A Journey with Two Maps.
It might seem odd, even wrongheaded, to begin a book of criticism with a personal narrative. But I have a reason. A story makes a straight path through confusion. It clears the way. And the way needs to be cleared. It would be simpler for every poet if the ethics and aesthetics surrounding them were fixed and signposted. But they're not. Sometimes whatever clarity there is emerges only gradually out of human impulses, human flaws. This piece, very deliberately, is about such flaws, in this case my own. I found them out through a chance encounter: painful, telling and corrective. And since this book is about all the ways poets defy expectations, it seems right to begin with a story about the upending of my own.
My mother was my hero. Without that flat statement, this piece will have no meaning. As an awkward and displaced teenager I looked up to her. So much so that I made a skewed calendar in my mind: I measured history by her life. 1909, for instance--not the year of the Land Purchase Act but the time her mother died in a fever ward in Dublin. 1915. The year after the Great War started, yes. But more importantly, the year she was called out of class in the Dominican Convent in Dublin to be told her father had drowned in the Bay of Biscay. 1916. The year of the Irish Rising. But also the year she was made a ward of court.
And so it went on. 1928. Not the year of the first Censorship of Publications Act in Ireland. But the time she went to Paris to study art, sitting in the freezing air on the deck of a ferry to Le Havre. Year after year, I counted dates and shifted seasons. And in doing so I allowed the entirely personal to warp the truly eventful.
It wasn't logical. That much I knew. But I was a teenager newly returned to Ireland. The dates and events of its history had little hold on me. My mother's life did. It was her past, to use Elizabeth Bishop's eloquent description of travel, that seemed to me "serious, engraveable." Not the Irish one. And so, without knowing it, I stumbled on one of the essential timekeepers: A magic permission to make time a fiction and the imagined life a fact. A way, in other words, of making a visible history answer to a hidden life.
Two things shaped my relationship with my mother. First the wrenching facts of her life. Born of a mother who died at thirty-one in a fever ward. Of a father who drowned in the Bay of Biscay. Before she left her childhood she had lost most of what determines it for other people. She became a ward of court as a child. She appeared homeless to me; somehow unclaimed. Like Lorna Goodison's grandmother in her poem "Guinea Woman," her future was determined by losses: It seems her fate was anchored/in the unfathomable sea.
Second, and just as important, she was an artist. She began drawing and painting early. She left boarding school young. Eventually she went to the College of Art in the center of Dublin. There she won a scholarship, adjudicated by Yeats's friend A. E. Russell. It was called the Henry Higgins Scholarship. It took her to Paris for three years of instruction in the mid-1930s.
Paris was then a city full of studios and teachers. Most Irish art students ended up in the ateliers of teacher-artists like Henri Lhote. My mother did something different. She heard from a friend that a painter had a vacancy for a private student because his American pupil had gone back unexpectedly to the States. She asked him to take her as a replacement. He agreed.
I have some early press cuttings. They detail my mother's first exhibition in Dublin in 1936.
By then she was a married woman. They are yellowish and crisp now. And so I have to imagine them in their original context: small, exciting notes in the folded evening newspaper of a provincial city. I have to imagine the convivial gallery party. Feathered hats and macabre furs. The half-column in the Evening Herald states below her photograph: "First holder of the Henry Higgins Scholarship in Ireland; studied for three years in Paris; swears by--, who taught her."
That dash signifies a deliberate omission on my part. My mother's teacher was a Cubist, a friend of Modigliani. He had arrived in Paris at the turn of the century. As the mark above shows, he has no name in this piece. He will turn up later here in a strange guise, but perhaps not a discreditable one. Nevertheless, he should remain nameless. It is part of my subject that the dissolution of his name here belongs to its intrusion elsewhere.
She studied with him, as the press cutting says, for three years. He was considerably older. She was beautiful, in her middle twenties, astray in the world. He was a good teacher. Her palette cleared. Her subjects were fresher. Her style was quicker. But with all the effect of his teaching, he failed to persuade her of one thing. She never became Cubist. She never showed any interest in that fractious, sweet-natured way of reassembling reality. Her heroes were Morisot and Bonnard. Her subjects were objects at the edge of elegy: quick impressions clarified by color but not exempted from it.
