Shouting across the Distance:
Liminal States in Eavan Boland's Outside History

Rachel Galvin*

"I began writing in a country where the word woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed," Eavan Boland writes in her collection of autobiographical essays, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman Poet in Our Time. "It became part of my working life, part of my discourse, to see these lives evade and simplify each other. I became used to the flawed space between them. In a certain sense, I found my poetic voice by shouting across that distance" (xi).

As an Irish woman poet, Boland is positioned at the fulcrum of a number of socio-political and poetic binaries. Her poetry deals directly with tensions between traditional Irish definitions of woman and man, woman and poet, daily life and history, history and myth, and the ordinary and the poetic. Of central concern to Boland is the opposition between the socially loaded words woman and poet, which she says are like "oil and water and could not be mixed."

To negotiate between the mutually exclusive roles of woman and poet, Boland situates herself between the two in a "flawed space," or liminal position1. Her refusal to be constrained by socially determined boundaries allows Boland to shift between identities and navigate between spheres in her poetry. Liminal or transitional states figure centrally in the poems collected in Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990i. These liminal spaces are a function of Boland's ethical project to repossess or "rescue" the Irish poetic tradition; they also represent an unstable poetic territory conducive to vision and transcendence. Drawing from Outside History and Boland's collection of essays, Object Lessons, I will first consider the liminal state in Boland's poetry in terms of its ethical and political implications for her as an Irish woman poet and then look at how Boland uses the liminal state to introduce transformation into her poems.

I. Ethics, Politics, and the Irish Literary Inheritance

Boland's essay "Outside History" establishes her concern with the ethics of poetic tradition, particularly in an Irish context. "Poetic ethics are evident and urgent in any culture where tensions between a poet and his or her birthplace are inherited and established," she writes. She points to the ethical choices poets make in defining their identity, what they select as a "proper theme" for their poetry, and "what selves poets discover and confirm through this subject matter"(127). In her own poetry, Boland's ethics are visible in her choice to claim her identity and vocation as a poet, and her declared intention to rewrite myth and poetic history about women according her own truths.

When examined within the continuum of Irish literary history and in light of the historical stigma against women poets, asserting her identity as a poet is a radical move. The deep-rooted taboos against women poets in Ireland arose with the very beginnings of Irish poetry. In her essay, "The Hidden Ireland: Women's Inheritance," Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill provides samples from the "welter of proverbs" interdicting female poets: "The three worst curses that could befall a village--a wet thatcher, a heavy sower, a woman poet" (112). If the hereditary poetic gift was somehow bestowed upon a woman, it was believed that the gift would disappear from the line for seven generations. In a rapid-fire survey of contemporary Irish- and English-language sources, Ní Dhomhnaill lays bare the notion that "woman is not poet but poetry," and that Irish literary tradition has been very little marked by women. Throughout Irish literature, the "emotional shorthand" of the archetypal feminine has replaced real women. Ní Dhomhnaill explains, "Woman, as woman, has only been accepted in the literary tradition as either Muse or, if she refuses to play that dreary, boring and unpaid role, then as Bitch" (112). Dualism and archetyping permeate the poetic tradition, from the bardic period through Yeats and to contemporary writers such as Kavanagh and Heaney3.

The phrase "woman is not poet but poetry"2 exposes the heart of the issue in Ireland. The relationship between poet and poetry has been conceived as a dualistic hierarchy between a male bard and his female muse, a chosen visionary and the emblems he constructs. The active-passive principle is fixed; it is integral to the very definitions of the words poet and poetry. Therefore, in a nation in which the feminine and the national are fused in the collective imagination, the poet constructs emblems of woman/nation, often for political purposes. For a woman to escape the binary, to pull herself out of the poem, as it were, and write her own poetry in her own voice, has simply not been within the parameters of the Irish literary tradition until recently.

