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Expressing the Source: Eavan Boland and Adrienne Rich

I have always been affected by Eavan Boland, though we probably appear to be opposites. At a time when I was trying to strike out for what I saw as liberation by speaking of the intimate disaffections, she spoke of diurnal femininities too, but often with a noble, transformative acceptance or love of them. Even so, she was and still is a powerful voice for women's freedom. She wrote suburban domesticity in a way that enabled other women to live it—

to wed our gleams
to brute routines:
small families. (1)

The domestic world she presented was startlingly sparse and oddly adequate, even when she spoke of its irritations and complained, as many of us did, about the demands of motherhood that seemed to arrest our hopes of flight and tether us to repetition and the ministrations called love. I hadn’t read her work for some time when by chance I recently encountered one of her poems on a library shelf. ‘Indoors’ begins:

I have always wanted a world that is cured of the outdoors.
A household without gods. (2)

My old responses were instantly recurried. A direct, honest voice, lines loaded with conceptual ramifications. The style is conversational but also lyrical. That is, it has prosaic syntax but a tone of deep contemplation. This intimate touch, the feeling of being spoken to from underskin to underskin is one of the things I value most in poetry.

I have two daughters.

They are all I ever wanted from the earth.

Or almost all. (3)

A voice that comes honestly from oneself is something that must be achieved in a poem. It’s a commonplace by now to say that the self is not a homogeneous unit. In the manner of string theory, perhaps, the perceiver is not a point but a series of effects with many dimensions. So it’s always hard work to convey the most salient inner truth in written form, to make it the sphinx-voice of the poem. In Eavan Boland, the sphinx-voice is born of a careful examination of feeling, often beginning with a personal statement, then broadening out to find echoes. Refer to Jung’s theory of synchronicity: that many things happen at once doesn’t mean they are mutually causative, just that they are relational. I experience Eavan Boland as a relational poet whose referential scope is wide, and who never embellishes for the sake of effect. She speaks to the underskin because she speaks a calm, passionate, independent truth in a disciplined manner.

I moved along the library shelf and picked up one of my own books. A poem leapt from the page in energetic display. It was mapped, musical, somewhat posed, conscious of its body. How different. Like a door swinging open to a colder climate, or two incompatible flavours. But I also intend to be true to my experience in a way that both examines and illumines. I live in my poems and they in me. Or so I thought. Suddenly a stranger to my own work, I asked myself, “Who or what is writing my poems? What is she/it trying to do?”

For one moment when you express the source,
when the hard chatter of your tongue
turns to silver silk and slides you to the wind;
for a moment when the air inhales you
and you rest in its transparency like a
thought you don’t know you’re thinking –
wouldn’t you live this jacketed life? (4)

Inspirational, you might say. Declarative, you might assert. Musical, maybe. Distant, you might say. Or intimate, but does it draw you into the mind of the speaker as ‘Indoors’ does?
These lines are from ‘Womb’ in The Making of a Pagan, my first book:

The return journey is
the only journey there is;
from light and teeming space
in search of the dark place,
But there is colour here,
treasures hung high on the walls,
a cave that would be black,
but they and the hint of a door
prism it. (5)

Again the element of declaration, almost the positing of an argument. The first five lines constitute a premise, as the first two lines in ‘Indoors’ are a premise, but mine implies a pre-existing process leading to a position. Eavan is confessing.

Am I an aphorist? Do I take the journey and then offer my readers the map? I love aphorisms—the poetic and philosophical sort—but I intended these poems to be directly spoken experiences. Ah! I remembered. Transported by the particular gift of Eavan Boland, I'd forgotten my home ground.

my hands began it
and now I love it
my cunt is swelling
thinking of it
thinking of a tongue on it (6)

If that’s not confessional....

Eavan Boland’s tendency is to conceptualise the physical. Mine is to embed the concept in the body.

