Remembering Eavan Boland
by Nan Cohen | Contributing Writer
It is not exactly the same room every time. But when it surfaces in Eavan Boland’s poems and in her essays, it is recognizable enough: it is small and faces north. There is a table and a chair. A window, “small and inclined to stick on rainy afternoons.” A notebook and pen lying on an oilskin tablecloth. Sometimes it is day and the window looks over the garden; sometimes it is night and the window has “a few stars stuck to it.”
Over a quarter century—now revealed, by her sudden death at 75 in April of 2020, as the last third of her life—Boland returns often to a room she occupied when she was eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Sometimes she sees herself returning, choosing her path from Trinity College to the bus at College Green, or walking through Merrion Square to the bus at Nassau Street, riding home to her flat with the evening’s conversations in her mind, and entering the room to the notebook and pen waiting on the table.
I didn’t know her then, of course; there were twenty-four years between our ages, a generation. But I did know her as a young woman writing poems in that room. All her readers did. “That room appears often in this book,” she acknowledges in the preface to Object Lessons. “I can see it now, and I have wanted the reader to see it.” There are other rooms she haunts in her imagination, but in the first months after her death, this is the one that haunts me.
A living person, of whatever age, crowds out past selves. We notice changes over time—slacking of tension around the mouth, thinning skin on the back of a hand—but our most vivid memories of their younger versions remain in storage. When, having become as old as they will ever be, they die, there is a period during which they come rushing back in all their other versions, giving us fresh access to our own memories. Perhaps this period even grants us, finally, the ability to know who they were before we met them, to believe that the child in the black-and-white photograph or the young woman in the fashionable colors of decades ago was once as real as the person we knew.
I had been at Stanford for most of a summer and one academic quarter when Eavan arrived in 1996 to take up what was intended to be an annual one-quarter appointment in the creative writing program and the English department. We met on the first day of classes in January in the doorway of a women’s restroom. I was going out and she was coming in. It was one of those moments of rapid social calculation which usually results in a slightly wrong answer; I blurted mine out—“Oh, hello! I’m about to be in your workshop”—and fled to my seat in the room with only an impression of dark reddish-brown hair, a quizzical glance, and the flash of a blue-green eye.
She was fifty-one, the age I am now. In perimenopause, as I pluck lost strands of my own hair from the shoulders of my clothes, I think of how thick her hair was always, cut in a layered bob, fringe brushing her eyebrows. She wore the same kinds of clothes the whole time I knew her: mid-calf skirts, blouses and jackets, in black, brown, ivory, taupe, and a range of dusty blue-greens that matched her eyes. Low-heeled shoes, stockings, necklaces and brooches. Her wedding ring—later joined by her mother’s—and, circling her wrist, a watch I can see now without closing my eyes. Decorous, well-made, practical clothes.
I was twenty-seven, having gone directly from college to graduate school in English and from my Ph.D. program to the non-degree-granting Wallace Stegner Fellowship. I had won a college poetry prize, written half a dissertation on poets who dissolved the modern world into an ancient or medieval one (H.D., W.H. Auden, Derek Walcott, Geoffrey Hill, Rita Dove), and published just one poem, about an elderly doctor, his office like a musty parlor filled with terrifying instruments, who saved most of my hearing when I was a child.
In 1996 the Internet was not yet a vast archive of poetry, let alone of videos of poets reading and giving interviews. The Stegner program, though as full of gossip and speculation as any creative writing program, was less professionalized and more parochial than it is now. Most of the other students had MFAs, from a scattering of programs in the U.S. and Canada; there was another fugitive graduate student and one young poet who had finished high school but not college. I am sure we had all read some of our new teacher’s poems—Outside History had been published in the U.S. in 1992 and In a Time of Violence in 1996—but our understanding of who she was varied widely.
She spoke in quick, accurate, unhesitating cadences; when she paused, it often meant that she was about to deliver some powerful refutation. At first, I thought she sounded more British than Irish—in “Young Eavan and Early Boland” Derek Mahon marked out her accent as “Ailesbury Road,” in reference to the posh Dublin avenue. Fortunately, that impression wore off before I knew her well enough to be tempted to confess it to her (I think she would have been briefly outraged, though she knew the years she lived in London as a child had left their trace on her accent), and soon hers was the sound of “an Irish accent” to me.