Boland is acutely aware of this socio-poetic bind and struggles with it in her poems and essays, searching for a hospitable territory-by definition, a liminal domain-in which woman and poet may overlap. But does she write as a feminist? Throughout the above discussion, the word "feminist" has not been mentioned once. Boland establishes in her essays that although she considers herself a feminist, she is not a feminist poet. She phrases this distinction in terms of aesthetics and asserts that feminism requires a woman poet to "feminize her perceptions rather than humanize her femininity," and further, to substitute the "relative simplicity of anger" for the "complexities of true feelings." She is not willing to regard her entire poetic heritage as a "patriarchal betrayal," and views separatist feminism as a "simplification" of women's concerns (244-45). Despite being vocal about the need to "reexamine and disrupt and dispossess" modes of expression and poetic organization, Boland states that she does so "not because of feminism, not because of ideology, but because of poetry" (29).

While she subscribes to feminist politics,4 Boland views separatist feminist poetics as an unproductive and reductive mode of expression. Her poetic identity is strongly female, and her project is clearly to recover a female poetic heritage--yet she believes in maintaining a dialogue with the expressions of other poets, both male and female, contemporaries and predecessors. The formalist technical aspects and quantity of allusions and literary references in Boland's poetry reflect her determination to engage the tradition and thereby insert herself into it.

Before coming to these conclusions about ideology and her own poetic ethics, Boland struggled with the preexisting literary tradition. She became increasingly aware of the distance between her experience and the "conventional interpretations of both poetry and the poet's life." She sensed a disjunction between her experience and her poetic training: "Being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name" (OL 18). Boland realized that in terms of her politics and her poetics, she was living in a space between two realities, between what she terms the two "kingdoms" of experience and expression, the former inhabited by the word woman and the latter, by the word poet.

To better grasp the context in which Boland is writing, her relationship to the Irish bardic tradition must be made clear. In Object Lessons, Boland says that early on, she was "enchanted by talk about history and bardic purpose" and cites Oliver Goldsmith's observation of the Irish:

Their bards in particular are still held in great veneration among them....They rehearse the actions of the ancestors of the deceased, bewail the bondage of their country under the English government and generally conclude with advising the young men and maidens to make the best use of their time, for they will soon, for all their present bloom, be stretched under the table. (96)

Boland appreciates the function that bards have served in Irish society and the political machinery of colonization to which they bore witness: they filled an administrative position as commentator on princes, dealing out praise and venom as they saw fit; and through their poetry, they recorded the British conquest and the loss of the Irish language. The bardic poem "was scarred by its origins and made loud by injustice. It gave a wider role to the poet and more credence to his prince" (OL 93). Nonetheless, Boland recognizes that the historically privileged position of bard is an exclusively male vocation.

The poet's vocation--or, more precisely, the historical construction put upon it--is one of the single, most problematic areas for any woman who comes to the craft. Not only has it been defined by a tradition which could never foresee her, but it is construed by men about men, in ways which are poignant, compelling, and exclusive. (80)

Boland's experience as a woman could not appear in a traditional poem; it was silenced by conventions that were not constructed for it. She writes: "I could not come to the table, to the copybook...with an Irishness which was not bardic or historic but full of silences" (OL 114).

I was skeptical of the very structure of the Irish poem. Its inherited voice, its authoritative stance, its automatic reflex of elegy--these given qualities, from a technical perspective, accrued too much power to the speaker to allow the speaker to be himself a plausible critic of power....The bardic poet, in his Irish manifestation, remained shuttered in an older faith: where poetry and privilege were inflexibly associated. Where, whatever the dispossession and humiliation of an outer world, maleness remained a caste system within the poem. (191)

As a woman poet, Boland finds it necessary to criticize the conflation of woman and nation by historically dominant male powers, and therefore is wary of the traditional structure and conventionally male voice of the Irish poem. Were she to adopt their stance and mimic their method, she would be unable to question those powers. Instead, she seeks to bring women's reality into poetry and place it in a "subversive relation with the rhetoric." Counterposing rhetoric and reality in turn necessitates the question, "How can you subvert that relation if you have failed to subvert the tradition of expression with which you approached it?" (OL 200). Boland's answer is to disrupt the relationship between poet and icon, thereby questioning the structure of the traditional Irish poem. Writing in the voice of a woman speaker further disrupts the poem's conventions and undermines the assumption that an inherited, authoritative stance represents the genuine, merited poetic authority to speak for a community of people. Instead of speaking for a tribe of men, as the bards did, Boland speaks for herself, for women, and for human beings.

