We open on a tiny flat in Dublin. A young poet sits by a window, writing. But something is wrong. The poem—eloquent, sonorous, carefully crafted—feels off. Studying the page, she suddenly realizes why, and the reason hurts harder for having been so easy to miss: she edited herself out.
"Being a woman," Eavan Boland later explains in her memoir Object Lessons (1995), "I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name." No name because Ireland had no models for writing about being a mother, daughter, or wife. Here was a cause begging to be espoused. But championing the poetic merit of "wholly female" subjects is useless if a poet is still at the mercy of inherited doubts about what she can say about those subjects. Old styles, argues Boland, can't be trusted for shifts of consciousness. After all, by clogging the psychological channels between self and style, convention doesn't just trick us into seeing certain attitudes as trivial, it ensures we don't catch on until too late. Boland's dilemma, therefore, was intriguing: she had an open field, but not necessarily a free hand. Using existing forms to register what she felt as a woman meant tradition's decorum police could—and did—quietly impose their own artificial perceptions. How, then, to speak for yourself? The answer was to reboot Irish poetry's available modes, an achievement Boland clinched with two key books: The Journey (1987) and Outside History (1990).
New Collected Poems (which updates the previous 1996 collected, An Origin Like Water) brings together Boland's eleven titles, along with two early poems and verse-play excerpts. The book lays bare the drama of Boland's breakthrough, as well as the drop-off in what followed. As it is, the trailblazing is fascinating to track. A first stage—New Territory (1967), The War Horse (1975), and In Her Own Image (1980)—is full of false starts, wheel spinnings, and wet fingers in the wind. We're given retellings of Irish myths, intricately and audibly rhymed. We're given allegorized landscapes and historical colloquies. The books abound in pastiche, though it's the pastiche of a poet desperate to burn off resentments using the only idiom available to her at the time. Cool formal artistry, reminiscent of Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, results in lines that stiffly identify their inner mood: "I think of what great art removes://Hazard and death, the future and the past,/This woman's secret history and her loves." From this distance, Boland's first stage is interesting mostly for early clues of where she ended up. Indeed with certain poems ("The War Horse," "Suburban Woman," "Ode to Suburbia") she stumbles onto a tone she is still years away from perfecting. Unsurprisingly, mannerisms garble the message: "she will shrug//a hundred small surrenders off as images/still born, unwritten metaphors, blank pages." We get the idea, more or less. Luckily, such ideas soon find sharper expression, hinted at by the arrival, in In Her Own Image, of a Plathian defiance:
a page of
for these my sisters.
Second stage begins with Night Feed. Thanks to Plath, Boland's line lengths tighten visibly, assume a curt cadence. Bishop's influence also grabs hold, and under her intervention Boland begins to shed the notion of poetry as a staged arrangement of images and themes. Having moved from city to suburb and given birth, she now logs her surroundings—a washing machine, nappies, milk bottles—with the intensity of someone aware that an entire way of life risks lapsing unrecorded without her: "And still no page/scores the low music/of our outrage." Fully-achieved poems where we hear this "low music" ("Domestic Interior," "Degas's Laundresses," "Woman in Kitchen") tinker with a discovery that keeps its powder dry until her next book: diction as iconoclasm. Refusing to be cowed by accents not her own, Boland uses plainspokenness ("my mother tongue") to cut ties with the canon. Crisp groupings of words ("stove noises, kettle steam/and children's kisses") become the acoustic building blocks for preserving both domestic affections and "brute routines." Derivative notes, traces of Boland's debt to American models, linger, but the kitchen talk keeps faith with "the sort of light/jugs and kettles/grow important by."