In that voice she put to us questions we didn’t understand, employing a vocabulary that we had not heard before. “This poem is overnarrated,” she would say, or “There is a tonal crack right down the center of the poem.” She was surprised to find her first Stegner group an eccentric assortment of superstitious and self-regarding young or not-so-young American poets, easily bewildered and easily hurt. We were surprised to find her so inscrutably demanding, her questions so unanswerable. She was surprised again to find us so wrong about everything—about what was good and what was not, what was a fad and what would last—but more than that, so unequipped to argue about those things. Workshop and teacher, we were mutually surprised by what the other thought a poet was. At a reading, she dedicated a poem out of The Journey to us, half playfully, half maliciously: “The Glass King,” in which she speaks half as herself, half as Isabella of Bavaria, wife of the mad king, Charles VI of France:
If we could see ourselves, not as we do—
in mirrors, self-deceptions, self-regardings—
but as we ought to be and as we have been:
poets, lute-stringers, makyres and abettors
of our necessary art, soothsayers of the ailment
and disease of our times, sweet singers,
truth tellers, intercessors for self-knowledge—
what would we think of these fin-de-siècle
half-hearted penitents we have become
at the sick-bed of the century: hand-wringing
elegists with an ill-concealed greed
for the inheritance?
“The apprenticeship of any poet is a mystery,” Boland wrote. “Not because of its importance but because so much gets lost. What remains the same is the struggle with language and its precedent. What changes is the detail of the encounter: Keats putting on a white shirt to write. Akhmatova’s friend memorizing her work in a back garden in Leningrad. Plath turning on the Pifco coffeepot at 4:00 A.M. in the last month of her life.”
In her imaginings, the young writer’s room is a place of solitude. Her first flat had been her sister’s; the second was her own, but in all her accounts, other people are only visitors, people who have been there and left, as in the opening line of her poem “Nocturnes”:
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.
A student at Trinity College, living in her own flat after three years at convent school, already writing poems that she published in a chapbook, 23 Poems, in her first term of college, shouldn’t Boland have found the room she wrote in to have been a place of freedom and independence? In her retrospect, it is not. In the prose, this room—a kitchen, though she never writes of what she cooked and ate there—is a site of contention, suppression, reproach. She sees the young woman trying to write the poem that is not hers, written by a male tradition with its received tropes of women: “Sometimes at night, when I tried to write, a ghost hand seemed to hold mine.” Looking back from 1989, the year she turned forty-five, she writes:
Home was an attic flat on the near edge of a town that was just beginning to sprawl. There in the kitchen, on an oilskin tablecloth, I wrote my first real poems: derivative, formalist, gesturing poems.
How quickly she undermines the freedom of the place, snatching away the triumph inherent in “I wrote my first real poems” with rapid dismissals: “derivative, formalist, gesturing.” The keen edge of her voice is in it, the thrust of her chin. If I try to imagine Eavan speaking the line, I can hear her lively, ironic humor underscoring the dactyls (“derivative, formalist, gesturing poems!”). On the page, it sounds more severe.
Now I wonder how many young women poets taught themselves—in rooms like that, with a blank discipline—to write the poem that was in the air, rather than the one within their experience?
“Aren’t you lucky,” someone senior to me in the poetry world once said, “to have Eavan as your poetry tiger mother.” It was in 2011 and “tiger mother” had become a widely known phrase because of Amy Chua’s book. It connoted an authoritarian parenting style that resulted in high-achieving children who reflected glory on their demanding parents. I gathered that something different was meant by it here, in conversation at a reception after a poetry reading, something about her demands as a teacher, about our relationship, which had continued beyond my move to Los Angeles, but what?
My mind found, but I did not say aloud, the phrase Eavan used when she dedicated Object Lessons to her mother: she called her “the friend of my lifetime.” By 2011, that was not far off from how I thought of Eavan. She was not like my mother, but the way we became friends was not unlike the way a mother and daughter can become friends: Intimacy about some things and mystery about others. Hours and hours of talk: over meals, at work, in supermarket aisles, in the car. Differences of opinion in which it was not always clear what was trivial and what was profound. A never-to-be-remedied imbalance of power, an abiding strength of affection. I learned from her as a younger woman can learn from an older one—about work, art, motherhood. When to grow severe and when to soften. What I learned from her as a poet was partly what she taught herself at that kitchen table, what poets have to learn: how to recognize my own subject matter, to write the poem that was mine instead of someone else’s, to find the right relation of the image to the rhetoric.
The one part of “tiger mother” that sounded right was its powerful confidence. I thought of her pen striking out the last line, or the first two lines, or a middle four lines of a draft.
As we stood there in another of those rapid-social-calculation moments, someone came up to claim the senior person’s attention, and I was saved from giving my slightly wrong answer.