The existence of contemporary Irish women poets has caused a seismic shift in the framework of the nation's poetic tradition. Women have recovered their voices, Boland argues in Object Lessons: "They have turned from poems into poets" (92). Simply by picking up their pens to write, contemporary women writers have turned the tradition inside-out and shifted from the passive position of subject to the active position of author. This radical move spotlights voices that had been relegated to the wings and revises the notion of "vocation," or poetic calling.

"'There are not many of us; you are dear// and stand beside me as my own daughter,'" Sappho tells the poet-speaker in "The Journey." In a number of poems written in the first-person, such as "Envoi," and "Muse Mother," Boland is explicit about her speaker's status as "chosen" poet. "My muse must be better than those of men/ who made theirs in the image of their myth," she writes in "Envoi." The speaker appeals to her muse and says that she (the poet) has achieved everything alone until now. She asserts that she has "the truth" and "the faith," and portrays herself as the bard of that which is ordinary and common. The subversion of the bard/muse trope occurs as a result of the speaker's gender; in the claim that a woman's muse (a contradictory statement already) is superior to a man's; and in the framing of "the ordinary" as the highest truth the poet may express, as opposed to the "poetic." In "Muse Mother," the poet-speaker contemplates the figure of the muse incarnated as a mother wiping a child's face. She hopes that the muse-mother will teach her to speak in her "mother tongue." The mother represents women's experience and language itself; she is described as a "lost noun/ out of context,/ a stray figure of speech," and the speaker aspires to "decline" her as one would a noun or an adjective. In this way, the speaker of the poem is cast as a bard in search of a muse and the "pure syllables" she teaches. Boland undermines the trope by her choice of subject (a mother, a nappy, a child with a sticky mouth), her speaker's gender, and the suggestion that the "mother tongue" is one that speaks of women's concerns, with a lexicon of women's familiar objects.

In "The Journey," Sappho guides the speaker into the underworld and shows her hordes of women and children who died from disease and plague. The speaker-poet begs her mentor, "let me be/ let me at least be their witness." She is Sappho's protégée, chosen by the great poet of ancient Greece, and she wishes to express the suffering of generations of women. If the speaker of "The Journey" or the poems discussed above were read as representing Boland herself, the poems could be criticized as the author's barely veiled, arrogant self-acclamations--in short, the poet tooting her own horn. However, assuming that the distance between author and speaker is preserved, these poems correspond to the Irish tradition in which the poet is the community's chosen spokesperson.

During the Irish bardic period of 1200 to 1600, hereditary poets enjoyed a position of high status and privilege and were kept by noble families in a system of poetic patronage. Poets composed a broad range of verse-eulogy, elegy, learned accentual verse, folk poetry, lays, lyrics of the Fianna, socio-political lyrics, aisling poems, and occasional verse (love poems, satires, religious poems)-not only for "evoking mood or passion, but also for social, historical, and other rational discourse" (Ó Tuama and Kinsella xix-xxi). Even after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, when the native Irish aristocracy fell and Queen Elizabeth's conquest of Ireland was established (causing enormous shifts in the isalnd's socio-political structure), the Irish poet continued to serve an essential function in Irish society, as spokesman for his community. The poet spoke not as an individual but in the figurative voice of his people. Irish poetry of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is "the poetry of a subject people," Ó Tuama and Kinsella write in their introduction to An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed. "As time, and the conquest, proceeded, it is their voices that more and more emerge as the voice of their community" (xxiii-xxv). Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century nationalist poets were seen in a similar role-spokesman for the community dispossessed of its nation. In A General Introduction for My Work, Yeats says that Irish nationalist poetry has "one quality I admired and admire: they were not separated individual men: they spoke or tried to speak out of a people to a people" (cited in Kinsella 2).