My mother hardly ever spoke to me about her painting. We did not talk about aesthetics, or ethics. We had a common bond, not a common language. I did not know how to describe to her the clear view her life gave me--of the past, of art, of Ireland. My rhetoric would have made her uncomfortable. We never talked about influence or authority. In the literary tradition of Ireland I felt restive and often disaffected. I got no such feeling from her. She never talked about those things. Now I wish she had. I wish we had.
But for all that, the question returns: Why include this subject here, at the threshold of my accounts of poetry and women) Some of the answer to that question is contained in another story which I include here, but in a shortened form:
My mother loved Berthe Morisot's painting. This in turn made me look more closely at Morisot's life. In the late spring of 1870, Morisot finished a painting for the Salon. Her position among the Impressionists had yet to be solidified. She was still striving for her place in the art world. This was her first submission. She called it Portrait of the Artist's Mother and Sister. Her letters show that she worked hard at it. She painted diligently to manage the formal setting. It was not easy. "My work is going badly.... It is always the same story. I don't know where to start," she wrote to her sister Edma in 1875.
Nevertheless, she finished this painting. It is a studied portrait. It collects surfaces and figures: a lemon-wood table, a small vase of flowers. In the mirror the shapeliness of drawn-wide and boundback curtains can be seen at the further end of the room. Two women are on the sofa. The younger is Morisot's newly married sister Edma. She is dressed in white, plainly pregnant. Her mother reads a book beside her.
A painting lives in space. The frame encloses it. But when the canvas is stretched and nailed, when the frame shuts around it, the life inside continues. I knew that from my mother.
In this case the frame could barely contain the painting. Pushing against those edges was the year, the circumstance, the drama. Paris stood at the edge of the Commune. In twelve weeks, the siege of the city by the Prussians would be established. "Would you believe, I'm getting used to the cannon's noise," wrote Berthe in September.
On the day it was to be submitted to the Salon, Edouard Manet, her friend and mentor, came to the Morisot house. The night before, he had said to Morisot, "Tomorrow after I send off my own painting I'll come see yours, and trust me: I'll tell you what you should do."
If this sounded ominous, it was. "The next day, which was yesterday," wrote Morisot in a letter, "he came about one o'clock, said it was fine, except the bottom of the dress; he took the brushes, added a few accents that looked quite good; my mother was in ecstasy. Then began my woes; once he had started, nothing could stop him."
Manet painted out large sections of Morisot's Salon portrait--"from the skirt to the bodice, from the bodice to the head, from the head to the background," as Morisot wrote. "He made a thousand jokes, laughed like a madman, gave me the palette, took it back again, and finally, by five in the evening, we had made the prettiest caricature possible. People were waiting to take it away; willy-nilly he made me put it on the stretcher and I remained dumbfounded."
When I was young, I struggled with authorship, with everything the word meant and failed to mean. Irish poetry was heavy with custom. Sometimes at night, when I tried to write, a ghost hand seemed to hold mine. Where could my life, my language fit in) "For the most part," wrote Nietzsche, "the original ones have also been the name-givers." But was this true) And how could I be original, if I couldn't even provide the name for my own life in poetry) At those moments of discouragement, there was a keen temptation to let that ghost hand do the work for me. I could have watched it as it moved fluently across that page, writing out the echoes. Somehow, I resisted that. All the same, I was aware of a shadow under the surface. Of a voice whispering to me: Who is writing your poem?
What moved over the canvas of Morisot's painting? What did she see unfolding in front of her as the splashes and pastels of Manet's brushwork corrected her own? A different vision? A higher authority? Those questions would come back: as hauntings, as shadows. When they did, I remembered too late that I had never answered them.
As time went on, I found the shape of my life. I lived in a suburb in Dublin. I raised two small daughters. My husband Kevin and I filled the house with books, papers, children's things, our own writing.
It was a source of pleasure to me that the old city--deep in its past--was only four miles away. I imagined it the way I found it when I was fourteen, after a childhood in London and New York. On winter nights I thought of it as a familiar, unfolding from the lichen and black peat of the Dublin Hills all the way to the North Wall. I imagined its freezing rain and stone; the Liffey always flowing to the Irish Sea.