The Journey (1987) completes Boland's aesthetic dissent, unveils a voice "hardened by/the need to be ordinary." The poems mark time, take stock, note the hour. Pent-up, they pack in a lot: "Irish whisky, lipstick,/an empty glass,/oyster crêpe-de-Chine." The nervous energy of so much internalized sense data leads to an exceptionally wide tonal range: satiric, skeptical, tender, impertinent. All this Boland joins up in stanzas of sumptuous clarity that practically beg to be read aloud. It's also a clarity that trusts its own power of description, and thus feels no anxiety about being misunderstood. In this way, poems like "The Oral Tradition," "The Women," and "Nocturne" deliver major feminist statements that rely, for their effect, on a counterpoint of "singing innuendoes." Incidentally autobiographical, rarely confessional, the poems exist in exalted proximity to the "imprisoned meanings" of Boland's housebound life. They estrange without exoticizing, respect reality while refreshing it ("light, linear, precisely planned,/a hemisphere of tiered, aired cotton"). One of the high points, surely, of English language poetry, and a hard act to follow.
Except that she did it again. Outside History (1990) is an absolute page-turner. Much of the book is given over to filling in the "sequence of evicted possibilities" that, for Boland, defines female history. Sound programmatic? It isn't. Feverishly creative, more like it. Irish myths, those she blames for womankind's archetypal reputation as passive, are rebuilt from scratch with entirely new ingredients. And at the heart of the project stands Boland: housewife, daughter, and mother, seeking to set "the truth to rights" as much for her own good as for her historical sisters. We get strange alter egos or speakers who, looking back, emerge with vivid, accumulated memories of a reimagined past. Shouldering much of this work is Boland's language, which has finally caught up with its ambitions and, in its achieved state, persuasively redefines poetic originality not as virile distinctiveness (á la Heaney) but as verbal subtlety that keeps adding surprises to itself. Her vocabulary is so discriminating ("losses in the air so fractional/they could be//fragrances which just fell from it") that each word wears the complex self-investigation that brought it into being. The result is a form that feels uniquely hers: disciplined, compressed, unemphatic, and airy. What next?
Third stage. Boland, now teaching in the US, tries to catch the slipstream of her last two books, and nearly does it with In a Time of Violence (1994). I say nearly because, alongside exemplary poems like "Lava Cameo," we find a high number of strained epiphanies. Most of these can be blamed on thematic doggedness: a poet desperate to find the sorts of moments that throw up the big questions. But while In a Time of Violence has some good pieces, The Lost Land (1998) and Against Love Poetry (2001) arrive with their innovatory force entirely mislaid. Step back a second from the reputation, and Boland's centrality in these two books becomes difficult to fathom. No thoughts, but themes. Observations true to Boland's deepest beliefs but sinning on the side of cliché. Even style is stereotyped. Lines feel like they were written very fast, full of public-speaking reiterations ("You never understood the nature poem./Till now. Till this moment"). Boland has become someone who knows what she's known for, and overindulges expectations. What do you get when you add few formal surprises to a feminist thesis stuck on one setting? A voice that has outlived its ability to respond to the felt needs of its subject. This is what happens, you realize, when the message runs on after the music for it has fallen away. Boland is eager to take her place in literary history, and portrays herself accordingly. At the end, she curates a return visit to that long-ago desk, now occupied by another young woman. "I wrote like that once./But this is different./This time, when she looks up, I will be there." True, but tuneless.
Secular Eden, by Harry Clifton. Wake Forest University Press. $23.95 cloth; $15.95 paper.
Harry Clifton has spent much of his life outside Ireland. He has escaped to Africa and Asia, and endured a year in an Abruzzian village (recounted in an entertaining book called On the Spine of Italy). All this to say that Clifton is a traveler by temperament. His closest model in this regard is the sophisticate Derek Mahon. Clifton's poems attempt the same philosophical fly-overs ("this long exposure,/Satellite-high, that takes in everything//On an updraught of spirit") and eyeblink close-ups ("The banked sheen/Of strobe-lit water into the distance,//Drained foreshores, cattle in shallows.") Like Mahon, Clifton has a feel for the scenic otherness of foreign locations. But what for Mahon bodies forth self-doubt, Clifton sees as a microclimate of beatitude:
Salvaging, here and there, a living word
From the drift of happenstance,
A soundbite or an anecdote, somebody met by chance,
The key to an inner mystery. Safe, a bord,
Between two worlds, suspended in mid-flight,
I dream of a bare table, the warmth to come,
A silence at the heart of Paris, a room,
Detached, anonymous, nothing to do but write.