Poems such as "The Journey" turn the poet-as-spokesman tradition on its head in two ways: the relationship between poet and muse is destabilized by the fact of the poet-speaker's female gender; and the poet wishes to speak for a community of women dispossessed of their lives and voices, rather than for the community as a whole. Boland revises the traditions of the Irish poet according to her ethical project.

The subject of vocation also figures predominantly in Boland's poems "The Oral Tradition," "Listen. This Is the Noise of Myth," "New Pastoral," "Bright-Cut Irish Silver," and "The Women." In these poems, Boland creates a female poet-speaker willing to handle the rhetorical tools of her male predecessors and fashion a new poetic that fits her own agenda. This characterization is two-fold: because the poet is a gifted visionary and chosen speaker for the community of women, she in turn gives voice to silenced women of the past and present. In "The Oral Tradition," a version of a birth narrative, the poet-speaker reports the voice of a woman telling a story to another woman, presenting her emphasis and detail in quoted passages. "Listen. This Is the Noise of Myth" purports to "set the truth to rights" and revise a myth ("Displaced facts. Tricks of light. Reflections.// Invention. Legend. Myth. What you will") to tell what truly happened to the woman in the myth. The poet-speaker in "The New Pastoral" meditates on the poetic form of the pastoral and her previous role as object, and wishes to find a way to "unbruise these sprouts or cleanse this mud flesh/ till it roots again." The unifying objective of all these poems is to set to rights, to clarify, to tell the "truth" that the community of women has lived.

The poem "Bright-Cut Irish Silver" portrays a woman poet who possesses the verbal tools to reshape the raw material of history. In an extended metaphor, the speaker compares the "cold potency" of silversmithing to the act of wordsmithing, a skill which "has come,/ by time and chance,// into my hands"(29). With equal portions of irony and respect, the speaker refers back to her predecessors "from time to time" to admire their skill and "gift for wounding an artery of rock." The ironic tone is set through diction such as "cicatrice of skill," "wounding," and "cold potency," all of which imply the deleterious effect that men's "aptitude" has on the land. The last three lines assert in a humble yet tongue-in-cheek fashion that the poet's own "potency" is a stroke of luck, particularly considering her gender-the unmentioned qualifier.

In the line "injuring earth while inferring it in curves and surfaces," the image of the earth resonates on several levels. It stands in for the body of Irish history as reported through traditional poetry, while at the same time it represents women's bodies and lives, which have been conflated with land, reshaped, and reduced to their surfaces in male-authored poetry. The poem offers the image of the woman poet with the instrument of literary power in her hands, well aware of the legacy that preceded her, the wounds it left, and the ironies of her present position.

II. Poems at Twilight and Traditional Tropes

"The Women" showcases the two major aspects of liminal space in Boland's poetry. In accordance with Boland's political and ethical project, the poem works to "rescue" the Irish literary tradition; in addition, she sets the poem at twilight, when the speaker is between identities and the moment is between definitions, so that unusual vision is possible. Composed of three quatrains and six tercets in oblique rhyme and variable decasyllabic lines, "The Women" exemplifies Boland's intention to establish the female speaker's poetic vocation and to bring women from myth into history. Although they are not specifically named in the poem, the poet alludes to the limiting, iconic images of Ireland-as-woman, such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Dark Rosaleen, and the Hag, by contrasting them with the truths of working women, suburban women, and prostitutes. Boland's speaker claims her vocation as poet in all senses of the word "vocation"--not only is it her occupation, but as she says in "The Women," she is summoned, visited by the apparitions of real women who had been subjected to mythologizing:

they rise like visions and appear to me:
women of work, of leisure, of the night,
in stove-colored silks, in lace, in nothing,
with crewel needles, with books, with wide open legs

