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This item is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

On 27 April I wrote to friends and colleagues. ‘You may have heard that Eavan Boland died today in Dublin of a stroke. She was seventy-five. It is an enormous loss for Irish poetry and Irish literature more widely. It is also a loss for PN Review and Carcanet. Eavan has contributed some of the best poems we have published to the magazine; she has suggested we consider many key poets down the years, new and old. Just last week we resolved the contract for her new, and now her last, book.’

Robyn Marsack, fresh from editing Fifty Fifty: Carcanet’s Jubilee in Letters, noted how, ‘when I was looking through the archives, I saw that correspondence about her own work was brief, but about others she wrote with feeling and generosity. Her advocacy and example have been so important to Irish literary culture and to ours at PNR and Carcanet.’

I have wondered how to write adequately about her, in particular her place in PN Review which she radically redirected, not by design but by example.

She first came to my attention in a rather disobliging review by Stan Smith entitled ‘Escaped from the Massacre’, published PNR 2 (January 1978). Smith had three not entirely new books in his sights: Boland’s The War Horse, published in 1975, John Montague’s A Slow Dance, and North by Seamus Heaney.
… Even in the work of Eavan Boland, the most ‘literary’ of these poets, an anxious ‘unformed fear / Of fierce commitment’ in the title poem vies with a deeper impulse, of a ‘blood … stilled / With atavism’, and their struggle calls up ‘A cause ruined before, a world betrayed’. The self-congratulatory relief that the war-horse has passed them by conceals its own guilty critique: ‘No great harm is done. / Only a leaf of our laurel hedge is torn / Of distant interest like a maimed limb.’ Violence often infiltrates Boland’s poems as a Marvellian ‘conceit’, which ‘stamps death / Like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth’ […]. Her verse is haunted by a distance which is perpetually closing in, foreclosing perspectives and the ‘distant interest’ of middle-class Dublin, which, despite television, cannot displace violence till it ‘Heals into an Irish myth’…

And he quotes from her poem ‘Naoise at Four’:
… each suburban, modern detail
Distances us from old lives,
Old deaths, but nightly on our screen
New ones are lost, wounds open,
And I despair of what perspective
On this sudden Irish fury
Will solve it to a folk memory.

Smith notes the ‘decorous sublimation of violence into metaphor’ in these lines, how in the end ‘faction’ is resolved in ‘fiction’ – a ‘domestic pastoral in which a couple though ‘Defeated’ nonetheless survives, ‘we two, housed/together in my compromise, my craft/who are of one another the first draft’. But she also evinces, says Smith, ‘a resentful paranoia’ which ‘gives a deeper resonance to the poem’…

The agenda of the review was established by Heaney’s poems and themes, not Boland’s; and Heaney and Montague dominate Smith’s concerns. Boland had some way to go, certainly, before the ground she occupied was her own. Years later, on the website A Smartish Pace, she described where she started, where she found she was going:
I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. […] Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’. […] I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.

It was a challenge to herself, and also to readership, which would need to adjust to a presence not new but unacknowledged: the language of poetry and poetry criticism had not accommodated it. In the editorial to the last issue of Poetry Ireland Review which she edited, she wrote, without reserve or irony, ‘The life of the poet is always a summons to try to set down some truth that was once true and will go on being true. No poet should have to worry about the public respect, or the lack of it, in which this art is held.’ A writer who created new spaces for poems and poets, she knew whereof she spoke. Lasting change to an art is not achieved abruptly, by protest or ideological rhetoric. It issues from integrity of purpose and creative and critical persistence, from the development of language and form, and from kinds of exemplary persuasion that enable. Writing in the Irish Times the week before she died she said:
When I teach, there are always books I recommend to students. My chief category, however, is just this: books I wish I’d read when I was younger. I don’t think I knew when I was a student that books don’t just engage you. They change you. Long after the book is closed you take those changes with you into your life, where they continue to instruct it. They alter what you know and add to it. You may well read the book later. But those mysterious changes you never get back. I wish I’d understood that sooner.

It is an understanding she imparted through her generous advocacies of poets as a critic, editor and translator.

Eight years after Stan Smith’s review she first contributed to PN Review, issue 41: the poem ‘Listen: this is the Noise of Myth’. She did some reviewing, and then came the transformative contributions, starting with the poem ‘Outside History’, followed six months later by an essay of the same title. It was writing that changed me, ‘and I took those changes with me into my life, where they continue to instruct it’. In all, she contributed to the magazine forty-seven times in her own voice. I cannot say how many times she is present by suggestion or simply by her example, which persists.

Her death was widely reported in Ireland, America, Britain and elsewhere. Civic and literary tributes can be found on line passim. What I can add is this account, from a vivid letter from Paula Meehan (whose work Eavan advocated to me and edited for Carcanet) about her funeral during the Irish lockdown. The email is headed, simply, ‘Sorrow’.
We watched Eavan’s funeral on a webcam from her parish church in Dundrum. It was surreally beautiful and moving. Kevin [Casey, Eavan’s husband], Eavan’s two daughters and their husbands and the four grandchildren along with two older women, the priest and a helper. All socially distancing but the children were lively and vocal. […] I think Eavan would have appreciated the starkness and simplicity. Her daughters read a poem each and spoke about her as mother, as grandmother and expressed their pride in her achievements. Eavan Frances read ‘And Soul’, the poem about Eavan’s last visit to her own dying mother Frances.

If the Covid conditions did not prevail it would have been a huge affair with a deal of protocol, between state representation and emissaries of Official Ireland. There was something quintessentially Eavan about the proceeding: keeping it real.

Funerals here are reserved to ten participants and we cannot move more than two kilometres from home. This is heavily policed. Though neighbours all line the roads & salute & applaud from their gardens, as we witnessed here in our own neighbourhood last week when a young man died from a cancer he’d been fighting for the last seven years. That experience was profoundly moving, and I imagine Eavan’s last journey in her neighbourhood, a zone she has scribed so deeply into the minds of her readers, was equally affecting.

And Paula adds to the social media ‘torrent of stories of Eavan’s support and friendship and mentorship’ one of her own, characteristic and memorable:
I was walking down Grafton Street with her a few years ago and we passed a street poet reciting & she put 20 quid in his hand when he stopped for breath. Typical. I can’t tell you how often she had my back especially at really toxic moments when I was getting a lot of flac out there in the culture. She would find a subtle way to tip the scales back and challenge the attacks. She was, as we say, legend.

Her final collection, The Historians, will be published in the autumn. The seventh part of the seven-part title poem is ‘The Historians’:
Say the word history: I see
your mother, mine.
The light sober, the summer well over,
an east wind dandling leaves, rain stirring at the kerb.

Their hands are full of words.
One of them holds your father’s journal with its note
written on the day you were born.
The other my small rhymed scratchings, my fervent letters.

Before the poem ends
they will have burned them all.

Now say the word again. Summon
our island: a story that needed to be told –
the patriots still bleeding in the lithographs
when we were born. Those who wrote that story
laboured to own it. They sifted it in ink to be recoverable
in print, so we could read it, believe it.

But these are women we loved.
Record-keepers with a different task.
To stop memory becoming history.
To stop words healing what should not be healed.

It is cold. The light is going.
They kneel now behind their greenhouses,
beneath whichever tree is theirs.

The leaves shift down.
Each of them puts a match to the paper. Then
they put their hands close to the flame.
They feel the first bite of the wind.
They lace their pages with fire. I finish writing.

This item is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

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