Our friend and onetime colleague Lan Samantha Chang’s wise novel about writers, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, has an early scene in which two young men discuss their teacher, Miranda, a celebrated poet in her forties. The ambitious Roman, longing for Miranda’s recognition, resents her apparent indifference. Bernard, who will devote his life to the completion of one book-length poem, tells his friend to consider “what her indifference means”: “Contrary to what most of the class believes, it’s far more important for the young poet to see the great one than for the great poet to see the younger one.”
At dinner one night, Eavan had said a version of this to Sam Chang and me: “It’s less important for the older poet to see the younger one than for the younger one to see the older one.” We both believed her; we knew how much we learned from watching her. In her novel, Sam gave the line not to the teacher, Miranda—who, beyond her interest in what endures in poetry, has little in common with Eavan—but to the monastic, high-minded Bernard.
Eavan would have laughed to hear herself described as monastic; “high-minded” was a term she occasionally used to tease me for an attitude she found too idealistic; and yet in so many ways she was fiercely uncompromising, particularly in the context of a world that could never be trusted to make way for a woman or a poet. I liked her demands, which were simply implicit in who she was and how she worked. I marveled at her generosity with her time and attention. And I was awed by how she looked at a poem, what she dismissed, what she brought forward. During the seven years I spent in the Stanford creative writing program—first as a fellow, then as an administrator and lecturer—we all saw her work ferociously, wielding her authority on behalf of the young, the emerging, and the overlooked writers. She wrote letters and emails, made phone calls, drew from emergency funds to pay dentist bills, found travel expenses for research, created new positions, matched Stegner Fellows with undergraduates to mentor and got them stipends. She argued with deans and placated temperaments that seemed to ruffle up again as soon as they were smoothed.
I never saw her write and could not say how it got done. I knew she didn’t come to the office most mornings, but also that at any hour she might be on the phone to her family: Kevin, Sarah and Eavan Frances. Or to her editors, Michael Schmidt in Manchester and Jill Bialosky in New York. Then, at night, after readings, late dinners, conversations, to her friend and scholar of her work Jody Allen Randolph, to her family in Dublin again, to others. And email at all hours of the day. She spoke and wrote of her artist mother’s example that “painters follow the light. They wait for it and do their work by it. They combine artisan practicality with vision.” In the years she was raising her daughters, she learned how to snatch the moment:
I used to work out of notebooks, and I learned when I had young children that you can always do something. If you can’t do a poem, you can do a line. And if you can’t do a line, you can do an image—and that pathway that leads you along, in fragments, becomes astonishingly valuable.
I never once heard her complain about not “having time,” as writers do. Even as she wrote hundreds of recommendation letters for writers applying for fellowships, prizes and residencies to “get time,” she never pursued any such thing for herself. She only worked, and the work got done. She always assured people that she still lived in Ireland, that she went back to Dublin “every ten weeks” (at the end of each academic quarter) and spent her summers there, but in twenty-four years at Stanford, nearly all of them as program director, never took a sabbatical of even one quarter. It is probably a faculty record.
She often approached the same subject through both prose and poetry, as when she wrote two pieces with the same title, “The Rooms of Other Women Poets”—the poem in Outside History that begins
I wonder about you: whether the blue abrasions
of daylight, falling as dusk across your page,
make you reach for the lamp. I sometimes think
I see that gesture in the way you use language.
And whether you think, as I do, that wild flowers
dried and fired on the ironstone rim of
the saucer underneath your cup, are a sign of
a savage, old calligraphy: you will not have it.
—and, twenty years later, the essay in A Journey with Two Maps that is structured in two pieces, two rooms. The first is the room in which she sat late at night listening to her father, which she sees as a site both of admission to “powerful talk and arcane knowledge” and of exclusion from it: “What he knew. What I did not. What I might learn but could never really use.” As the second part opens, she considers that exclusion:
Had the same thing happened to other women poets? If so, I wanted to know. I wanted to see those lives. To find a woman in a room, late at night, a few stars stuck to the window. To witness again late night talk and unspoken resistance.
In both the poem and the essay, I always expect to find real rooms. Plath turning on the Pifco coffeepot, the IBM typewriter in Lucille Clifton’s tiny bright writing room in West Baltimore, Emily Dickinson’s tabletop the size of an unfolded napkin. In the second part of the essay, though, in contrast to Frederick Boland’s book-lined study, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s room is only the idea of a room. There is a window, but no tables or chairs. Boland finds the room using the “two maps” of the book’s title, the one that locates Browning in a place of compliance—with her authoritarian father, with the life of privilege built for her by the British empire—and the one that finds her quietly resisting containment:
Is it possible that the ordinary fate of being a daughter is changed, even subverted, by the extraordinary act of writing a poem? And how is a woman poet to live and think while she steals that fire?
