In 1761, the Queen of English Silversmiths, Hester Bateman, registered her own silver mark after the death of her husband, a successful chain maker, and went on to manage, over the next 30 years, a huge commercial operation aided by her sons and daughter-in-law; a highly unusual position for a woman in the 18th century. In Which Hester Bateman, 18th Century English Silversmith Takes an Irish Commission, the first poem in Eavan Boland's new collection Code, is a complex work. Ostensibly about the fashioning of a marriage spoon, it evolves into a meditation, not only on the nature of art, but also on the years of colonial oppression of the Irish by the English - "the spirit of our darkest century." For Boland this relationship also obliquely parallels the tensions within the institution of marriage. Yet despite Bateman's Englishness, the Irish poet has chosen as her subject a strong and independent woman who managed, though married with children, to create an autonomous creative existence; an example that would appeal, no doubt, to Boland who has long been concerned with feminine roles. In this series of juxtapositions we are presented, in microcosm, with Boland's themes: Irish history and women's lives. For in the decoration of the spoon, made by an English hand - "the sweet colonial metal" - we can see etched into the silver - "chased", "scarred" and "marked", as into the Irish psyche, the "grapeshot and tar caps" "the hedge schools and the music of sedition." And although made by a female artist, as an English woman, Bateman would have been no 'sister' to her Irish counterparts with their "scarred" lives. Yet amid this colonial quagmire, this "craft of hurt" there is a possibility of redemption. "Here in miniature a man and woman/Emerge beside each other from the earth." "They stand side by side on the handle", elemental, archetypal so that:
"Past and future and the space between
"History" Boland suggests "frowns on them: yet in its gaze/they join their injured hands and make their vows." It is love, then, that is our "resistance" against history and hatred. Not romantic love, but a love that is solid, earthed. A day-to-day, married sort of love, "this constancy; what wears, what endures," as she writes in the concluding line of Lines for A Thirtieth Wedding Anniversary. The collection is dedicated to her husband Kevin Casey.
Again and again Boland returns to this image of enduring familiarity as the basis of love. In Quarantine, about the terrible conditions endured by an old couple forced to leave the workhouse in Carrigstyra in West Cork during the famine in 1847, she describes how they died from the "toxins of a whole history." Yet at the end "her feet were held against his breast bone/the last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her." It is in the minutia that we express, what at its best "there is between a man and a woman." In Once the poet stands at her suburban window with her husband - "Did you know our suburb was a forest?" and directs him to take her hand and look out and image "Irish wolves: a silvery man and wife/…They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe." This "safety" is marriage's gift; the reward for the long haul. "I do not want us to be immortal," or as she says elsewhere in Thank'd Be Fortune " we never envied the epic glory of the star-crossed." What matters is "this ordinary, ageing human love."
In turns highly evocative, poignant and moving, there is a danger that the accumulated tone of these poems - despite Boland's feminist credentials - and her prose poem Against Love Poetry - which claims that she has "loved women's freedom" and "marriage is not freedom" might seem a little complacent to those who fail - through ill luck or ill judgement - to have penetrated or sustained this warm circle of quotidian domestic love.
If 'marriage' is the subject of the first half of this collection - marriage that provides a framework to experience the self 'in history' - then language forms the subject of the second half; language in the sense of a 'tongue' or a 'voice' that defines identity. For never far behind the personal in Boland's work lies the political, what the American writer Elizabeth Schmidt highlighted in an interview with Boland, from her autobiographical writings, as "that true meeting between a hidden life and a hidden language out of which true form would come - the form of a true poem". Our history, and who we are, is delineated by speech, whether as in Emigrant Letters when the poet looks down from an aeroplane over "town, farms fields - all of them at that very moment/moulding the speech of whoever lived there," or in her long title poem Code, which is dedicated to Grace Murray Hopper 1906-88 maker of a computer compiler and verifier of COBOL. Here Boland identifies with Hopper as someone on the "edge of language" and addresses her "poet to poet", drawing the analogy that to write poetry is to create a form of code during which "You have no sense of time." Addressing Hopper in the second person "west of me and in the past/…You are compiling binaries and zeroes. /The given world is what you can translate" Boland explores the links and differences between them. "Let there be language/even if we use it differently." She goes on to imagine Hopper at her desk "in the twilight/legend, /history, myth of course, /are gathering in Wolfeboro New Hampshire, /as if to memory". Hopper is a "Maker of the future" for whom "origin and outcome will never find/their way to you or shelter in your syntax-". Yet despite their differences "We are still human", linked by their endeavours - "head bowed" struggling, "writing code before the daylight goes." What, of course, for Boland they are both doing is defining themselves as creative women through the uniqueness of language, a language that 'decodes' a particularly female experience of the world - what Hélène Cixous has called L'Ecriture Femine."I am writing at a screen as blue
as any hill, any lake, composing this
to show you how the world begins again:
One word at a time.
One woman to another."
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
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