In light traffic, a twenty-minute drive took me into town. If I parked in the center of it I was in a web of streets which led up to College Green, and back down towards Stephen's Green. Which is where I was when I saw my mother's painting: the subject of this piece.
I was passing a small art gallery. I was on my way back to the car which I had parked at Trinity. The gallery was at a left-hand turn. Its street-facing walls were made of glass. The paintings inside were on show, some stacked against the wall, some hung on it. Shapes and colors making a carnival of a city corner.
Usually, I walked past. But that day a painting stopped me in my tracks: it was middle-sized, clearly visible through the plate-glass window, even in fading light. In the foreground of the canvas was a pair of gloves. Just behind them, in a green wash, was a vase. The light flowed in it, as if its physical surface were a transparency rather than a hindrance. In the vase were small flowers. Lily of the valley. They were my mother's favorite flowers. Their sweet, choking fragrance reminded me of cheap perfumes in London, bought for her on each of her birthdays, but never close to evoking the Paris streets of her youth. I thought of them, if I did, as the flowers of my childish failures.
I knew at once, without a second glance--without study, consideration, or hesitation--that it was my mother's painting. The colors were hers. The staging of the objects was hers. And so I went into the gallery and spoke to the man at the end of the long, narrow space. It was a perfunctory, quick exchange. I indicated nothing at all of my interest. The price was enormous. I asked quickly, again with a disguised casualness, about its provenance.
He announced the painter with an emphasis on the last syllable and with the gallery owner's disdain of the passing enquiry. My mother's teacher. I looked again to be sure. Yes, there was his signature, in the bottom right of the painting, where she usually put her own.
His signature. Her painting. Her vision. His price. And that was that.
I left the gallery and turned up towards Trinity. I had been a student there. I had read poems inside those rooms. I had written them there as well. I had worked in the old airy library above the front gate. I had even taught there as a junior lecturer of twenty-three. Now I walked up to College Green and looked back at the statues of Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke which front the facade.
A poet and an orator. I knew something about them: chiefly, that they were eighteenth-century figures, born in a colony. That they had had no country. That they had a language, a rhetoric. Nothing more. The real nation had eluded them; not just their speech, but their imagination. It had flowed out beyond their shapely paragraphs and wistful cadences. They would speak of it and be spoken of by it. But they would never be its authors.
Suddenly I thought of an earlier time: of coming back to Ireland at fourteen. I had felt awkward. But I still sensed that I belonged somewhere: to the distaff side of Ireland. I was connected to it through my mother. Through her art, her anonymity, her origins in a small town marked on no map. Above all by the signs she made in oils on canvas.
Now that had changed. Standing there, I imagined the scene as it would be a few hours later--a summer darkness folding itself into the trees. Into the bronze ruffle on Goldsmith's jacket. Into the reflections on the windows of the gallery. Once I would have said to the statues, to quote Mary O'Malley's powerful line from her poem "St. John's Eve"--Go back, I want to say, You are in the wrong place. But not now. I could see that the statues had survived. They stood for a flawed authorship. But they had endured. But on the distaff side? What remained?
For this was the place where I had chosen to locate myself. In a place of shadows I called the past. I had thought about it; written about it. And at its gateway, and pointing to its interior, had always stood my mother. The mystery of her early life folded back and out into the flat lands and ordeals of an earlier Ireland. If I followed that silence, I was sure, I could enter it. Now what?
The truth looked at me coldly. That was her painting. Her authorship. She had assembled those flowers. She had constructed the complicated relationship between their petals and the background. She had worked on it, changed it, assembled it. No doubt she had changed it again. Then he had signed it. She had let him sign it. It was not the signature that shocked me; it was that consent. Down through the years, from a time when I had not even been born, came that faint yes.
I drove home. As I opened the door I could see, eye-level, some of my mother's paintings which we owned. But my mind was on only one of them, a few miles away. I thought of its presence there in the summer twilight. How the dark would reach that street and enclose the gallery.
And behind its doors, that painting, I thought of it lying against the wall: the small gleams of color, the fragmentary evidence of a young woman's life. I thought of those petals and their milky shine. How they would spread their oils and emblems-in that darkness and every one to come--above a false signature.