Secular Eden is a "lyrical diary" of five aller-retours to Paris between 1994 and 2004. The poems, we're told, have been quarried from five notebooks. Clifton seems rather proud of this. The "notebook" tag is officialized on the cover, is repeated in the author's note, and serves as the section headings. Frost's warning aside ("A poet never takes notes. You never take notes in a love affair.") poets spend hundreds of hours jotting down ideas. Most don't think to brag about it, but Clifton uses it to make himself look big. The great poet on spiritual safari, pen in hand, revealing himself to himself. And yet, as notebooks go, much here seems tame. Personal revelations are rare. And unlike Lowell's attempt at keeping a sonnet logbook during the late sixties, Clifton doesn't embrace the impromptu insight as an aesthetic. The theme of quick, unsifted sensation is ritualized rather than realized. You might even say Secular Eden is a notebook about writing a notebook.
"Write it on the hoof," Clifton urges, but his poems pretty much ignore him. They declare their business in the recollected tranquility of neat stanzas, careful line breaks, and leisurely sentences. Clifton can put on the intellectual swank (Beckett, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and St. Augustine are among the many names he drops) but makes too sedate a style of his inquiries. Like a freelancer on automatic, he often runs out the word count without saying too much. ("Theft of a leather jacket, fifty francs/And a set of keys. Report it at the desk—/No need for police.") And with relaxed competence also comes tone-deaf felicitousness: too many words saying similar things, creating, in the reader, a persistent sense of having already read certain lines. One wishes Clifton had worn his wanderlust more lightly, and worked his words harder. As a phrase-maker, he has a weakness for soft options: "Invisible fingers, plucking imaginary chords./Coldness, depth. Great spaces,/None of them physical."
The best poems—"When the Promised Day Arrives," "To the Fourteenth District," "Breaker's Yard," and "The Street of the Four Winds"—set a standard of alert response to their surroundings: Francophilic field dispatches, complete with weather conditions ("Tail-lights, spray and droplets of exhaust/That crawl on the windscreen") and geography ("the quatorzieme,/All softness of acacia trees, and plane-trees,/Living off its pavements."). Free of the work-and-earn trap, Clifton files away memories of affairs, meals, cafes, and hotel rooms. The soul-searching is of an epicurean nature—mostly about the challenge of rising above it by doing nothing more than staying on the surface. We get fantasies of languorous satiation, of a well-fed man feeding off the fat of the moment or dreaming the "dream of dining out/On the goodwill of millions." Clifton caps this theme with a witty piece called "God in France." As travel tropes go, imagining yourself a deity on R&R—tasting a "happiness that is almost too complete"—is pretty cool.
The Currach Requires No Harbours, by Medbh McGuckian. Wake Forest University Press. $21.95 cloth; $11.95 paper.
"A dream dreamed in the presence of reason" was Jesuit Tommaso Ceva's definition of poetry. One way or another, all poets fiddle with that formula. Medbh McGuckian has fine-tuned it. She has hit on a dream-to-reason ratio perfect for replicating what she calls "the feminine subconscious, or semi-consciousness." Think middle state as a mental state: sensations mingle until language is a vapor of impossible-to-visualize surmises. McGuckian's poems don't make sense, they make mist.
Her debut, The Flower Master (1982), set the standard. Written around the time of her first child's birth, the book attempts to tackle the passionate ambivalence of her maternal feelings. Each poem is a series of richly evocative assertions that harm their own logic ("A man will keep a horse for prestige,/but a woman ripens best underground"). Opacity rides up hard against precision, in a constant bestriding of clauses, but never quite overtakes it. What comes through, pictorially, is a mood of lightness and transparency suffused with half-sexual strangeness ("I begin to scatter/To a tiny to-and-fro at odds/With the wear on my threshold"). The effect is startling; seductive even. But, for all that, no less of a letdown. A reader kept on standby—unsure what happens next, struggling to understand what has happened already—is a reader with nothing to keep in his head.