"The Women" is a revised aisling poem whose conventions are destabilized. In a traditional aisling, or vision poem, the poet "encounters a vision-woman" who tells him she is Ireland, and predicts redemption (Ó Tuama and Kinsella, xxvii). Instead of phrasing an anticolonial, political message in which the male poet is confronted by the vision of a woman representing Ireland, Boland's poem speaks of the literary and sexual subjugation of women. The key element of disruption in "The Women" is the casting of a woman in the role of seer or bard. Instead of the fixed roles of male bard and female muse, the reader encounters a woman poet in her suburban home, visited by images of several women.5

The poem's figurative language further underscores Boland's subversion of the aisling trope. The poet-speaker herself does not exist solely in one space or one gender-identified social role, but rather is able to shift from one sphere to another, from upstairs to downstairs and from the temporal and supernatural ("My time of sixth sense and second sight") to the geographical and mundane ("landscape without emphasis"). The poet-speaker's awareness is divided between the concrete tasks of home life ("a hemisphere of tiered, aired cotton,/ a hot terrain of linen from the iron") and her artistic work. She exists in and writes from a "flawed space" in which elements of each of her roles, woman and poet, spill over and color each other. Objects and atmosphere, too, are subject to this intermingling. The air in the garden is "tea-coloured," suggesting that nature is imbued with the flavor of a domestic ritual, tea-drinking; the briar rose has the texture of a fabric, crepe-de-Chine. The poem follows the poet-speaker from the dusky light of early evening to the world upstairs in the poet's room, and back to the world downstairs to witness the "last brightness" of the day. The shift in topos and the ephemeral light of twilight both reinforce the characterization of the poet's position as liminal.

Because she is in a transitional position and boundaries are loosened, the poet-speaker is able to see a vision of women "who fled the hot breath of the god pursuing,/ who ran from the split hoof and the thick lips/ and fell and grieved and healed into myth." Boland uses these allusions to classical myths of hunting, abduction, and rape (such as those of Daphne, Leda, and Persephone) to demonstrate the transformation of real women with real concerns into mythical women with mythical attributes. The poet then reverses the process by replacing abstract, mythical attributes such as supreme beauty, athletic prowess, and purity with concrete objects taken from a lexicon of women's work and occupation: "crewel needles," "books," "wide open legs." These three symbols are lined up with three classes of women--"women of work, of leisure, of the night"--and three associated types of clothing, thereby characterizing these women in human rather than mythical terms. That the truth of women's lives metamorphoses into legend as a result of the "hot breath of the god pursuing," or the male principle, may also be read as a translation of truth into myth by the centripetal force of male-oriented literature. "The Women" exemplifies the second objective of Boland's ethical project: the rewriting of myth and history in terms of real women's experiences.

Boland "invades a traditional male preserve" when she "rewrites elements of classical legend and myth," comments John Goodby in his essay, "New Wave 1: 'A Rising Tide'; Irish Poetry in the 60s" (132). This "invasion"6 is a woman poet's calculated re-imagining of the women behind male-fabricated myths. Boland explains in Object Lessons: "The woman poet is in the poignant place...where the subject cannot forget her previous existence as object" (233). The speaker of "The New Pastoral," striving to forge her own language in the way that fire and the wheel were first invented, echoes this sentiment. Unable to forget her past incarnation as an adornment in a poetic form, she says of the pastoral tradition: "these chance sights--/ what are they but amnesias of a rite// I danced once on a frieze?" (130)

As part of her ethical project, Boland is concerned with excavating a tradition of female poets and situating herself in relation to it. "The Rooms of Other Women Poets" is

an imaginative reconstruction and meditation on the invisibility of the poet's female contemporaries and predecessors. The poet-speaker seeks a legacy and community of women poets by imagining the tools of their trade and specific domestic objects. Concrete images of the writer's accoutrements such as a cup and saucer, a chair, a table, and a ream of paper overlap those in the speaker's present room so that the speaker's and other imagined women's rooms merge in an immediate, personal fashion.