... for intellectual creation too springs from the physical, is of one nature with it and only like a gentler, more ecstatic repetition of physical delight.
– Rainer Maria Rilke (7)

I seem to constantly bring that physical delight to the forefront in my poems, regardless of subject matter. My poems have been strongly rhythmic because they emerge not just from my brain but from the other organs too, literally, palpably. I quite often search for the rhythm (or arrhythmia) of the experience first, and then hunt the words. Maybe that’s the reason why I took to performance poetry. My poems were dramatic, organic monologues, songs of the underskin, conflating sense impression with fact and analysis. I’ve also wanted to verbalise in the raw, name events and parts of the body as they are colloquially named, instead of placing them within specific cultural contexts. Another matter is the question of attention. I can lapse into mindmull very easily, so I’ve given what I wanted myself—a sense of drama. But I might be changing.

A writer who connects with Eavan Boland in my mind is Adrienne Rich. Both are very open and expert in communicating pain, though Adrienne Rich’s pain was greater and more imminently political. Existential and political pain does not appear to be so prevalent a topic in poetry these days, and wasn’t exactly common currency when Adrienne Rich began writing either. Both poets had to battle with a resistant poetry establishment consisting of ‘a congeries of old boys’ networks’. (8) The difficulties, coupled with their educational advantages, engaged them and made them both expositional and skilful at once. Learned, and perfectly able to work in formal poetry, they devised their own individual voices, bedded in uncompromising observation. I have never opened a page of Adrienne Rich without sensing an immanent integrity underwriting the lines—an integrity of style, form and expression, the poetic kind. Even in topographical sprawls like ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World’, which defies a centre, there are vortices that keep you there.

I don’t want to hear how he beat her after the earthquake,
tore up her writing, threw the kerosene
lantern into her face waiting
like an unbearable mirror of his own. (9)

Such pain is as prevalent as ever, and our wrestling with our condition just as global to us, but reading a poem like this in 2014 feels like visiting a slightly strange literary country. Jori Graham is of a different nature when she looks at a socio-political concern, as in ‘Guantánamo’:

Waning moon. Rising now. Creak, it goes. Deep
                                over the exhausted continents. I wonder says my
                                fullness. Nobody nobody says the room in which I
                                lie very still in the
darkness watching.

– Jorie Graham (10)
There is currently a certain resistance to the overtly ego-centric, aching voice, as if the popular impatience with earnestness and lament has infiltrated the arts. Are we in danger of becoming too focused on procedure, to the detriment of experience and self-exposure? There is integrity in procedure too, but Boland and Rich were spokeswomen for their generation and for women who were not like themselves, whom they absorbed into their first person voice. When you marry style with empathic self-exposure and political intent, you reach, after a journey through a scatter of difficult landscapes, a closing stanza with lines like these, that will reach your reader in a place where she is afraid to be seen—

I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet.


I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
                          left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

– Adrienne Rich (11)

—and she weeps.


1. Boland, Eavan‘Monotony’, Night Feed, Dublin: Arlen House, 1984, p. 26.
2. ——, ‘Indoors’, Domestic Violence, Manchester: Carcanet, 2007.
3. ——, ‘The Lost Land’, The Lost Land, Manchester: Carcanet, 1998, p. 37.
4. Medbh, Máighréad, ‘Unified Field’, When the Air Inhales You, Arlen House, 2009.
5. ——, ‘Womb’, The Making of a Pagan (Blackstaff, 1990), now in a new edition, Pagan to the Core, Dublin: Arlen House, 2013.
6. ——,‘Coming Out’, Pagan to the Core, Dublin: Arlen House, 2013.
7. Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M. D. Herter Norton, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 2004. Letter IV, p.28/9.
8. Rich, Adrienne, ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’, College English, Vol. 34, No. 1, Women, Writing and Teaching (Oct., 1972), National Council of Teachers of English,pp. 18-30. Online at:
9. ——‘An Atlas of the Difficult World’, An Atlas of the Difficult World, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991.
10. Graham, Jorie, ‘Guantánamo’, Sea Change, Carcanet, 2008, p.10.
11. Rich, Adrienne, ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World', opus cit., 1991.

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