A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet by Eavan Boland

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet by Eavan Boland

“This is a book about being and becoming. It is about being a poet. It is also about the long process of becoming one. If these seem in the wrong order there is a reason: the disorder is part of my subject. There is nothing settled about a poet’s identity. The becoming doesn’t stop because the being has been achieved. They proceed together, attached in ways that are hard to be exact about. For that reason, this is not a scholarly book. I did not approach my subject by finding facts. I approached it by finding myself.”

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet by Eavan Boland

This book was such a challenge for me. Eavan Boland is one of the poets I studied when I was doing my MA in Irish studies. However, I’ve only read one of her books of poetry, The Bronze Serpent, plus various poems I’ve stumbled across on the internet. I find her work challenging, provocative, enigmatic, obscure, and yet also rich and beautiful and alluring.

This book is a series of essays, many previously published elsewhere. It’s not exactly a memoir, though the first part of it is about her life and her journey– the focus throughout is on her inner journey as a poet and engagement with the poetic tradition. The second half of the book is a series of essays about various female poets. the book ends with a ‘Letter to a Young Woman Poet’.

I’m a woman and a poet, but my worldview and concerns are so very different from hers. A gulf separates us broader than the Atlantic ocean. She’s 30 years older than I am and she’s Irish whereas I’m American. And my life growing up in Texas in the 70s and 80s is very different than her life growing up as the child of an Irish diplomat in the 40s and 50s. But it’s more than just the distances of time and space. Maybe partly it’s personality and a difference in what we each value and how we think, but I can’t help but think there’s something more. Something I’m missing.

Her poetry is very concerned with Irish identity and public life and her book is very concerned with how she as a woman poet made a place for herself in a poetic tradition which didn’t really seem to have a place for a woman. There are so many tensions she experiences which are just foreign to me. I grew up with so many female poets on my radar. And I’ve noticed that poetry in Ireland has a much more civic dimension and that poetry is much more part of Irish public life. Poets seem to matter much more in Irish consciousness than they do in the US. And she is also much more concerned with feminist thought in general– with women’s history and women’s place in history and in the literary tradition. Whereas for me feminism has always been a narrative that I’ve been told is important, that I should care about. And yet, while it undoubtedly has shaped me and my life, it has never been an important preoccupation for me. More often it’s something to push against than a way of thinking that draws me. It pursues me. I do not pursue it.

Boland’s essays are all of them fascinating, but I often feel like I’m threading my way through a cave with only a dim candle, barely able to make out the features she’s trying to get me to notice. She assumes a lot of knowledge, understanding, points of view. It feels like I’ve just walked into a room and she’s continuing a conversation that I’m completely unaware of and am trying to piece together what was said before I came in, but I just don’t have enough information. (Maybe it’s an Irish conversation, maybe it’s a feminist conversation, maybe it’s just her own internal monologue?) And yet that very feature makes this book compelling to me.

“Both these parts of the book are held together by a single thread: I have come to believe the journey towards being and becoming a poet cannot happen with one set of directions only. Or, to use the figure I choose here, one map. It seems obvious that the ideas of composition or canonicity should never be privileged over even one poem whose voice or style is a challenge. The poem takes precedence. And yet that very precedence can prove disruptive to previous understandings of poetry.

Therefore this book unfolds the idea of those two maps. I still believe many poets begin in fear and hope: fear that the poetic past will turn out to be a monologue rather than a conversation. And hope that their voice can be heard as that past turns into a future. The first map I followed included a detailed description of the past. The second one provided directions for the future of that voice, and for a new relationship with that past.”

I’m still not entirely sure I understand he controlling image of the two maps. What are these maps and how do they help her to make sense of her world, both inner and outer? I don’t think I quite grasp it. Is one map her personal past and the other map the poetic tradition? Is one map her personal past and the other the work of the female poets she didn’t discover until later, after she’d already been formed by an exclusively male tradition? Is one map every poet’s personal experience and the other a collective experience? She never quite comes out and says what the two maps are and no matter how many times I re-read the section in which she introduces the idea, I still feel befuddled. Maybe I’m just a poor reader? Maybe she’s being intentionally obscure? But it doesn’t seem like she thinks she’s being obscure– though she acknowledge from the beginning that there is a disorder in her subject matter. It seems like she thinks she’s being crystal clear and therefore it feels to me that I am failing as a reader. Is it her failure or mine? Or is it not a failure at all, but a deliberate confusion? I kept reading the book hoping for an answer, and at the end I’m not less confused but more. And yet I want to keep re-reading until it makes sense to me. (But it’s a library book and it needs to go back tomorrow. Do I care enough to buy my own copy to wrestle with?)

There is something almost mystical in the way Boland discusses poetry. And yet not at all mystical. It feels often vague and amorphous and constantly shifting. But she doesn’t seem very concerned at all with faith and belief, religion and mysticism– except inasmuch as it’s impossible to completely separate Irish identity from religion. But faith isn’t one of Boland’s poetic concerns. Yet when she talks about poetry I often feel like I do when listening to someone talk about faith who is completely outside my own faith tradition. It’s not just a matter of vocabulary and terms, it’s also about a completely alien worldview. And yet it seems like Boland’s worldview shouldn’t be so alien. I’ve been a student of Irish literature for two decades. I am a woman and I’ve been a poet much of my life. So why does she feel so strange and unsettling? Perhaps this is why I found the book so absorbing: trying to enter into her mind, her world, herself and to see and understand a person who is so completely unlike myself.

Boland writes:

“The first women poets I found were from other countries. Their work filled up the silences that troubled me at home….
… To mark my early discoveries, most of the poems here are not Irish. But I never forgot in reading them– not for one moment– that I was. I make it plain that I understood these texts again and again through my Irishness. They were most often observed through the lens of my life as a woman and poet in a small country most of their authors had never seen: and yet they helped live it.”

I’m not Irish and maybe I’d have to be Irish to really understand where Boland is coming from. But I want to understand because it feels important. One thing is certain, reading this book has made me want to write more. I find myself responding to her narratives with narratives of my own. Narratives that explain and explore why I am so different. Narratives that explain to myself who I am and why I am. Why I write what I write and what I hope to achieve. Boland sharpens me, pushes me, prods me. And for all of that I am ever so grateful. I think I never shall be done with her. But I also wonder how much time I can spend trying to enter her world.

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