The Currach Requires No Harbours, McGuckian's ninth book, is more of the same: dense, diffuse, and dimly apprehensible. Of course, her anti-depictions have a function: to scramble male tenets of poetic form. Against control-freak articulateness, McGuckian offers an exploratory seeping forth of sounds. By letting language have its way, she hopes to be led to insights otherwise unreachable. Yet McGuckian's digression-prone method is actually a spectacularly ornate free-association game. Far from freeing buried meanings, she has refined a mellifluousness no less confected for being slippery. Orotundity piles up, longeurs go long. The problem, you soon realize, isn't McGuckian's obscurity. It's her decision to double-down on it: not simply to seal off her non sequiturs from rational inspection, but to overwrite the act. The poems, in other words, make a big show of handing themselves over to ideas too deep to be grasped. It's an attention-losing ploy because it's so self-indulged. That said, if you do sometimes find yourself paying attention (and you will) a big reason will be the lush music of her expression:
Days that belonged to war and peace
at the same time, they were always so:
darkened cinemas, the strength of lamps
reduced as low as possible.
Peace being restored at different speeds,
the sea disarmed, England calm,
and the shelf upon which it sat
more certain of the greens and golds,
or what she might look like
while looking—her hummingbird nature,
her maple-tree nature. Hers is the first
of many languid arms to reach out
like a lifted horizon in a landscape's
perfect swaying, her opaque red plumage,
lips and heels like patched sails
in the same damp winter's afterglows.
—From Regaining Control of the Night
Here we have some atomized perceptions prettily captured in four stanzas. It's a beguiling blend of pinpoint grammar and just-short-of-evanescent imagery. McGuckian isn't always so semi-articulate and, by playing it straight, can achieve vivid enrichments of ordinary perception: "the way the moon attaches/her self-closing, liquid glance/to the perfect leaf." But she can't resist: she will always strike inward to a deeper voluptuousness. Which means that The Currach Requires No Harbours will be enjoyed best by those who find it easiest to detach their expectations from a poem's actual result. Take the following:
The trans-lake mountain,
cruel where the black
passes over, is tender in its silver-toned
puckerings of preparation.
Every word after "mountain" operates outside the bounds of normal usage, but because McGuckian—a name that too closely rhymes with McGuffin—doesn't coordinate the consequences of those new identities, the sentence is a bit of a put-on. The words aren't badly chosen, they're arousingly chosen; or, as she once said, "a word has only/an aroma of meaning." But what is "an aroma of meaning" if not arbitrariness with delusions of grandeur? We can say this much for McGuckian's poems: they're utterly hers. She has a reputation for a mind on its own wavelength, and it's well-deserved.
The Fifty Minute Mermaid, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Tr. by Paul Muldoon. The Gallery Press. €20.00 cloth; €13.90 paper.
Hands up, anyone who knew that the merfolk's language was "pelagic"? I certainly didn't. Much remains unknown about these mythic creatures, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's new book can help. A bluffer's guide to those from "Land-Under-Wave," The Fifty Minute Mermaid is based on close imaginative contact with its citizens, their history, and the trauma that "left them oddly out of the swim."
Merfolk are mermaids; or, more specifically, they are an Irish species called "merrow" who have the ability to assume human form. According to Ní Dhomhnaill, merfolk were driven to land two centuries ago, a race on the run. Why they fled "the warm bosom/of the ocean" has never been explained, and the mermaids themselves are mum on the subject. Were they victims of "some sort of ethnic cleansing"? Casualties of a Paradise Lost cataclysm that now leaves them struggling "to climb back again/to the place from which they first fell"? It's a mystery. But whatever happened, there's no going back: they've renounced water, their gills long defunct. Aquatic refugees in dry diaspora, the merfolk seem cursed. Worse, the general population they live among, while fascinated, can't muster much in the way of sympathy—as Ní Dhomhnaill says, "anyone with so much bad luck and misfortune following them/must have done something to deserve it."
