Tuesday, November 8, 2011

“A Journey with Two Maps” by Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland, a poet who was born in Dublin, Ireland, and now a professor at Stanford University in California, begins her "A Journey with Two Maps" with a personal narrative even though she considers her book to be “a book of criticism.” She does not apologize for beginning this way because her personal story is part of who she is as a poet. She writes of herself as a poet with two maps: the first one traces her past and the second points the way for her future as a poet rooted in the history of women who were poets and finding her place now among contemporary poets.

The subtitle of her book is “Becoming a Woman Poet,” and in her introduction she explains that the book is about both “being and becoming.” “Being” and “becoming” are about as all-inclusive as is possible. Any creative person is doing both of those things at the same time, always for as long as he or she is alive, and who knows, perhaps even after death.

I was drawn to this book because some days I feel myself to be a poet, and other days I am not sure that I even am becoming one. I thought perhaps reading about Boland’s maps would feed my imagination and lead me to feel more sure-footed with words. In any case, I had a feeling I would enjoy this book, which was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement as a memoir. It has a delightful mix of personal experience and critical thinking about literature, about poetry.

Boland experienced what many women face as a mother with young children. In the nursery with her babies, she ruminated on the idea of the domestic as subject matter for poetry. This was at a time in the seventies when Ireland was torn apart with violence. She had a clear vision of her life within the four walls of her suburban Dublin home in the shadow of what was happening to her country. The domestic poem had not been given a place in the public realm, and yet for Boland in her own home she felt she was being given an opportunity to bring the two together in poetry. The dilemma was that as far as she knew, there was no welcome for this kind of poetry in Ireland.

She writes candidly about her life. She and her husband were young, and in the midst of the stress of the country, in their own home they quarreled. And in later years she remembers these scenes, these two young people. “What was it I kept going back to?” she asks. “It was more than their youth and anger. It was a puzzle of art rather than life: a split vision. Each time, I returned to them in memory and with design. I remembered the actual setting: unvarnished floors, a small television. But I also thought of what was outside the windows, the sparse trees and disturbed earth of a new suburb. And beyond that again, a troubled and scarred island.”

And later she says “I knew I wanted to re-interpret the domestic poem. In my house, on a day with tasks and small children, I felt its about-to-be power everywhere. As a painter’s daughter I had memories of my mother arranging flowers, fruit; getting them ready for a still life. I wanted the opposite: to feel that those atoms and planes could be thrown into a fever of spatial dissent; that they moved, re-arranged themselves, threw off their given shapes. I thought of that as the starting point for my poems.”

Boland spoke of going to the National Gallery in Dublin and looking at paintings portraying interiors: “A woman’s checked dress. A table with a cup on it.” and these objects became her own, and she became the women in the paintings, which for her spoke of the “ferocious” importance of these things in the lives of everyone. “What made painting capable of that narrative? And not poetry?” And she thought it was strange that these interiors were not a part of poetry. She wanted to change that.

This is why this book speaks to me: Boland’s questions, her observations that broke down conventions. She was persuaded that the fabric of daily life is legitimate subject matter for her art, as it can be for whatever art is ours, whether we are using words or paint or ink or glass.

There is so much more this book has given me. Line after line, the words of poets I had never heard of, and a sense that delving into the lives of artists and writers, and looking deep within myself, I can discover where my creative energy can take me.

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