In the poem, the chief image of resistance is the ironstone saucer: she imagines a shared perspective, a rejection of the merely decorative aspects of femininity that becomes unanimous among the imagined women poets: “you will not have it.” Here is the room as site of independence, of abundance: “the table / a horizon of its own,” paper “unmarked, steel-cut foolscap, / a whole quire of it.”
Small things she said would light up entire acres of experience. When I miscarried my first pregnancy, she told me I mustn’t minimize the loss: “Babies are made in people’s souls long before they are made in their bodies.” Or, several years later, when my young daughter came out to lunch with us and sat peacefully drawing on the back of a paper menu: “Five’s a companionable age.” At an antiques mall, I watched her pore over a tray of rare timepieces with a dealer, speaking familiarly of Piguet and Patek Philippe, then turning to me: “I can tell you haven’t the slightest interest, Nan. But I truly believe watches have souls.”
She was not like my mother, I was not like her daughter, but through my thirties and forties, past the edge of fifty, I watched her the way a daughter can watch a mother, found her newly beautiful and fascinating in her fifties, sixties, seventies. I laughed at her stories, worried about her, sought her opinion, heard her voice in my mind when I wrote (“Will you take out those last two lines and leave it alone!”), summoned to my aid what I imagined her judgment would be. I can hear her in the syntax of these sentences. I both adored her and took her for granted—not her life, her continued existence, her friendship, but her achievement. When I met her, she had already become who she was, and until she was gone, I couldn’t clearly see that accomplishment.
In his elegy for Yeats, Auden wrote, “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” When I first read that line, in college, it seemed to affirm that poems were not only “immortal” in the traditional sense, but alive—they could have been informed of the news, but they were not. It seemed true, but I had not yet known the work of a living poet who died. Now I have seen, many times—James Merrill, June Jordan, Ai, Adrienne Rich, Michael S. Harper, Derek Walcott, J.D. McClatchy—how with a poet’s death the familiar work becomes briefly touched around the borders, as if a flame licked the edge of it. The effects of the poem are still there, but the voice you hear sounds, for a while, like a recording. Then, with the passage of time, the effect resolves and you can see that what is lasting, lasts.
In her final new book, The Historians, Eavan Boland returns one more time to Sylvia Plath, a poet whose achievement, she argued, had been distorted by being viewed through the magnifying lens of the last three winter months of her life in London and the February suicide that ended it. “The Other Sylvia Plath” in A Journey with Two Maps centers its vision of Plath a few months earlier, in the October in Devon when Plath was writing the visionary, original work of Ariel. Boland remembers that exact month and year in Dublin, her first term in university, as a “beautiful and unusual” October: “The air was glittery and defined; it was clear and bitter. The rain held off.” The essay clears a space for readers to see and feel the achieved, dazzling reinvention of the nature lyric in Plath’s poems about her baby son, “Nick and the Candlestick” and “The Night Dances.” For these Boland makes a big, persuasive claim:
that those months she spent there in October 1962—as young poet and high-wire surrealist—produced poems which open out the whole question of how a new possession of nature has made a new nature poem. This is a radical change. In this way, poetry is like progress: it can never turn back.
That first quarter, she met with each of us once outside of workshop. I remember the first time we spoke alone about my work, in her first Stanford office, which was long ago dismantled, renovated, and is now part of a different department altogether. For me as for so many others, it was the way Eavan talked about my poems, as one poet to another, that let me recognize them as my real work—not the half-finished dissertation, not whatever job I might hold in the future, but the work of making of these artifacts of language that I loved and was unequal to. She showed me what she saw in the poems, what she didn’t see yet but could tell was there waiting to be brought in. When she paused, I felt as though she had handed me a hive of bees. Tears came up in my eyes. Impatient, she said, “This is a good thing I’m telling you,” and, half choked, I mumbled, “I know.”
From time to time, when I visited Stanford from Los Angeles, or when we found ourselves temporarily in the same place, she showed me poems, usually as a book neared completion: “There,” she would say, handing me her latest large-screen smartphone (the virtues of which she would already have enumerated), “have a look at that.” Sitting in the Bluebird Diner in Iowa City two years ago, we talked about a few poems from the opening sequence of The Historians—”The Fire Gilder,” “Eviction,” “The Historians.” When she’d heard enough about each, she would reach out and pull the phone back. Then she showed me a draft of a poem called “For a Poet Who Died Young”: “Do you know who it is?”
I confess it here as I did there and then: I didn’t know. Was I dense, or was the poem more cloaked than I find it now? Even if I saw the very draft again, I can never un-know that it is about Sylvia Plath. She snatched the phone back, dissatisfied—with me, or with the poem? Probably both.