The tragedy of the merfolk—namely, that they are a people cut off from their own legend—can also be said to define Ní Dhomhnaill's poetic project over the last twenty years. The Fifty Minute Mermaid, her fourth book in English, is translated by Paul Muldoon. This is because Ní Dhomhnaill writes exclusively in Irish, a once-suppressed language she loves for the way it effortlessly incorporates "quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological." As it happens, the description captures the magic of her English voice, just as merfolk—who use words "still imbued/with the old order of things"—capture the proud exile of Ireland's Gaelic speakers.
The half-human "morph" of the merfolk as a metaphor for the act of translation is something else Ní Dhomhnaill is exploring in The Fifty Minute Mermaid. The book provides facing originals, but the accuracy of Muldoon's work will, for most North American readers, be hard to judge, even while his quirky embeddings are unmistakable ("I don't give a hoot," "to scare the living daylights," "discombobulated," "thingammies"). This, however, isn't our first look at Ní Dhomhnaill. She is already known—via earlier distillings by Michael Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, and Medbh McGuckian—as a compulsive storyteller. And Muldoon's version jibes with her celebrated billing. In their English skin her poems are hugely playful, practicing a subversiveness just fractionally above unclassifiable. Ní Dhomhnaill is a nuts and bolts poet: she puts her ideas and subject-matter right up front, while somewhere in the background extraordinary meanings assemble:
Whatever you do don't ever mention the word "water"
or anything else that smacks of the sea—
"wave," "tide," "ocean," "the raging main," "the briny."
She'd as soon contemplate the arrival of frost in the middle of summer
than hear tell of fishing, boats, seine or trammel nets, lobster pots.
She knows such things exist, of course,
and that other people
have truck with them.
She thinks that if she covers her ears and turns away her head
she'll be free of them
and she'll never hear again the loud neighing of the kelpie or water horse
claiming its blood relation with her at the darkest hour of the night,
causing her to break out in goose pimples and having sweat lashing off her
while she's fast asleep.
—From The Mermaid and Certain Words
Ní Dhomhnaill's mode isn't exactly satiric or surrealistic, but derangedly reportorial. The poems are filled with fascinating crypto-anthropological details: the merfolk susceptibility to disease, their difficulty holding a tune, their antipathy toward breastfeeding. It's tongue-in-cheek scholarship that eventually runs to the horrific: a chilling mention, at the end, of merfolk returning to "Land-Under-Wave" to find Auschwitz-like "heaps of gold teeth" and "old garments in garment-piles." Ní Dhomhnaill always works this way—allegorically, she goes deep. There is rarely a point-for-point match, yet her major targets are impossible to miss: colonialism, female sexuality, the Catholic church. But The Fifty Minute Mermaid, constructed out of two parts, is significantly darker than her previous books. The first part is merfolk-free but discontent-rich. It closes with a seemingly autobiographical narrative where the poet, during a drive, replays a series of grim memories: a dying friend, news of Serbian atrocities, her husband's recent six-day coma. She is readying herself for the ultimate "task"—"to take it all in, to make room in your heart without having your heart burst."
Here, then, is the heart-bursting genius of this book. Ní Dhomhnaill's merfolkian epic—part two of the collection—is the alternate reality of a woman trying to "take it all in." The frantic fabulating, with its deadpan exaggerations, suggests a desperate wish-fulfillment. Like The Decameron, The Fifty Minute Mermaid explores the way our lives are constructed of fictions—fictions that both shelter us from painful facts and allow us to face up to them. It is a tale told in crisis, and a must-read.
For All We Know, by Ciaran Carson. Wake Forest University Press. $20.95 cloth; $12.95 paper.
Without the Troubles, it's hard to say what kind of poems Ciaran Carson would have written. The New Estate (1976) introduced him as talented if typical. But the Troubles did happen. And nine years after his first book, a very different poet emerged: daring, high-spirited, and, above all, mouthy. Written during Belfast's British occupation, The Irish for No (1987) was the acoustic equivalent of an adrenalin rush. Carson's ability to make grittily rich music out of local speech ("Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule;/Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody's guess") revealed a powerhouse ear paired with a down-at-heel sensibility. Literally so, in fact, since the poems cast him as a flaneur taking in the sights and sounds of his now-militarized childhood haunt ("A no-go area, a ghetto, a demolition zone"). But behind the unceasing patter and punch lines was a spooked mind. The poems were simply trying to calm themselves down.