Boland personifies the objects in the room, granting the chair "eloquence" and the paper an "air of/ unaggressive silence," thereby displacing other women poets' qualities onto mundane objects. This transference leaves the women poets unnamed and unindividuated, but attributes particular characteristics to them. In the same oblique way, Boland conveys the mood of the creative workspace and the minds of the women poets in this couplet: "The early summer, its covenant, its grace,/ is everywhere: even shadows have leaves." Allusions to harmony, burgeoning nature, and temperate early summer establish an atmosphere of peace. The profusion of women's creativity is underscored by the dramatic line break between "grace" and "is everywhere," and further elaborated in the hyperbole, "even shadows have leaves."

The poem's extended apostrophe takes on an epistolary tone: "I wonder about you...// And whether you think, as I do"; "Somewhere you are writing or have written in/ a room you came to as I come to this." The poem might be read as the poet-speaker's missive to her community. By directly addressing other women poets, the speaker imagines them into existence within the poem. Thus, the poem serves a dual purpose: while the poet-speaker meditates on the lack of visible women's heritage, she is creating the very images of women's writing that she wishes to find. The poem reconstructs the history that has been left outside history.

Peter Denman, in his essay "Ways of Saying: Boland, Carson, McGuckian," describes Boland as a poet whose career

has been distinguished for her willingness to confront the possibilities offered by a variety of subjects and modes, is urging the case that the real challenge for her art is to bring unsung experiences within the ambit of the conventional forms, to release meanings without having to improvise a poetic. (161)

In the title poem of Outside History, Boland elects to be the poet of Irish history's "unsung": the women who have "always been/ outside history." She writes, "I have chosen:// out of myth into history I move to be/ part of that ordeal" (50). These lines furnish the rest of the image for the poem, essay, and collection of poems entitled "Outside History," and form the main platform for Boland's poetic ethic. By transforming herself into the subject of her own poems, the woman poet rescues herself from being "a fixed presence in the underworld of the traditional poem" and rectifies the unequal gender relationship inherent in the structure of traditional Irish poetry (233). She is not cavalier about this transformation; she recognizes that it is an "ordeal." Nonetheless, she stresses repeatedly that her endeavor is made inevitable by her gender, her nationality, and her identity as a poet.

III. Transformation in a "flawed space"

Until now the discussion has focused on Boland's negotiation between polemical social roles, the weight of preexisting literary tradition, and the manner in which her ethics play out in her poetry. The second instance of "flawed space," or liminal territory, in Boland's poetry is found in the poetic space where the speaker is permitted to leave the boundaries of her identity behind. In this way she may shed her social roles; experience transcendence and revelation; empathize with people from history and her family past; and discover poetic correspondences, which she expresses in figurative language.

Boland finds creative latitude and inspiration in times of day, weather conditions, domestic locations, and certain types of light which blur outlines and render images indefinite. In such transitional places and moments, the liminal state allows Boland to evade the tension between woman and poet, and provides a stimulating moment of "neither here-nor-there" which loosens both and allows them to enter her poetry: "leaving something behind, bringing/ something with me I should have left behind" ("The Women"). In a number of poems, the speaker experiences a slide of identity or a metamorphosis into the place or moment itself. "I am definite/ to start with/ but the light is lessening,/ the hedge losing its detail," the speaker says in "Suburban Woman: a Detail," as the "definitions" of her body soften into the quiet air and she begins to melt into the descending dusk (98). In "Serpent in the Garden," the woman speaker sheds her human skin and dons that of a snake by applying makeup during a liminal time of day: "This time,/ in the shadowy/ and woody light/ between the bath and blind,// between the day and night" (125).

"The fact is that all poems in their time make a fragile, important negotiation between an inner and outer world," Boland writes in her essay "New Wave 2: Born in the 50s; Irish Poets of the Global Village" (137). By "inner and outer world," she refers to the separation between the public and the private, the political and the personal, and the individual and the community. In both "The Women" and "Nocturne," the speaker describes the domestic scene and poetic self as divided into different realms of awareness. In "The Women," Boland writes of "the hour I love: the in-between,/ neither here-nor-there hour" when the speaker-poet does her work best, "in two minds/ in two worlds." At this moment, she can slide between identities, perceptions, and vocabularies: "The hour of change, of metamorphosis,/ of shape-shifting instabilities." Socially and poetically, she finds creative latitude and inspiration in this liminality. She is able to translate from one sphere to another; the ordinary becomes poetic; and divisions fade between her surroundings and herself, and between her identities of woman and poet.

