[Review] The Historians by Eavan Boland — Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Eavan Boland, The Historians (Carcanet [UK & Ireland] and Norton [US], 2020), 80pp.

On Thursday 8 October the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to US poet Louise Glück. She was cited ‘for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal’. These are praiseworthy characteristics, indeed, and the award is thoroughly deserved.

But these terms of praise are equally applicable to another poet. A poet whom, I reckon, should win the Nobel Prize for her contribution to poetry in English, notably in Ireland and the USA. There’s just one problem: Eavan Boland died in April this year.

In a bittersweet twist, Boland had recently finished edits to her latest—now her last—collection The Historians, which is due to be published at the end of this month by Norton (in the US) and Carcanet (in Britain and Ireland). Prior to 2014, Boland was the author of sixteen collections of original poetry, as well as two critically lauded essay collections that border on memoir. Her New Collected Poems was published in 2009 and clearly merits an updated edition. For its deft linguistic brilliance and majestic control of theme, I would argue that all the poems in The Historians should be included in that final compendium.

Boland was born in Ireland in 1944 but spent time both in London and New York as a child. Her early poems, avowedly Irish, were enhanced by the ear of an outsider who knows that she belongs to an Irish literary scene, but for whom that scene has been enjoyed comparatively late and at a distance. Yeats was an early and enduring influence (Boland co-authored a 1971 book with the theatre impresario Michael Mac Liammóir about Yeats) and his legacy is in evidence in The Historians. In ‘So Far Away’, the speaker is ‘In the Blackwater Valley’ where ‘a man was singing / about the death of another man’. There are ‘thrushes and a river. / Wings beating over walls of fuschia’. This is Yeats’s Romantic pre-modern Ireland, where a community engages poetically with their environment. But Boland’s speaker feels fraught here:

That was a moment when
I could have said I am
another self: an agent able
to cast away what had happened

so moor grass and pin moss
could reclaim a landscape
that had existed
before suffering became a habit.

The sense of representative burden is typical of Boland’s lyric. The previous decades, for example, have seen her carry the cross for mothers, trying to depict their lives that have been so often overshadowed by the masculine ethics of Catholic-led politics. In ‘So Far Away’, this burden turns into a desire to have done something already, to change what has already past, so that there can be more than a ‘tune / to convey [the] absence’ of the history of suffering. The poem, in an understated way, is the product of just such an agency that the speaker fears is lacking.

The titular poem, ‘The Historians’, also addresses these twin fears of an insufficiently accurate history and an inefficient poetic agency. The poem stages an intergenerational dialogue between two friends and their mothers. ‘Say the word history’, it begins, continuing: ‘I see / your mother, mine.’ But these women have been excluded from the history of ‘our island: a story that needed to be told— / […] / Those who wrote that story / labored to own it.’ These women have been excluded from a national story that is nonetheless significant and part of this nebulous idea of ‘history’. However:

these are women we loved.
Record-keepers with a different task.
To stop memory becoming history.
To stop words healing what should not be healed.

This quatrain’s consecutive end-stopped lines punctuate the centre of the poem. This is the concrete heart where the speaker’s oratory is most potent. It is also where the speaker clarifies their political position: history betrays, dissimulates, and occludes. Instead, a counter-history (pace Foucault) is required that maintains the openness of wounds and the liveliness of memory. The poem ends with the mothers ‘lac[ing] their pages with fire’ and ‘I finish writing’. Again, the poet’s potential to respond to these historical traumas carries the utmost importance.

Many poems touch on these themes, but none so explicitly as ‘Our Future Will Become the Past of Other Women’. The poem was commissioned by the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations and the Royal Irish Academy to mark the 2018 centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland. It was therefore written outside the frame of The Historians, but in its concluding place in the collection—isolated in the fourth and final section—it stands as a testamentary legacy of Boland’s work. It tells the story of past women in whose hands ‘I see our past, / Your palm roughened by heat, by frost, / By pulling a crop out of the earth’. The speaker soon promises not to ‘leave you behind’. It is an activist poem that puts Boland’s lyrics into an international diplomatic–political arena, thereby exceeding her sometime homemaking locale just outside Dublin. The poem is the proof that a woman poet, Boland’s major theme, can assume the masculinist mantle in Irish letters.

The list of sixteen women in the poem—only ‘some of their names’—echoes Yeats’s ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, which was itself a return to the Easter Rising of 1916 and the sixteen executed leaders. In this chain of significance, Boland is able to insert the history of Irish women’s suffrage into Irish revolutionary history. Like the best writing, her poetry exceeds literature, and wilfully encroaches into politics. These women voted ‘in the shadow of their past’ and ‘in the light of what will be’ as they become ‘Foremothers of the nurture / And dignity that will come / To all of us’. Mothers aren’t just mothers for Boland’s speaker, but mothers squared, their nurturing power redoubled through their commitment to the future. With these thoughts in mind the speaker strongly claims that:

Our future will become
The past of other women.
Our island that was once
Settled and removed on the edge
Of Europe is now a bridge
To the world.

