Belonging

John Kerrigan

  • The ‘O’o’a’a’ Bird by Justin Quinn
    Carcanet, 69 pp, £7.95, March 1995, ISBN 1 85754 125 1
  • Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time by Eavan Boland
    Carcanet, 254 pp, £18.95, April 1995, ISBN 1 85754 074 3
  • Collected Poems by Eavan Boland
    Carcanet, 217 pp, £9.95, November 1995, ISBN 1 85754 220 7
  • Captain Lavender by Medbh McGuckian
    Gallery Press, 83 pp, £11.95, November 1994, ISBN 1 85235 142 X

In Irish poetry, from Ó Rathaille to the rebel songs, a paradigmatic encounter recurs. Up on a hill, or down by the glenside, the poet meets a woman who celebrates Ireland’s pastand speaks of national redemption. This emblematic figure, often glimpsed in a vision or ‘aisling’, can be a glamorous maiden awaiting her Stuart prince, but she also appears as the ‘poor old woman’ of the patriotic ballads. Whether praising the sacrifices of ‘the bold Fenian men’ or complaining (after 1921) of the bondage which shackles one of her ‘four green fields’, this plangent yet bloodthirsty crone is as worn a cultural token as those related feminine stereotypes, Dark Rosaleen and Cathleen Ní Houlihan. In the rapidly modernising Ireland of satellite TV and legalised divorce, she might seem an exhausted figment. Remarkably, however, the Shan Van Vocht keeps cropping up in verse, as though poets hoped that renewed encounters could release the energies still locked in archaic nationalism, and clarify relations between patriotic sentiment and sexual politics.

Justin Quinn tries to get to the bottom of this phenomenon in his lively first collection, The ‘O’o’a’a’ Bird. The pale, red-haired beauty of his ‘Ur-Aisling’ is so thoroughly archetypal that she appears ‘when the world had not yet happened’ and invites the poet to create ‘a nation’:

So I thought ‘Fine!’ and did the lot.
First I laid mythologies
Like slabs across the open land,
Then infrastructure and nostalgias
Unto completion. The hour was late.

She came again, now changed with time,
Which shocked me, but still beautiful.
‘You have usurped my power and name –
Your work misjudged, these people pitiful.’
I shrugged. ‘So usurp it back again.’

Although a Dubliner, Quinn works in Prague, and the sequence from which ‘Ur-Aisling’ comes – ‘Days of the New Republic’ – refers as much to the new Czech state as it does to modern Eire. Quinn’s book shows how a growing awareness of the European dimension of Irish history can defuse the obsession with perfidious Albion and establish parallels between events in Ireland and the emergence of other small states. Certainly, in his Prague aisling, nostalgia is regarded sceptically, as something imposed for the sake of nation formation, and the ageing maiden or ‘seanbhean’ can only undo the present by an act of usurpation.

In the most vivid recent treatment of the topic, the Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill transfers ‘An tSeanbhean Bhocht’ to an old folks’ home. With her ‘faded cornflower blue ... eye’ fixed on ‘the bright days of her youth’, the seanbhean devotes herself in Ciaran Carson’s 1990 translation to ‘lamenting all the halcyon monotony of that pluperfect time’. Ní Dhomhnaill’s quarrel with this figure is not just that in the past men were hanged and ‘mowed down / In their hundreds’ when they answered her imperious call, but that, these days, although she’s decrepit, she still expects trays of cucumber sandwiches and tea served in silver and china. The likes of Emmet and Pearse may no longer be executed for her sake, but in an Ireland which is still conservative in the role it allots to women, ‘chits of girls’ and ‘hussies’ must wait on her hand and foot, and only get grumbles for thanks. In a hard-pressed and resentful ending, the poet says (in literal translation) that she’ll do ‘anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet’. Carson makes his own feelings clear by rendering this, more toughly: ‘anything at all / To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.’

The issues raised by Quinn and Ní Dhomhnaill bear heavily on certain writers who share their gender with the Shan Van Vocht. Eavan Boland, in particular, identifies a double-bind. Maintaining that Irish poets must work in a tradition shaped by nationalism, she observes that the native line is short of women writers. When poets who happen to be women look to the Irish past for models, what they find are texts composed by men in which female experience is suppressed because the feminine so often signifies the nation. Accusing Irish poets of betrayal in the past, Boland goes on to identify a dilemma with paradigmatic implications for contemporary poetry, given that so many once silent groups now clamour for self-representation. When an Irish woman attempts to rewrite the inherited poem, Boland argues, she has to square the circle of authoring a structure in which she tacitly appears as an object, an appropriated emblem. Many of the finest pieces in her Collected Poems explore this difficulty, bringing new kinds of material into Irish verse and experimenting with points of view. And the creative labour of recovery and invention is explicated and extended in the often impressive essays which are gathered in Object Lessons.

At the heart of both books lies Boland’s encounter, when she was a student, with a poor old woman. During a spring vacation on Achill, in retreat from Trinity College Dublin where she had done less than brilliantly in her first-year exams, Boland found herself talking to the caretaker of her cottage. As she explains in the essay ‘Outside History’, she ‘sensed’, at the time, ‘a power in the encounter’. Now it strikes her with the force of a delayed epiphany:

I can see her still. She has a tea towel round her waist – perhaps this is one image that has become all the images I have of her – she wears an old cardigan and her hands are blushing with cold as she puts down the bucket. Sometimes we talk inside the door of the cottage. Once, I remember, we stood there as the dark grew all around us and I could see stars beginning to curve in the stream behind us.

This woman is an emblem of all the realities abstracted from the seanbhean-as-Erin. She stands for the sufferings of ordinary folk – not least because, according to Boland, ‘she was the first person to talk to me about the Famine.’ And the criticism of bardic stereotyping implicit in her cold-handed presence goes along with retrospective hostility towards the influence of an alien culture. The final twist of the knife, in Boland’s guilty recollection, is that, after talking to the caretaker, she resumed her study of 16th-century English court poetry: ‘I turned my back on her in that cold twilight and went to commit to memory the songs and artifices of the very power systems which had made her own memory such an archive of loss.’

In ‘The Achill Woman’ – the poem which begins Boland’s verse-cycle ‘Outside History’ – the same information is redeployed, sometimes in the same words. Boland began her career in the Sixties by crossing Yeats with the Movement poets, and though her technique has developed, her poems are often still most accomplished when close to discursive prose. In ‘The Achill Woman’, she handles the line with typical decorum, employing a deliberated free verse with bounds set by steady end-stopping and the ghost of an alternate rhyme scheme. Towards the end of the poem, however, she launches an extended sentence which, while it is kept in touch with prose by the up-front matter-of-factness of initial ‘and’ and ‘the’, rises to cosmic grandeur. This move towards involving the planets in the young Boland’s encounter with the old woman is nicely ironised by the way in which the poet’s belated rejection of harmonious servitude to English court culture is written in lines which themselves strike an elegantly Elizabethan note:

but nothing now can change the way I went
indoors, chilled by the wind
and made a fire
and took down my book
and opened it and failed to comprehend

the harmonies of servitude,
the grace music gives to flattery
and language borrows from ambition –

and how I fell asleep
oblivious to

the planets clouding over in the skies,
the slow decline of the spring moon,
the songs crying out their ironies.

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