Whereas in "The Women" the speaker recognizes the separation between upstairs/downstairs and inside/outside, "Nocturne" constructs a space divided into those sleeping and those awake. Like the transitional, blurry space of evening, the house "draws in." The light shining into the backyard transforms it into a domestic space, an "electric room" with "closed daisies," parallel to the rooms inside, where people's eyes are shut for the night.

After a friend has gone I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone asleep.
The way it draws in like atmosphere or evening.
. . . .

the doors are bolted and the keys tested
and the switch turned up of the kitchen light
which made outside in the back garden

an electric room--a domestication
of closed daisies, an architecture
instant and improbable.

For Boland's speaker, this in-between space is a fertile region in which her poetic sensibility is stimulated and her ability to shape-shift is her passkey into new regions of experience and metaphor. She is able to receive the vision of women from the past, to meld with her suburban landscape and thereby view it from a different vantage point, and to discover correspondences and juxtapositions of image and idea.

The play between light and shadow, and warmth and cold in "The Oral Tradition" echoes the partially engaged way the speaker listens to a woman speak, "half-wondering," "half-listening," which allows the truth of one woman's experience to surface in the overheard story: "innuendoes, hints,/ outlines underneath/ the surface, a sense/ suddenly of truth,/ its resonance" (75). In "Midnight Flowers," a nighttime moment when "nothing is distinct" and nothing is certain, flowers are described in terms of "shadows" and "likeness"; they exist at "the margins of the light," then disappear. The instability of this terrain reflects the speaker's awareness of paradox and the surreal quality of memory when it overlaps with reality: "And there it was, my head,/ a pliant jewel in the hands of someone else" (61). Childhood and present mingle. The speaker's image of herself is malleable, fragile, unexpectedly in someone else's possession. The speaker in "Doorstep Kisses" is located in "the last days of summer in the last hour of light," again a twilight moment, which has the capacity to fracture her into trivial, mundane actions, a collection of points of liquid or fragrance. The speaker's sensibility is heightened and she is aware of the intersection of forces which have formed the moment and herself.

Similarly, in "Our Origins Are in the Sea," the instability of dusk allows the speaker to perceive her grandfather's affinity for the sea and link together her suburban landscape with the seascape she imagines he knew. Dusk, signaled by the "indistinct" hills and the coast "near and darkening," leaves landmarks "lapped in shadow" so that the familiar briar rose appears "rigged in the twilight,/ the way I imagine sails used to be--/ lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory" (60). The blurry light of twilight aids the empathetic leap and the speaker's metaphoric superimposition of sails over a briar rose. Thus, the transitional moment loosens the strictures of identity and alters the poet's vision.

In Poetry in Contemporary Irish Literature, Michael Kenneally writes,

The poetic impulse, as we know, is quickened by an awareness of the ambiguities and contradictions, the desires and disappointments inherent in the human predicament. Genuine poetic sensibility is rooted in, and nourished by, the ability not merely to apprehend but embrace the polarities of knowledge and uncertainty, desire and frustration, despair and euphoria. (xii)

Eavan Boland's writing exemplifies a poetic sensibility able to encompass polarities, shift between them, and find inspiration in ambiguity. By confronting the tensions that arise from her identity as woman poet and by examining the tradition of Irish literature that she cherishes, Boland remains true to her own sense of poetic ethics and constructs a place for herself within established tradition. The "in-between,/ neither here-nor-there" space in her identity and in her poems allows for creative juxtaposition, vision, and transcendence. In her poems, the liminal state is a place of overlap, blending, and exchange, where history and myth become pliable and where poetic correspondences clarify.

"The woman poet is now an emblematic figure in poetry," Boland writes in Object Lessons. "In the projects she chooses, must choose perhaps, are internalized some of the central stresses and truths of poetry at this moment" (xv). Boland's own projects are indeed emblematic of twentieth-century Irish poetry's dilemmas. Examining the ways in which she balances the exigencies of history and experience, and poetic convention and truthful expression, reveals a poet determined to confront tensions and, as Boland says, to fulfill her responsibility to "formalize the truth."