This is neither deft politicking nor subtle poetics, but it is nonetheless necessary. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, justified in and through the near five decades of Boland’s writing.

This is not to say that Boland’s writing is neither deft nor subtle. The image of the light from ‘Our Future’ is repeated elsewhere in the collection. In ‘The Lamplighter’, my favourite poem in The Historians, we are taken into ‘the old lithographs / and situational drawings’ where we ‘see him / standing up to night, holding up a long pole, // a wick at one end, / sizing up his task’. But from this ekphrastic beginning we are led into the shadows of a clandestine meeting between young lovers down an alleyway. The poem concludes in short enjambed lines that echo the lovers’ breathlessness and the lamplighter’s stop–start footsteps:

I read once 
that when he heard
loud whispers and laughter
in alleys and hidden doorways

followed by 
the silence of illicit kisses
he would not stop
he would pass on

to other streets
where light was needed.
Leaving behind him
The gift of shadows.

As elsewhere, this ‘gift’ is more than just the lamplighter’s, but also part of the poetic legacy to which Boland insistently returns. In this poem, however, the idea that the overlooked shadows can be enlightened by the illustriousness of language is undone, but in a way that forgives and accepts that sometimes language is insufficient or unwelcome.

‘Margin’ dips back into the motif of shadow and light, first praising ‘the hawk moth’ that ‘can slow its brain down / at the end of the day so as to see better / in failing light’. The speaker tries to become the hawk moth when she walks ‘out in our neighborhood as hills / slipped into the horizon’, asking: ‘How will we see inside it, / our own dusk?’ Against the national and established narratives of populist ‘Flags rising’—narratives in which ‘Memories [are] failing’—the speaker again finds solace in her self-narration, her poetry. She is:

telling the island to myself, as I always have,
so as to see it more clearly:

not the land of fevers and injuries. But the region
I found for myself,
Described for myself in my own language,

so I could stand if only for one moment,
on its margin.

We learn that the answer to darkness is not light, but continuous (re-)interpretation of the darkness in language. Poetry offers an answer to the foibles of dark nationalism and the dark ages that traditional historical narratives only serve to create. In The Historians poetry approximates the most poetic of sciences. In ‘The Fire Gilder’, the collection’s opening poem that is surely to be anthologised beyond Boland’s collections, the speaker’s mother ‘spoke about the influence / of metals, the congruence of atoms’ such that when melding ‘gold with mercury, / [the fire gilder] had to heat both so one was volatile’. For the speaker:

I learned
to separate memory from knowledge,
so one was volatile, one was not
and how I started writing,
burning light,
building heat until all at once
I was the fire gilder[.]

The intimate scenes depicted in these poems—here the sense of candlelit writing sessions—is enhanced by the prominent ‘I’ throughout. This ‘I’ is never static and, in this passage alone, moves from a learner, to a writer, to a gilder. These three participles—writing, burning, and building—reveal a poet in process.

It is difficult to read The Historians without thinking of it as a posthumous collection, even though it was completed before Boland’s short, fatal illness. An elegiac tone that recurs, whether in the ‘Epithalamion’ that hymns ‘that wife and husband / I will never find / who died outside / these lines’, or the elegy ‘For A Poet Who Died Young’ that laments that:

You died young. Your words helped me live.
I was younger then. Your ghost is still young.
Is still dead.

The simple clauses and near-total monosyllabism here feel at times like a way of saying goodbye to the world of writing. But as I flick through the collection again, and note how many poems I’ve not been able to include in this review, I find ‘Without End’ offers an appropriate place to conclude.

‘Without End’ reflects on Boland’s suburban home, and how her grandchildren now play where her children used to:

Our grandchildren
stand in the same place
their mothers, our daughters,
once did. The same light
mapped onto their gestures,
their faces. The same lilac
bending towards them.

In this way, ‘Without End’ is a more personal and domestic version of ‘Our Future’. But it is also about mythical Ireland, once again returning us obliquely to Yeats. The speaker is thinking about ‘the start and finish of / the legend’ in which ‘A mythic Irish king, / restless and bored / with his storytellers, / […] / […] banished them’. Wondering ‘What was it settled him? / What brought him back[?]’, the speaker:

remember[s] then what
it was restored him:
he found at last
the one storyteller
with the one story
that had no ending.

‘Without End’ aptly describes Boland’s own unending story: of women, of mothers, of children and grandchildren, of light and dark, of Ireland, of poetry. It is a poetry of consolation, of hope, of deep political conscience. The Historians boldly advances that poetic manifesto, a manifesto that would have laid great claim to the Nobel, but already proclaims so much more.

*

Nicholas Taylor-Collins is a lecturer in English literature at Cardiff Metropolitan University. He has published widely on William Shakespeare, and modern and contemporary literature, especially Irish writing. His book Judge for Yourself, about the challenge of reading brand-new writing, is available now from Routledge. He blogs at https://hypercontemporarylit.art.blog.

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