I asked myself a question. What did it matter that a woman I loved and a man I never knew had exchanged their claims, even their identities, for a brief moment? What did it matter that a young painter had let an older one--in a lost decade in a different country--write his name on her work?
It mattered. I was sure it did. That small canvas had a future as well as a present. That future--I believed this--was nothing less than my mind. Those greens, those imitations of air next to light, belonged to me. Those delicately colored arguments about the traffic between solid and space were tangled up with my sense of growth and survival. My mother's choice of shade and block was part of my first language. And now it seemed as if a man I never knew had signed my childhood.
But there was more. The shadow world in which I had taken up residence when I was a young poet was more complicated than I allowed. At that time, in that part of my youth, I called it the past. I gave it boundaries and called it by the name of my own country. Ireland. Then I renamed it again and called it my mother's life.
For all those acts of naming and re-naming, it was a complicated territory I was setting up house in. The rift between the past and history was real; but it was not simple. In those shadows, in that past, I was well aware that injustices and griefs had happened without any hope of the saving grace of elegy or expression--those things which an official history can count on. Silence was a condition of that past. I accepted it as a circumstance.
But only on certain terms. That the silences were not final. They were not to be forever. That they could be recognized, but also remedied. In my childhood they had been transformed at the end of my mother's day when she picked up an enameled mirror and turned her back to her own painting. Then, staring at a view which was over her right shoulder, she looked at her day's work. Considered it, judged it.
I saw her do this countless times. It would always be near dusk. Light would be leaving the room. When she looked in the mirror, she would have seen a day's worth of mistakes and some satisfactions as well. But as I watched her studying her own work--as I remembered it and reflected on it--it took on a different meaning. The angles, surfaces, compositions she achieved belonged to the craft of a few hours. But the act belonged to her lifetime. And mine.
I had depended on that act. It was the first sign of expressive power I saw as a child. The first article of feminine faith. Later I gave it a broad and glamorous interpretation. As I looked back I designated it as the moment when the hurts of an Irish past, of my mother's motherless life, of my own absence from anything familiar, healed into a little grace of remedy and articulation. A day had gone by. A million lights, refractions, rearrangements had taken place. Here on the canvas, and in the mirror, was a record of it all. But what was that record if, at the last moment, it was not presented as hers?
I remembered Virginia Woolf's bleak comment about the improbability of a woman's authorship: "And undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned." The problem was my mother's work had been signed. But not by her.
A fuss about nothing? I could ask that question, but I couldn't accept it. For years I brooded about it. The doubts persisted. If anything, they grew. What did I feel had been violated by that long-ago moment? Nothing seemed clear. Whatever deference to hierarchy and authority had made her cede, even for a moment, the rights to her painting, was not what I believed I had inherited from her. The compliant student in Paris was not my obstinate, glowing mother who had opened an elusive past to me.
The mother I saw and understood was a figure of fable, thigh-deep in the mysteries and silences of the country she came from. I had studied that fable. I had learned that mystery. What she did in that studio in Paris was one thing. What I learned from her was another. The problem was I could no longer be sure how one had changed the other.
"The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession," wrote George Sand. What is it we do when we sign a poem, a painting, a piece of writing? What is it we share when we let someone else do it? What on earth did I think had been changed in that room years ago?
Earth is the operative word. Whether I liked it or not, my life had been shaped by the fact that I came from one part of it. A small country. An island. A place where hundreds of years had passed without a trustworthy signature. The idea of an Ireland whose recent past--in historical terms--had been marred by false ownership had a meaning for me, as for so many others.
And yet, over time, I began to re-think George Sand's obsession. Not just in terms of Irishness. There came a moment when much of what I thought about poetry, language and even origin began to shift. I came to believe that how we see a painting, read a poem or write one can't simply be the outcome of a single fixed viewpoint.
It wasn't sudden or complete, this shift. It happened in increments, in gradual dawnings. The danger of describing it lies in the risk of giving it a coherence the process never had. I changed first. The poems I wrote changed later. Only after that did I add language and ideas. If all three seem to go together here, it's because retrospect flattens chronology. But one thing was clear from the start: Change depends on the questions we ask. Always providing we are willing to ask them. And at a certain point, I set out to find those questions.