The finished poem begins, “Even now I see myself there/ your book propped on the kitchen table.” That kitchen table, that contested site of reading and writing. It was in the draft I read. I am sure that it was there from the beginning.
In “The Other Sylvia Plath” she wrote:
I was eighteen when Plath died. She was then twelve years older than me. I say then because time has moved on, my life has progressed within it, and yet she has remained a gifted, changeless, broken young woman of thirty.
For Boland, her thirties were a decade of transformation: her lyric expanded with new subject matter and tone in The War Horse, contracted to the intense interrogations of womanhood in In Her Own Image, and deepened with the radical vision of domestic life of Night Feed, where she began her own reinvention of the nature poem which would eventually produce such defining poems as “The Pomegranate.” “By the end of my thirties I had reached some peace with my work,” she wrote in The American Poetry Review. “The fragments and contradictions . . . were beginning to find some repose.” At seventy-five, she turns to speak to Plath, forever thirty:
You died young. Your words helped me live.
I was younger then. Your ghost is still young.
Is still dead.
The woman Boland sees propping Plath’s book on the kitchen table in “For a Poet Who Died Young” is not her eighteen-year-old self. Her kitchen is in a house, not a flat; she has sleeping children; she wants, as she said, “to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote.” She was not done, however, with the first kitchen table. In the essay “Turning Away,” Boland sees herself in those earlier years, writing, making and unmaking the Irish poem:
What the girl, whose face is absorbed and turned away, does not know yet is that these are radical acts. They will not be enabled because of some grace of expression or stumbled-over eloquence on a winter evening. They will require a series of engagements and assessments with the place and the time and the poem. They will require a sense of location in these, and then an act of leave-taking.
She haunts this moment so often—the moment of struggle in this room. She imagines herself returning to it in a “shift of time”:
I know what I will find. Here is the salt-glazed mug on a table-top which is as scarred as a desk in a country school. Here is the window with its view of an empty street, of lamplight and iron. And there, in the corner, is my younger self.
Or it is another young woman poet, as in the poem “Is It Still the Same,” the poem that most directly expresses how she changed Irish poetry: “This time, when she looks up, I will be there.”
I can speak and write of her death, but in my mind, she is not dead, not yet. Even the poems, the well-known ones and the new ones, are not quite touched with that sense of strangeness that momentarily edges the poems of writers who have died. The poems of The Historians come forward as she meant them to. The losses and erasures of history are there in the title sequence, the dangers of artistry and memory. The poems continue to be a witness for lives like the lost and often-imagined one of her grandmother, who died at thirty-one. Some poems unfold elements of the past uncovered and brought to Boland by Jody Allen Randolph from her biographical research, like the 1904 eviction of her grandmother in Drogheda and the “near relative” in “Anonymous” who carried messages for the republicans during the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. Some unfold new experiences, like grandchildren coming over to play. The lexicon and the landscape are all immediately recognizable without being in the least predictable. There are poems that return different echoes because of her death, like “Rain,” with its thoughts of the graveyard; “Broken,” with its final image of her face reflected in the water of the Liffey like the underwater head of a broken statue; and “This Garden,” which locates the poet in an Edenic moment outside time, outside birth and death. And poems that will probably come to stand among those that people will speak of when they speak of “an Eavan Boland poem”: “The Fire Gilder,” “The Historians,” “Three Crafts,” and a final love poem, “How We Were Transfigured.”
But there are also certain passages that make me think of the kitchen table and the notebook, passages that show me that she has now vanished into the places she wrote into being. One of these is in “Translating the Word Home.” In it she draws together the past and present, an image of her mother painting, the provenance of a sable paintbrush, a whole alive mind’s awareness of color and light, loss and memory. The poem opens, though, with these unassuming lines:
A small city disappears in
the near-sighted dusk of a coastal winter.
Someone is walking home as I once did.
Someone is thinking as I did once:
this is their neighborhood, their consolation.
They are not what most readers will remember about the poem. But for a moment they jar me with the sense of the literal, temporal, material reality she existed in. The minutes, hours, days, and nights in which she put down the words. She moved on from the notebook and the pen, even as they remained important emblems of that haunted room: she set these words down in keystrokes, light streaming out of the screen. The cup of tea or glass of water beside her. The mind behind it all. Then I know that she has become those kitchen tables, those streets. She has become the book propped on a table, her soul ticking in the poems like a watch.
Nan Cohen is the author of two books of poetry, Rope Bridge (2005) and Unfinished City (2017), winner of the Michael Dryden Prize from Gunpowder Press. The recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship from Stanford University and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she teaches high school in Los Angeles and co-directs the poetry programs of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.