I first encountered Eavan Boland’s poetry during my junior year study-abroad in Scotland. I did a course on contemporary Scottish and Irish literature that was, quite frankly, pretty damn formative, and when we got to Eavan Boland, I was hooked. She wrote with such candor about the experience of being a woman, and a woman poet, and about being an Irish woman poet, and the struggles of finding her place in a tradition where women were almost always the subjects of poems, not the creators. Poems like “The Pomegranate,” “Mother Ireland,” and “Anna Liffey” transfixed me, especially once I went to Dublin and got to see the city that Boland loved so much.
I didn’t study Boland’s work again through the rest of undergrad or grad school, but I did occasionally buy her new collections when I spotted them in bookstores. And when I taught a class on modern Irish poetry, I knew I had to include her and it was a joy to really catch up on her more recent work, and even more a joy to see my students fall in love with her work, too.
So it was pretty devastating, early in the 2020 lockdown (April, in fact), to learn that she died. The Historians was her final, posthumous collection, but unlike fellow poet Ciaran Carson, who passed in 2019, she didn’t know this would be her last. I bought it, of course (and, because I liked the UK cover better than the US one, I ordered the Carcanet edition, I am hopeless, throw me in the trash). And I’ll admit, on first read, I was not entirely enchanted. There were absolutely beautiful passages, particularly this from “Epithalamion,” which seems to echo her earlier poem “Quarantine” (about the famine, not covid!):
All we know is
the winds that blew in from
our stolen ocean
They provided the wounds.
And certainly the collection is full of Boland’s favorite themes: the effacement of women’s narratives from history (particularly Irish history), the poetic vocation, wandering on foot through her beloved Dublin. The final poem was a commissioned piece to mark the centenary of Irish women getting the vote. (Commissioned pieces are often, though not always, the weakest part of any collection.)
But the more I worked through it, the more it won me over. I still don’t love it like earlier collections like Object Lessons or Outside History, but certain themes and treatments have come into focus that render it more compelling. Boland has long been preoccupied by the role of the poet, particularly the woman poet, in providing a counterpoint or a corrective to official, recorded history; strikingly, in The Historians, she seems more dubious about this role than ever before. The very first poem, “The Fire Gilder” (part of the lyric sequence that gives the collection its name), has her drawing a parallel between the work of a poet and the work of a craftsman gilding a surface by melting gold with mercury:
had to heat both so one was volatile,
one was not
and to do it right
had to separate them and then
burn, burn burn mercury
until it fled and left behind
a skin of light. The only thing, she added–
but what came after that I forgot.
This she compares to her own work as a poet in trying to “separate memory from knowledge, / so one was volatile, one was not… / ready to decorate it happened / with it never did” when suddenly she does remember the rest of her mother’s admonition: “the only thing is / it is extremely dangerous.” The ambivalence! Once this suspicion of her own work is seen, it’s hard not to notice it everywhere, particularly in the poem “Eviction” (one of the most highlighted and praised lyrics in the volume) about her own grandmother’s eviction in the 19th century, contrasted to the newspaper reports of the sessions, which do not record, say, the tears of the tenants. It seems she has rein scribed that emotional impact into history, except Boland also writes: “I linger over the page of the Drogheda / Argus and Leinster Journal, 1904, / knowing as I do that my attention has / no agency, none at all. Nor my rage.” What has she been doing all these years, the poem seems to ask, almost echoing W. H. Auden’s lament for Yeats, in which he famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And what, she asks throughout, is the real purpose of memory? What really should be recorded?
The collection’s imagery overall is strikingly ephemeral and intangible: filled with light, shadow, imagery of the poet often standing on the outside, looking in. Regarded from this angle, it becomes a deeply poignant volume, an instance of a poet who is still working at a high level nonetheless calling her own work into question, testing and examining it, pushing back against herself. I loved it more on this reading, and I think I’ll come back to it, particularly if I wind up teaching Boland’s poetry again.