[1] This "flawed space" is imperfect in the sense that it is neither sanctioned nor acknowledged as its own domain. However, existing outside definition implies a certain freedom from conventions and prescriptions: "Years of marginality suggest...the real potential of subversion" (OL 147).
[2] Quoted from Seán Ó Riordain's poem "Banfhile": "Ní file ach filíocht í an bhean."
[3] In "What Foremothers?" Ní Dhomnhaill addresses contemporary "obscurantism" on this point. For a cogent analysis of Boland's response to Yeats, as well as a reply to Steven Matthews's exclusion of Irish women poets from his recent book, Irish Poetry: Politics, History and Negotiation, see Crowell.
[4] Boland says she cherishes feminism, and has been very outspoken in her writing about her feminist position, but she clearly states that she is "neither a separatist nor a postfeminist" (OL 254).
[5] From Robert Graves's essay on Juana de Asbaje: "Though the burden of poetry is difficult enough for a man to bear, he can always humble himself before an incarnate Muse and seek instruction from her.....The case of a woman poet is a thousand times worse: since she is herself the Muse, a Goddess without an external power to guide or comfort her" (cited in Boland, OL 247-248).
[6] Noteworthy diction on Goodby's part, considering the aggressive military association. He characterizes Boland as taking a stereotypically male-identified action.


Boland, Eavan. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman Poet in Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.
-------------. "New Wave 2: Born in the 50s; Irish Poets of the Global Village," Irish Poetry since Kavanagh, ed. Theo Dorgan. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996.
-------------. Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1990.
Crowell, Ellen Margaret. "An Irish Woman Gets Up the Tower: Boland on the Battlements of Thoor Ballylee." Master's Report, The University of Texas at Austin, May 1998.
Denman, Peter. "Ways of Saying: Boland, Carson, McGuckian," Poetry in Contemporary Irish Literature, ed. Michael Kenneally. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1995.
Goodby, John. "New Wave 1: 'A Rising Tide'; Irish Poetry in the 60s," Irish Poetry since Kavanagh, ed. Theo Dorgan. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996.
Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle. Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
Kenneally, Michael. Poetry in Contemporary Irish Literature. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1995.
Kinsella, Thomas. The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press Ltd, 1995.
Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. "The Hidden Ireland: Women's Inheritance," Irish Poetry since Kavanagh, ed. Theo Dorgan. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996.
-------------. "What Foremothers?" The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Ó Tuama, Séan and Thomas Kinsella. An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed. Mountrath, Ireland: Dolmen Press, 1981.


Boland, Eavan. In a Time of Violence. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1994.
------------. An Origin like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996.
Gallagher, S.F. Woman in Irish Legend, Life, and Literature. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smyth, 1983.
Heaney, Seamus. "The Frontier of Writing," Irish Writers and Their Creative Process, ed. Jacqueline Genet and Wynne Hellegouarc'h. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1996.
Keane, Patrick J. Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland, and the Myth of the Devouring Female. Columbia, Missouri: Univeristy of Missouri Press, 1988.
Kelley, A.A., ed. Pillars of the House: An Anthology of Verse by Irish Women from 1690 to the Present. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1987.
Knott, Eleanor. Irish Classical Poetry: Commonly Called Bardic Poetry. Dublin: The Sign of the Three Candles, 1957.
Pattison, Thomas. The Gaelic Bards and Original Poems. Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1890.
Thomson, Derick. An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1974.
Trumpener, Katie. Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Weekes, Ann Owens. "'An Origin like Water': The Poetry of Eavan Boland and Modernist Critiques of Irish Literature," Irishness and (Post)Modernism, ed. John S. Rickard. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1994.

* Rachel Galvin is a writer and editor for Humanities, the journal of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She received her M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. An essay on the poetry of Adam Zagajewski is forthcoming in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review this fall.

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