More so than other poets who write in the English language, it seems, Irish poets can’t stop writing about their country.
And, judging by Eavan Boland’s keenly felt evocations of it, it’s a place worthy of description and discussion, a place that needs the deciphering only poetry can provide. Much of Domestic Violence, Boland’s fifth volume of poems, is explicitly about Ireland—its quiet domestic scenes tinged with malice, its relatively recent experience of modernity, its daffodil-filled springs, its ghosts.
The first part of the book is made up of what are both nine discrete poems and nine parts of a larger sequence called “Domestic Violence.” Within this sequence are many moments of observation and reflection on the place Boland keeps trying to figure out.
“In Our Own Country” looks at the “new” Ireland, a place where immigrants have come to make their fortunes rather than a place its own people have fled, seeking softer lives. A requisite look at the way things have changed, perhaps, but in Boland’s nimble handling, the emigration of centuries past is felt with fresh pain. “Remember the lost faces burned in the last glances?” she writes, giving those ghosts their hurting physical selves back for just a moment, so we can’t look away.
“Irish Interior” is a fairly terrifying portrait of a country couple circa 1890, she at a spinning wheel, he at a loom. “Nothing belongs to them,” Boland reminds us, and their door opens “into an afternoon they can never avail of.”
In a more personal vein is “Amber,” a trim, powerful piece that appears in a section entitled “Letters to the Dead.” In it, the narrator regards a piece of amber jewelry she received as a gift from someone whose absence she feels acutely. “Reason” tells her that “The dead cannot see the living. / The living will never see the dead again.” But the amber seems to bear another message, since its own history is one of collecting and storing long-ago fallen seeds, leaves and feathers,
which now in a sunny atmosphere seem as alive as
they ever were
as though the past could be present and memory itself
a Baltic honey—
a chafing at the edges of the seen, a showing off
of just how much
can be kept safe
inside a flawed translucence.
“`A flawed translucence’: so good. And if “a chafing at the edges of the seen” isn’t a perfect definition of poetry, I don’t know what is.
Boland’s approach can be very modern, especially in pieces like “Secrets,” which lists all the things that the narrator feels were buried along with—her mother? some beloved older woman—like “the bolt of silk / you once brought home and / rolled out on a table, showing / the gloomy color pewter becomes / by candlelight.”
At times she’s even playfully conversational, as in “Atlantis—A Lost Sonnet,” when she remembers wondering how a whole city could disappear. “I mean, I said to myself, the world was small then. / Surely a great city must have been missed.” Like a self-centered, love-centric teenager, this narrator shifts immediately to talking about the city “she misses, the one where she and a lover met “under fanlights and low skies” and went home together.
The strongest, most vivid poems in this collection, I think, are the ones that live in the present but come right out and assert that everything we are now comes from everything that went before. Like the past viewable inside her amber ornament, Boland’s Ireland is a place where a gnarled national history lives through the history of her family life—intermingled with her mother in an apron by the shed, with her baby daughter sick with a fever the night before it breaks.
In these poems, a thunderous past lives inside the humdrum day-to-day.
Take “Midnight on the Sixth Day,” which gives us an image of the narrator—whom we can’t help but see as Boland herself—sitting at her table late at night reading from a book of Irish manuscripts. The verses swing back and forth between the then and the now: The ancient letters are “Coptic, Pictic, Greek in origin.” But the cat wants to be let in. And the poem’s title, of course, is a biblical reference, which is itself the story of the beginning of the world.