Eavan Boland, Pillar of Irish Poetry: 1944–2020

Eavan Boland, Pillar of Irish Poetry: 1944–2020

Eavan Boland, Pillar of Irish Poetry: 1944–2020

She helped redefine the literary canon to include women’s voices and those on the margins.


In January 1991 I heard Eavan Boland—who died last Monday, April 27—read a poem at the inauguration of the Irish AIDS Quilt in Dublin, an exhibition that took place several years after the American AIDS Memorial Quilt had appeared. Unlike the stateside ACT UP performances of high-decibel civil disobedience against HIV-related bigotry, in Ireland most rage against the pandemic was interior: People muffled their anguish within devastated hearts. The Dublin exhibit constituted Ireland’s first large-scale affirmation of those lost lives: As with its US counterpart, each panel of the giant quilt commemorated one person killed by AIDS and measured six by two feet—approximately the size of a burial plot. But while so many AIDS victims worldwide were interred furtively, often without headstones, each quilt panel announced the dead person’s name in vivid fabric, with images and keepsakes of the departed sewn into the bright rectangle. At the Irish AIDS Quilt poetry event, the grief suffusing the audience was expressed like a collective exhalation, because inside this shared sorrow trembled the liberation that public testimony makes possible. That evening, Eavan Boland read “The Journey,” her poem that begins:

And then the dark fell and “there has never,”
I said, “been a poem to an antibiotic …”

Boland told the audience that she’d made the poem out of a night in a hospital when she watched liquid dripping through an arc of clear plastic tubing into the head of her infant daughter, safely asleep but hours earlier in danger of dying from meningitis. In the poem, the author dozes in a chair and drifts into a tour of the underworld, guided not by Virgil but by Sappho, who points through the shadows at dead children:

“Cholera, typhus, croup, diphtheria,”
She said, “in those days they racketed
In every backstreet and alley of old Europe.
Behold the children of the plague.”

Further on, Sappho tells her:

“What you have seen is beyond speech,
beyond song, only not beyond love.”

Boland’s AIDS Quilt reading followed just a few weeks after an inauguration of a different but also disruptive kind: the swearing-in of her university friend the human rights lawyer Mary Robinson as the first woman president of Ireland. Over the course of both their careers, these two women from genteel families used the lever of their social and educational advantages to force open doors—some bolted shut for decades or centuries—behind which lurked the lives and memories of people without power. Both projected their influential public voices to shake up notions of what constituted normal discourse about what gets inflicted upon human bodies—the violence of poverty, politics, gender-motivated crime, or economic expediency—to expose those who profited from populations considered disposable. Robinson used her position as head of state to welcome invisible people—refugees, the homeless, the unemployed, survivors of domestic violence or addiction or incarceration—but also to shame Western politicians whose nonchalance permitted butchery in Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Boland wrote poems that locked horns with the conventional notion of History, which she considered a display case for heroes and fancy armor and equestrian monuments, as opposed to The Past, which she described as “a place of shadows and whispers and failures and defeats.” It is to this reframing that Jee Leong Koh refers when he speaks of “the great help Eavan Boland gives me, a gay Singapore poet,” in being able to conduct a frank investigation of his own “patriarchal and colonial literary heritage.”

In numerous poems, Boland investigated the catastrophe that was the Great Famine of 1840s Ireland. British landlords, believing that in spite of blighted crops, any food relief would corrupt the souls of the destitute, herded starving people into workhouses where inmates were conscripted into make-work projects such as breaking stones and building roads to nowhere in exchange for soup. Boland’s poem “Quarantine” is based on testimony from a 19th century witness of what happened:

In the worst hour of the worst season
     of the worst year of a whole people

The witness observed one young married couple, the wife burning with typhus, leave the workhouse on foot to return to the cottage they’d left:

     He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
     Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Boland wrote “Making Money” as an excavation of the leafy Dublin suburb where she’d raised her two daughters. It considers the grim business conducted there a century earlier: Factory jobs producing the fiber-rich paper for British bank notes required women to toil in the noxious air issuing from caustic chemicals they boiled in vats full of lint, flax, and rags. The poem likewise contemplated the ways in which Boland’s 2001 suburb had begun to stink of cash in a different way: from the turbo-charged rapacity of commercial-developer land grabs in the doomed delirium of the so-called “Celtic Tiger.”

Boland also turned her attention to women of great achievement but insufficient recognition. She wrote an ode to Grace Murray Hopper, the American pioneer of computer programming, that’s simply entitled “Code” and in which she creates a portrait of the artist as scientist:

Poet to poet, I imagine you
     at the edge of language, at the start of summer
       in Wolfeboro New Hampshire writing code…

You are west of me and in the past.
Dark falls. Light is somewhere else.
The fireflies come out above the lake.
You are combining binaries and zeroes.

When Eavan Boland published her first book in the early 1960s, few women’s voices contributed to Dublin’s vigorous literary arguments. Today, most of the influential works of Irish poetry, drama, and fiction are by women; Boland’s nearly 60 years of luminous, indefatigable writing made a place for them. Poet Mary O’Malley received the news of Boland’s sudden death “as if a pillar of the house had fallen,” then added: “It hasn’t, of course—she built a strong and lasting shelter.”

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