When I looked at my mother's painting I had yielded to a small outrage. But what was its source? Was it based on a version of authorship? More likely, I thought, on a version of myself. A vast series of impressions goes into the making of any young poet. When I looked back at the nighttime libraries, the wooden tables, the bookshelves I consulted, I could see myself sitting there, with a page turned. I could see, above all, that I was trying to be the author of myself.
But there was no escaping a predetermined narrowness. And no escaping that I learned to be a writer in the shadow of constraining influences. Young as I was, and Irish as I was, I still took most of my ideas from nineteenth-century British Romanticism. These were the texts I read in my convent school, which had found their way into every anthology and were then set in stone by college courses. I sat for hours on winter evenings, learning about the fever of this poet and the revelations of that one. I entered my reading the way an echo enters a sound. In the process, I never questioned that originality was a primary value.
Yet somewhere beyond those lamps, tables and pages was a vast and rich world of collaborative forms. A world in which originality was an almost meaningless concept. The ghazals, harvest songs, bardic schools, communal ballads were all there; all waiting. And all invisible to me. I had one template, and one only: the glamour and hubris of the individual poet. "The romantic image of the poet as a vulnerable personage in a hostile universe has not gone out of currency," writes David Lehman. I traded that currency.
At the start, therefore, the notion that poet and audience could blend their purposes, could co-author a poem from deep within a shared communal reality was foreign to me. Above all, the idea that a signature on a painting might be the last sign of an artistic mentorship rather than the first claim on a work of art never crossed my mind. A shadow land of artistic invention where the teacher and the taught, the poet and the listener, the creator and the created object could have fluid boundaries was still closed to me.
This book is about a journey. A journey with two maps. It recognizes my early ignorance of the vast distances of the poetic past--a horizon reaching far beyond my first sense of it; whose line nevertheless shaped my first map. It is about the dangers and glories of that first set of directions, which seemed to promise a young poet pride of language and exemption from ordinary life. It is also about the growing need for a second map. Another set of guidances in which my own individual voice could be heard. Where the poetic past became something I could participate in, could even change, rather than having it determine my future. It is about making this second map and keeping it ready, while holding on obstinately--and even against advice--to the first. It is, above all, about reading and writing poetry with those two maps--which of course are. figures for different or oppositional views--always available.
And yet the truth is, I started with one map. I had no idea there could be any other. That first map opened to me on teenage afternoons. On quiet midnights repeating and memorizing poems. Most young poets start out with a reverence for a past defined for them by someone else. Here are the great poems, they are told; these are the exemplars to learn from. A powerful set of suggestions does more than outline a literature. It confirms the young poet in their quest to join it.
For a long time I wanted nothing else. Besides, in those years I thought of myself as merely concerned with writing poems. ! applied myself to the craft of a stanza, or to learning a more agile syntax. But the self-limitation failed. I would come to understand there is no poem separable from its source. I began to see that poems are not just an individual florescence. They are also a vast root system growing down into ideas and understandings. Almost unbidden, they tap into the history and evolution of art and language. They seek out their own progenitors. "The form of my poem rises out of a past," wrote Hart Crane. But which one?
I did not ask. At least, not at first. In the beginning, I merely wanted to introduce myself, hopefully and politely, to a single past: the one that awed me. I read continuously. I was sure if I kept reading I would find my name and my life as I looked behind me. And, because of that, I believed in the future. If I could bring together my life and my poems, I was certain I could go there. Despite the fact that by nationality and gender I was likely to be on the margins of the English canon, nevertheless I refused to feel excluded from its questions--its big, fearless questions. "I ask what is meant by the word Poet? What is a Poet?" wrote Wordsworth.
And so I settled: with one map, with one hope. The corner of a table under a cowled lamp in a library was where I most often found myself. When I went home I wrote poems at a smaller table. And this solitary, self-consciously questing life as a student was just near enough to the lives of poets I was reading--at least in my mind--to make me feel like them. The small proximity made me believe their power and independence could be my own. It was, of course, a false affinity. I was about to find that being a poet is more tangled in circumstance and accident than I would have believed.
