For those of you lucky enough to have heard poet Eavan Boland at the 2012 Festival, you already know what a powerful poet and reader she is, and what an engaging and eloquent speaker. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, the poem “Quarantine” offers an ideal introduction to her poetry. Take a moment to listen to her read it on PBS Newshour.
Toward the end of the poem she writes, “There is no place here for the inexact / praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.” Boland refuses to gloss over the story she makes us witness with her. Instead, in this and other poems, she stays present amidst the most terrible details.
“Quarantine” is from her collection Against Love Poetry. It may seem incongruous at first that the author of a poem that vividly renders this story of selfless love would define herself as against love poetry. But in the title poem from the collection she writes, “It is to mark the contradictions of a daily love that I have written this.” Boland isn’t against love poetry so much as against sentimentalizing relationships. She is willing to witness the contradictions of a daily love, of daily life, not in spite of but because of how difficult this sometimes is. To do less is to trivialize human experience.
Boland is also deeply aware that everything has a history. For her, attention to the things of this world includes attention to the history they carry. This includes the history carried in the body. It can be public or private, national or familial, but in Boland it is always personal, and she makes it personal for her readers.
Many of our bravest and most influential witnesses to the interconnection between the personal and historical have been women: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich and Lucille Clifton among others. Boland is squarely in this lineage. William Butler Yeats’ “terrible beauty” is not an abstract concept for them. These women have all understood that the smallest details of domestic life are intricately interwoven with the largest historical issues of their times.
Boland’s history is Irish. She came of age in a land still tormented by “the troubles,” and under the influence of an ancient bardic tradition dominated by giant male figures like Yeats. In her memoir, A Journey with Two Maps, she writes movingly of her struggle to forge an identity for herself as a woman poet in the shadow of that imposing tradition. When she went looking for other models her search led her to contemporary women poets writing in America, where she now lives and teaches much of the year.
What she learned from these women transformed the tradition she carried (and still carries) with her. She writes: “I came to believe there is no meaning to an art form with its grand designs unless it allows the humane to shape the invented, the way gravity is said to bend starlight.”
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