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This item is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Eavan Boland is a poet of rivers, of the Iowa River and of the Thames, of the Hudson and particularly of the River Liffey. ‘O swan by swan my heart goes down / Through Dublin town, through Dublin town’ she wrote in 1962, when she was eighteen and had already begun her journey. New Collected Poems read chronologically traces a development now incremental, now momentous. The distance between the young Irish poet composing ‘Liffeytown’ and ‘The Liffey beyond Islandbridge’ and the poet of A Woman Without a Country is instructive. Her stable yet evolving example is useful to poets and readers; stage by stage she writes her way into a resistant tradition she values. That resistance proves energising. She writes now, as she has for four decades, in a space she has cleared for herself and for other poets and readers.

Her poems are never instrumental: truthfulness is not, as in Adrienne Rich, whose work she fervently advocates, primarily to the moment. Feminism she says is ‘an enabling perception but it’s not an aesthetic one. The poem is a place – at least for me – where all kinds of certainties stop. All sorts of beliefs, convictions, certainties get left on that threshold. I couldn’t be a feminist poet. Simply because the poem is a place of experience and not a place of convictions…’.

Although Eavan, unlike Donald Davie and C.H. Sisson, was never an editor of PN Review, she has for more than three decades been part of its editorial consciousness and conscience. It would have been a different journal without her. Many of her major poems, essays and interviews have appeared in these pages. Beyond that contribution, she is an advocate, alerting me to younger Irish writers and American poets – among them Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Bridget Pegeen Kelly and Kay Ryan – whose work I needed to know. As an editor I could not do without her. As a reader also, and a friend these almost forty years. And so we gratefully mark her seventieth birthday in these pages. Jody Allen Randolph and I invited contributors to respond to work that they most value. Eavan herself contributes the title sequence of her new collection, an eponymous essay, and a major new interview.

In PN Review 2 (1978) Stan Smith reviewed her early collection The War Horse. Published by Gollancz, the book cost £2. Smith’s review included John Montague’s A Slow Dance (Dolmen Press via Oxford University Press, £1.75) and Seamus Heaney’s North (Faber, £1.25). It was the first time her name was mentioned in these pages, a time when Heaney was news and Dolmen Press was still a major purveyor of Irish writing, and when poetry collections cost £2 or less.

Eavan made the first of her own more than forty contributions to PN Review seven years later (PNR 41) with the poem, ‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’:

This is the story of a man and woman
under a willow and beside a weir
near a river in a wooded clearing.
They are fugitives. Intimates of myth.

The poem at once tells and reflects upon its story, then enjoins us boldly:


the scene returns. The willow sees itself
drowning in the weir and the woman
gives the kiss of myth her human heat.

That human heat, applied from without, elicits from the intimate and from the narrative itself an answering heat. Evoking elements of myth, legend and history, Eavan’s poems revive their inherent human heat: poetry as a restorative act, acknowledgement, justice done, sometimes through narrative, through objects in a defining context, or through silences and gaps which the reader must fill.

A gap she revisits in her own life is located in childhood, exiled from Ireland. The idyllic worlds of some of her Irish contemporaries are for her remote: hers is more a labour of reclamation. Much of her childhood was spent abroad where her father was a diplomat. She was brought up in London from the age of six to twelve, and she was not happy. ‘Some of the feelings I recognise as having migrated into themes I keep going back to – exile, types of estrangement, a relation to objects – began there.’ When she did return to Ireland, attending Trinity College, Dublin, she encountered the ‘genderless poem’ that was expected of the woman writer. Her complex engagement with her contemporary culture began in earnest. In time, she broke away physically and imaginatively. ‘I went to the suburbs. I married. I had two children.’ Her experience was not accounted for in the poetry around her. ‘Night Feed is the book I could have been argued out of, if I had let myself listen to what was around me.’

In the suburbs she discovered ‘that what went into the Irish poem and what stayed outside it was both tense and hazardous for an Irish woman poet.’ Irish women have to negotiate from being objects in the Irish poem to being authors of it. ‘I began to know that I had to bring the poem I’d learned to write near to the life I was starting to live. And that if anything had to yield in that process, it was the poem not the life.’

The challenge has changed, but what she said about Outside History (1990) remains a challenge to herself as to her readers. ‘Here I was in a different ethical area. Writing about the lost, the voiceless, the silent. And exploring my relation to them. And – more dangerous still – feeling my ways into the powerlessness of an experience through the power of expressing it. This wasn’t an area of artistic experiment. It was an area of ethical imagination, where you had to be sure, every step of the way – every word and every line – that it was good faith and good poetry. And it couldn’t be one without the other. There is very little technical experiment in Outside History.’

This item is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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