "for the task and we are less with the language." (7-13)
The deliberate choice of the pronoun "his" addresses the male Irish poets who produce poetry with rose-tinted images of women that contributes to the objectification of women, to the erasure of the real Irish women: "we are less with the language" ("The Journey," 13). Boland's The Journey takes the offensive position against this erasure and she attempts to find the language, the image, that has been missing, the language that doesn't become less or make less, the image that is real. She examines and demystifies the mythical, nationalist woman by representing the (often unpleasant, unideal, or unextraordinary) experiences of real Irish women that have traditionally been overwritten for the sake of nationalism. For example, in "Miss Eire":
I am the woman — / a sloven's mix / of silk at the wrists, / a sort of dove-strut / in the precincts of the garrison — / who practises / the quick frictions, / the rictus of delight / and gets cambric for it, / rice-coloured silks. / I am the woman / in the gansy-coat / on board the "Mary Belle", / in the huddling cold, / holding her half-dead baby to her / as the wind shifts East / and North over the dirty / water of the wharf. (18-35)
The title "Miss Eire" translates to "I am Ireland." The speaker declares that she is the woman "in the precincts of the garrison," stationed in a fortress to defend her country with her image ("Miss Eire," 22). Simultaneously, she is the woman on a ship leaving Ireland, "in the huddling cold, / holding her half-dead baby to her" ("Miss Eire," 31-32). "Miss Eire" communicates the discordance between the identity of the Irish woman created by Irish poetry and the identity of the real Irish women, who are willing to risk the dangerous conditions to leave the country that has ultimately consumed their image as Ireland itself, a country in which they no longer exist as individuals.
"Listen. This is the Noise of Myth" is another stunning example of the conflict between the real Irish woman and the nationalistic and mythical representations of her that have historically caused her erasure. The poem's title calls the reader's attention to listen to its message, which includes a demonstration of a woman poet's control over her own identity, her own story. The poem illuminates the conflict between women's desires and ideas and their own history. In most myth, and in most Irish poetry, women characters are traditionally in distress or in search of romance and in need of saving by dominating male characters. The speaker subverts traditional mythology and reveals the diversity in the possible routes a woman character can take on a journey. Initially, the speaker claims that "This is a story of a man and a woman"; however, as the poem progresses, the reader realizes it is a story of a woman with endless possibilities, "she may or she may not. She was or wasn't / by the water at his side as dark / waited above the Western countryside . . . He becomes her lover ("Listen," 1; 74-76, 84 my emphasis). These possibilities are controlled by the woman poet.
"Listen" also represents the power women poets have in reshaping the traditional myth, the traditional narrative. Women can create themselves and the characters they wish without experiencing the limitations that history has constructed, that myth has perpetuated, because myth is just that: myth. It is changeable. "Listen" demonstrates a woman poet's claim over her the story, the myth, of women in Irish poetry:
This is mine. / This sequence of evicted possibilities. / Displaced facts. Tricks of light. Reflections. / Invention. Legend. Myth. What you will. / The shifts and fluencies are infinite. / The moving parts are marvellous. Consider / how the bereavements of the definite / are easily lifted from our heroine . . . O consolations of the craft. / How we put / the old poultices on the old sores, / the same mirrors to the old magic. Look. (66-73, 77-80)
The speaker expresses a strong belief that the identity of women and the myth of women that has for song long hidden that identity is ultimately up to women's will.
Boland herself, however, acknowledges that is isn't easy, and has not been easy for her, to create this identity, to find the language that doesn't make less. In "Lace," the speaker admits:
Bent over / the open notebook – / light fades out / making the street stand out / and my room / at the back / of the house, dark. / In the dusk / I am still / looking for it — / the language that is / lace . . . a vagrant drift / of emphasis / to wave away an argument / or frame the hand he kisses; / which, for all that, is still / what someone / in the corner / of a room, / in the dusk, / bent over / as the light was fading / lost their sight for. (1-12; 23-35).
She alludes to the male Irish poets, who have, like the speaker is in the poem, spent time in the dusk, in the dark, and tried to define women with their language, women who have been reduced to "the hand he kisses" by that language ("Lace," 25). The search for the language to frame that hand, define that woman in the poem with the hand that is kissed, is a constant search the speaker finds herself struggling with as she writes, as well.
"The Glass King," the final poem in Boland's collection, is a powerful conclusion to the message Boland threads throughout. She alludes to the story of Isabella of Bavaria, who married Charles VI of France in 1385. Charles VI became mad and believed that he was made of glass. She includes a meta-poetic moment:
The poem hesitates: / If we could see ourselves, not as we do — / in mirrors, self-deceptions, self-regarding — but as we ought to be and as we have been: / poets, lute-stringers, makyres and abettors / of our necessary art, soothsayers of the ailment / and disease of our times, sweet singers / truth tellers, intercessors for self-knowledge – / what would we think of these fin-de-siècle / half-hearted penitents we have become? ("The Glass King," 28-37)
The Journey traces the progression of Boland's own understanding of the connection between the way her culture and history has been rewritten and skewed and the damage to her identity as an Irish woman. It is her questioning the work that has been done to erase and her urging to rework and remake. Her collection is an act of remembering, of trying to reconstruct, of separating all that has been signified by the signifier "woman." Boland's journey into her own past to recover and reunite the pieces of a fragmented self are beautiful demonstrated in personal vignettes and allusions to grander stories such as Virgil's The Aeneid. As we read each carefully constructed verse, we can picture her bent over / the open notebook — / . . . looking for it / the language that is" ("Lace," 1-2, 10-11).