Renowned Stanford poet Eavan Boland interrogates identity and nationhood in new collection
In her latest book of poetry, A Woman Without a Country, English Professor Eavan Boland draws on decades of thinking, reading and writing about subjects like nation and gender to help give voice to those who have been silenced in the official record of history.
Though she was born and educated in Dublin, and raised her family there, Eavan Boland also lived in the United States and in London as a child. Her latest volume of poetry, A Woman Without a Country, engages some of the contrasts and contradictions that come from living in a place without feeling that one fully belongs to it. As she puts it in the book, “This sequence is dedicated to those who lost a country, not by history or inheritance, but through a series of questions to which they could find no answer.”
Since publishing her first volume of poetry in 1962, Boland has become a leader among Irish women poets, a process she described in an interview with the Poetry Foundation as challenging, “in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other.”
By complicating issues of nation and gender, A Woman Without a Country takes a new approach to themes that have been points of departure and return in Boland’s poetry throughout her career.
In this interview with Stanford News Service, Boland, the Melvin and Bill Lane Professor and director of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program and the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities, describes her latest work, shares aspects of her writing process and discusses her relationship to the question of identity.
The volume’s title suggests the impossibility of having a single national identity. Can you say more about that?
National identity is complicated by many things. Mainly I think by who has access to it, and who doesn’t. I’ve often said this, but I do believe there is a real difference between history and the past. History is an official version in which people’s names are written. The past on the other hand is a place of whispers and gestures and names that are often not recognized, and identities that will not be remembered, and lives that are hidden. I think many women in different societies think of themselves as living in the past rather than in history. It’s because of that, and because of my own family history, that this sequence of poems came about.
You use a short prose interlude to set up some of the poems in A Woman Without a Country. How does your prose work impact your poetry?
In my 20s, I learned to write prose fairly fast. I learned it mostly through journalism, writing for newspapers and literary reviews that had deadlines. Partly through that I developed an unsuperstitious relationship to prose that I still have. I often set out to write a prose essay that, in some way, extends the argument of a poem, but in a different way. By and large, the poem is not an argumentative form. You can be argumentative in poetry, but there’s a risk factor to doing that. By contrast, you can be argumentative in prose. In a book called Object Lessons (1995), and another called A Journey with Two Maps (2011), that’s what I thought of myself as doing. I wanted to argue the case for what it was like to be a young woman in a country where the images of women in the poetry were often fixed and inert: They were queens and sibyls or signifiers of Irish nationhood rather than real women with real lives. Prose allowed me to set out on those kinds of speculations.
Did writing A Woman Without a Country change your writing process in any way?
My process is more or less consistent. In this book there’s a title sequence. I’ve always been interested in sequences. I think sequences of individual poems can sometimes use the spaces between them in a productive way, so that as you go from poem to poem there are unseen possibilities emerging, or images emerging. In this case, I use pieces of prose between the poems as well. Those pieces are in fact fragmentary quotes from Object Lessons. I liked the idea of some kind of collage making a bridge between my earlier and later experience.
You use simile really playfully in the poem “As” and throughout the book, eliding it in some places, elevating it in others. Can you say more about the way you use simile and metaphor in this collection?
By and large I don’t like similes, which I know is not an orthodox view. But I’ve come to think of them as if they were like the appendix in the body, which is said to be an outdated physical part. In that way, similes seem to me outdated. They migrated from epic structures, and the great old similes in those epics were communally accepted in a way they never could be now. When Virgil says in the Aeneid that the young dead are lying on the bank of the river like the birds that fly from the warmth to the cold, it’s obvious that nobody listening could have known what the underworld looked like. But everybody in Mantua must have known what those birds looked like. In poetry, with all its progressions, we’re no longer always able to avail of those communal buy-ins. That poem “As” is intended as some kind of a critique of how we use similes.
I think of metaphor in a different way. Maybe like this, to give an example: Just supposing you and I went into a room. We’re anxious to see a person there that we’d known as a teacher who was important to us. Someone we looked to as knowledgeable and exemplary. So we go to this plainly furnished room. There’s not much furniture except a table and chairs and a beautiful old bowl that has a crack in it. The person we’ve come to see is there and we begin the conversation. But as it goes on, we start to notice things. The person is forgetful, is losing key words and names, doesn’t remember what we shared with them. We begin to realize that some part of the core of this personality is impaired. But we have no way of exchanging that knowledge. We can hardly access it ourselves. And then we look at the crack in the beautiful bowl. Just for that moment it carries the meaning for us, when we ourselves are only starting to process it. That I think is the power of metaphor. It works through revealed meaning, not meaning created through comparison like the simile. I think of metaphor as essential, in a way I don’t think simile can be.
Do you have a favorite poem from the collection?
I like a poem at the beginning of the book called “The Lost Art of Letter Writing.” It points to something that was almost a cultural history in Ireland: the letters emigrants wrote home, which over generations became forgotten or discarded.
Is there anything that you would want a reader who’s arriving to A Woman Without a Country to know going in?
No. Because I think you can never prescribe the way readers come to books of poetry. They’ll find what they find.
Erik Fredner is a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Stanford Humanities Center website.