"Poets have always known," wrote Muriel Rukeyser, "that one's education has no edges, has no end." At first, the expanding edges of my education looked decidedly everyday. I married. I moved house. I left the literary and confirming center of Dublin and went to live in a new suburb. Suddenly--every parent will understand the word--I had two young daughters. All at once, the library and the table and the friendly helmets of light became a memory. My working day as a poet now happened in the light and shadow of domestic arrangements. The thick notebook I wrote in could be lost and found under newspapers or a child's coat. The glamour and conviction of my first ideas of poetry--the feeling that I could emulate what I admired--began to be tested.
There was something painful about all this. I knew my world had changed. But the change was not clarifying. I loved the sensory world of neighborly routine and small children. The first delicate smell of an Irish spring, which was like crisp linen. Or the fragrance of peat fires in autumn. But inwardly everything was clouded with doubts. I could no longer pretend I was close to the poets I read. I was now at a distance from them, and the distance was growing. I still read my poetry books. I still wrote in my notebook. But I turned the pages now with hands which had come from lifting a child or shutting the back door against a gust of rain. How could I continue to make a text when I had lost a context?
The questions multiplied. Was there, I asked myself, anything of my old free life as a student-poet--anything of all its reading and searching--which remained? Could I even find myself as a poet in my new life? Or had I been an impostor in my old one? In reading the poets of a Romantic past had I learned--laboriously and with a fitful sense of grandiosity--all the wrong things: to invent myself for a world which would not have accepted me, and which could never, in any case, occur again?
It's almost impossible to re-construct an inner world. ! lived a practical day-to-day life as a mother and wife. In my poems, I could echo Sharon Olds's eloquent words about wanting to "make a small embodiment of ordinary life, from a daughter's, wife's, mother's point of view." If I look back, I could accurately render the sloping road of the school run, the sycamore at the top of the hill. I could even summon the lost hum of the milk cart. Those are real, actual, describable. But the shadowy questions I lived with are harder to recover.
And so I will try to create a tableau here: a small stage-set of an inner world. A place where ideas of authorship occurred in an atmosphere as vivid as any view I saw outside my window. If I were to describe it accurately, it would be a silent mime. But for the sake of this argument, I will give it words. There are hazards in this. It means I have to create an artifice to replicate the way I built my thoughts: as though they happened in sequence, which they didn't. Nevertheless, this seems the only available method: the only way of getting at the subjective mystery: how one poet is made, and how an aesthetic grows in silence and doubt.
"Clearly the mind is always altering its focus," wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own. Certainly mine was now changed. I had a new life. And yet after a while, for all my doubts and worries, I could see something had indeed survived from the old one. It was there when I went to the back room, late at night, and read a poem; or tried to write one. It appeared in front of me, unchanged and confirming.
What was it? It was that shining I. That obdurate and central witness of the poet. That first-person pronoun which signaled my hopes of becoming a poet. It was there when I went upstairs and took down a book, ready to be found in an image or a cadence. It was there when I opened my own notebook and wrote the first-person pronoun at the start of a line. Written or read, it could still provide me with a lightning-spark. It could still connect the tentative, half-formed entity which was all I yet could lay claim to and the beckoning hope of an achieved poetic self.
But there was a problem. If it was changeless--this pronoun and everything it promised--I was not. I opened a book of poetry now with different expectations. At times I grew restless with that old, glamorous part of speech--that relentless sign of the poet's singular domain. I wanted to see my new life in the old art. I wanted some recognition of the kettle I had just boiled, the sound of rain in the garden--and that they had come with me to the poem. I wanted to see their shadow. When I couldn't I wondered what reality this signal of the poetic self was refusing to encompass. And as I thought about this, I found that another word--an older one--crept out of the pages of poems I was reading. It shifted, shimmered, dissolved, re-formed and changed again. Not I any longer, but we.
Of course it had always been there. I had just not looked for it. Now that I did it seemed to be everywhere.
Suddenly I was aware of its reach and brightness, of its application to my life. It recalled James Merrill's remark about Rilke: "He never says T but in the Duino Elegies he seems to invite his readers into a community of shared suffering, or shared sensitivity. I couldn't wait to accept the invitation. I loved the feeling I got from those first-person plurals, as if one were being consoled and elevated at the same time."