As critics have pointed out, living under occupation encouraged Carson to change linguistic identities. Carson's next book, Belfast Confetti (1989)—slang for the fistfuls of screws, bolts, and nails hurled by rioters—was a mishmash of genres. First Language (1994) moved more aggressively into polyphonic wordplay and the "general boggledybotch" of ludic storytelling. When the carbonated whimsy of Opera Et Cetera (1996) turned up, it became clear Carson was writing some of the most remarkable political poems around. Outwardly irreverent but shot through with concerns of tribal authenticity ("His 'Belfast' accent wasn't West enough. Is the H/in H-block aitch or haitch?") and a constant look-over-your-shoulder unease ("Be paranoid," one poem ends). Carson has today learned to throw his voice in any direction he pleases. And after the careful, one-word-or-two steps of Breaking News (2003)—"red alert/car parked//in a red/zone//about to//disintegrate"—he takes a running leap into one of the best books of his career.
For All We Know begins with a couple at a dinner table celebrating an anniversary ("whether first or last"). But they seem more like spies trying hard not to give themselves away: "For one word never came across just as itself, but you/would put it over as insinuating something else." Right from the jump, courtship marries itself to the theme of dissembling. Each with something to hide, the lovers spend the next seventy poems teasing hidden patterns out of the texts of each other's lives. Conversations become sites of puzzle solving. Putting two and two together, they see clues in every word. Spy craft has, of course, had many devotees among contemporary poets (W.H. Auden, John Hollander). But I can't think of anything quite this smart and subtle. While Carson doesn't lean on the conventions, he's clearly a junkie of pulp atmospherics. The romance plays out against the backdrop of European cities. Twists occur and the story turns out to be more complicated than first assumed. Ends and means become confused. Anonymous men close in.
Carson makes effective sport of these elements in couplets of (mostly) end-stopped lines. The form fits: it aerates the language, lifts it into greater transparency. More voiceover than inner voice, Carson's virtuosity is a potently simpler version of his earlier pell-mell energies. Content is generalized: lots of details, but free of context. What strikes us, instead, is tone. Odd angles on familiar bits of diction colored with menace ("Then I would try to separate the grain from the chaff of/helicopter noise as it hovered above my house"). The mood—itself unaccountable, like a thought process without address—fills in for real information, forcing us into a kind of implication manhunt:
Again you are trapped in the smouldering streets. Knots of men
armed with axes, files and chisels guard the intersections.
For all that you avert your gaze you know you know your kind.
The city wards have all been sealed, and there is no escape.
For all that you assumed a sevenfold identity
the mark of your people's people blazes on your forehead.
You will be questioned by the black stream of the shibboleth,
your story picked like a cheap lock until it comes unstuck.
This, from "Birthright," shows that Carson's couplets are also handy for visually suggesting the loose ends that will forever go untied. We get news—more like strobe glimpses—of a war: bomb blasts, gunfire. But unabsorbed into any larger political storyline, the sequence becomes a self-contained world that keeps shrinking. Circling back to the same events, poems swim in a kind of narrative stasis, a Beckett-like sense of anti-adventure. And yet anxiety mounts. The book, structurally speaking, is two-faced: divided sections, with matching set of noirish titles ("Treaty," "The Assignation," "Collaboration," etc.) reinforce the theme of double lives. Images not only repeat (helicopters, quilts, fountain pens, watches, foreign perfumes) but, like a fugue, new emotional information seems folded into each new repetition. The book, you might even say, is its own nonce form: the abba of a mysterious, and mysteriously moving, chiastic experiment. What happens, happens again, and the mesmerizing roteness pushes the poems halfway to allegory, and, at times, all the way to brilliant. For All We Know is an intelligence operation in the truest sense.
Carmine Starnino’s books of poetry include The New World (1997), Credo (2000), With English Subtitles (2004), and This Way Out (2009). He is also the author of A Lover's Quarrel (2004), a book of essays on Canadian poetry, and is the editor of Signal Editions. He lives in Montreal.