It was a flexible instrument, this new pronoun. It was also inclusive of older histories, older communities. It could be the we of the balladeer, recording an event for which I was no longer the audience. Or the we of the Middle Ages poet, glued to other words by faith and authority. It might become the we of the Renaissance. Then, a few poems on, it might spin around and appear as the we of the Irish nation in the poems of Speranza in 1848; or, in another swift turn, manifest itself as a 1930S political poem.
For all its instability, its tendency to vanish in historic change, this new word--this we--commended itself. It seemed to include more of my life at that precise moment than the previous I. It gathered in the ordinariness of the house, the cheer and heat of the kitchen, the untidiness of the garden. As it did, it gave them a new shape. It spoke to me of down-to-earth communities which had once needed a voice. As mine did now. The time would come when this pronoun too seemed open to criticism, when the world it implied seemed another form of constraint. But for now I was drawn to it.
I have no doubt, even as I write them, that these are small revelations. And, certainly, they took place in small circumstances. But I promised a stage-set of a mind in process here; a picture of an evolving poet. If these pronouns seem not to provide that, then 1 have misrepresented them. The truth is, they were critical signs. Within the poem, they marked a vast difference from each other. Outside it, they signaled a growing tension in me. They pointed to alternate histories: towards opposite views of authorship. They were fractional as words; yet as symbols of composition they had enormous meaning. Within their difference I detected shadows of my own choices and dilemmas, and yet saw no hint of how to resolve them.
And so I have to re-imagine myself, back in those days when I was trying to find my own language. I have to remember late-night reading and an open book. And how I hesitated on one page over the silvery I of the poetic singular. And then turned back to the hallowed we of something older.
In the first instance, I could be upstairs on a winter evening, the curtains drawn, the garden seething with rain. Maybe I was reading Frost at Midnight or the tenth book of The Prelude, marveling at the way a single poet could stand against storm-forces of history, and be perfectly outlined. Or I could be looking at The Buried Life and be moved and persuaded by Arnold's sense of private revelation; of a "true, original course."
And yet the following week I could find myself--the rain turned to sleet, the children fretful and awake--changing my mind. Suddenly I would find myself agreeing with Robert Hass's comment, in his essay on Rilke in Twentieth Century Pleasures, where he commented on the "sudden, restless revulsion from the whole tradition of nineteenth and early twentieth century poetry, or maybe from lyric poetry as such, because it seemed, finally, to have only one subject, the self, and the self--which is not life."
Then I too would become restless. I would open Everyman or Pearl, ready for the light and intensity of an earlier, more communal imagination. I would read the lines. I would see for myself how a community had co-authored the refrain of a ballad or the shape of a narrative. And so it went on. And so I continued, book by book. Back and forth.
But what exactly was at stake? To answer that, I have to insist again that I am describing a mime here. I was a poet hardly aware of the choices I was making, and yet knowing I had to make them. On a night of learning to read, of trying to write, I was looking for the micro-history of poetry. And yet it was there in front of me, closed into two pronouns.
And certainly, once inside the poem, two apparently tiny parts of speech assumed a larger role. They reached up from the pages of my books, these pronouns, crying out their different histories like street-hawkers. In the first-person singular I saw the glamour of the most enticing myths of composition. Come with me, it seemed to say. It beckoned me to the silhouette of the hero and the strength of soliloquy. Before I could respond, the we interposed itself. In its strength and poise I recognized the old dignity of poetry--its relation to the tribe. Different traditions, different directions. I was hopelessly torn.
And here I could leave it, this story. As a personal narrative; as a chronicle of reading and writing. As an unremarkable account of choices and changes of heart. I could abandon this account, fixed and printed as it is with the image of an indecisive reader and unconvinced poet; a woman shifting here and there between ideas of art and systems of authorship.
I could leave it were it not for one thing: The story changed. There came a cumulative moment which extended and altered it. An inward sequence of dissents; a growing melody of constraint and skepticism. Finally--still upstairs, still with my books and my children and the sounds of a household--there came into my mind a plainspoken question: Why choose?
One question. And yet from that simple interrogation came a whole outworks of reason and light. Overdue as it was, it upended my thinking. Looking back, I could see things I had missed. How, for instance, almost from the start, my sense of being a poet had been shadowed by false alternatives. Far as I was from the center, deep as I was in a national rather than an international culture, I had felt a pressure to choose: Between the formal stanza and the open one. Between the canon and the tradition. Between modernism and what went before. Between the public poem and the private one. And finally, between two pronouns on a page.
It hardly mattered that the pressure was my own; was an internalized series of figments. The fact was I seemed to have started out as a poet in a world of deliberately crafted division: where modernism chastened indiscipline, and traditionalism scolded modernism. Where poetry fled from the back parlor and the evening recitation; yet no one could quite say where its home was now. Where two parts of speech strained to hold up different worlds.
Why choose? Sometimes I imagine myself walking back into a Dublin twilight. Putting off the years. Shedding office buildings, computers, texting and traveling and the sorrows of aging. In my imagination, I stop on the same corner. By the illogicality and power of memory, the gallery is still there. My mother's painting is there.
And I am the same and not the same. I have had time to practice that refusal to choose. I have grown more comfortable with opposition; even with contradiction. I see more clearly now what I missed then. The elaborations of authorship, for instance. I realize that the I and the we--and everything they implied--were present even then in a way I failed to notice.
But what I mainly failed to see was my own limited understanding of making, and of being made. The situation unfolded a treasure of complications I never understood at the time: the painting itself was made by one person, signed by another and seen by a third, who was herself authored by the first. It existed in a nation which added another element, so that history was woven into the image and my reaction to it. In the end, the laying down of these different authorial layers infinitely complicated the idea of single authorship. So much so, that the idea on its own seemed no longer tenable.
None of these realizations solved the problem of the painting: its provenance remained disturbing and puzzling. In later years I would go back and forth about it. Had it simply been an afternoon's painting, done by the apprentice, but guided by the master and so signed by him? Hadn't my mother once pointedly told me what the strict definition of a masterpiece was? Not a defining work, she said, but the apprentice's final piece before being admitted to the guild? The questions continued; the answers never fit. But they showed me, those questions, that the issues raised were too rich and complex to be confined by a fixed viewpoint. It was not a moment to confuse authorship with ownership. And yet that was exactly what I had done.
The past does not change. But I had changed. If I stood again in the summer twilight, on that street, some things would be different. The angle of vision, to start with. The first time I saw the painting I looked at its signature, nothing else. I chose to see only what offended my early belief--that the single artist was the source of art. I allowed the definition of the author to overwhelm the existence of the art.
This time, if I could go back, I would consider both. I would look at the painting: the light wash of green, the quickly brushed petals. This time I would see that the signature and the image were more than just challenges to faith in a single aesthetic. They were separate fields of meaning--rich and problematic and inviting of new perspectives. Above all, their co-existence, even as contradiction, was not only possible but desirable. If art--and indeed poetry--was shaped by the interplay between individual and communal, then here was a chance to look into the fire of those contradictions, as if into a moment of origin. And so the question returns, Why choose?
And from that question comes the argument of this book. And its advocacy: That we can, and should draw two maps for the right and difficult art of poetry. That we can and should entertain even conflicted ideas to find a path through contradiction. That we can hold in poise oppositional concepts--I have put them forward here as I and we, as just one version of a possible opposition, but I there are many others--without needing to erase one with the other. That we can take apparently opposed views of the history and practice of this art, and hold them reflectively in our hands as if they were two maps. And yet, in the end, come safely to a single destination.
Excerpted from A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet by Eavan Boland. Copyright [c] 2011 by Eavan Boland. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
EAVAN BOLAND'S books of poetry include New Collected Poems (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008), Domestic Violence (2007), Against Love Poems (2001), The Lost Land (1998), An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987 (1996), In a Time of Violence (1994), Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990 (1990), The Journey and Other Poems (1986), Night Feed (1982), and In Her Own Image (1980) Her awards include a Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry, an American Ireland Fund Literary Award, a Jacob's Award for her involvement in The Arts Programme broadcast on RTE Radio, and an honorary degree from Trinity. She is currently a professor of English at Stanford University, where she directs the creative writing program.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2011|
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