After a botched Japanese final oral and extreme procrastination on my final English essay, I’m officially finished with my regular semester classes! I have four finals scheduled for next week, but I’m thankful for the end of a difficult four months. I wrote this 10 page essay about two poems by Irish poet Eavan Boland and I hope you enjoy reading it!
Revered Irish poet Eavan Boland illustrates the complex dual identities behind her existence- one of doting motherhood and the other of free feminism in her two pieces “The Women” and “Suburban Woman: Another Detail”. Throughout her poetry, Boland invites the reader in to the deepest, most intimate parts of her life, sharing her experiences like housewarming gifts, marking the importance of the monotonous. Boland often metaphorically dissociates from herself in the pieces, zooming out of each scene and focusing on another woman’s life. Grappling with her love for her children and longing for an escape from domestic life, Boland’s poetry exposes the difficult balance between the two worlds she loves.
Each poem opens at sundown- the liminal locale bridging the hours between day and night with domesticity and wanderlust. Dusk is Boland’s crucial writing period, the moment she claims is the, “neither here-nor-there hour of evening,” (The Women, line 2). Recording the time of day in each piece is essential as Boland narrates the differences in her life prior to and following sundown. In “The Women”, Boland finds tranquility in “the hour I love” (1), illustrating her surroundings with meticulous detail, almost as if she were painting an exquisite canvas for the reader. Boland lends the audience her rose-colored glasses by washing the scene in a feminine hue, preparing the way for the female-focused stories ahead. She describes the world feet away from her window by writing, “the air is tea-colored in the garden. / The briar rose is spilled crepe-de-Chine,” (3-4). Boland uses domestic materials such as tea and silk to dress the setting, examining every aspect of her world through a homemaker’s lens. Although the natural biotic features of the surrounding ambiance are beautiful, Boland is too occupied by her numerous tasks to truly immerse herself in the rosy environment. In “Suburban Woman: Another Detail”, Boland describes the same hour of day in a darker tone, saying, “And the neighbourhood / is the colour of shadow, / the colour of stone,” (Suburban Woman: Another Detail, lines 2-4). The charcoal accents hint that the woman in the poem is less satisfied with her climate than the main character in “The Women”. Boland plays with color schemes in both pieces, relying on the pigments to set each mood. In “The Women”, the beauty of the in-between hour, although compared to domestic objects, feels almost tangible. Boland creates a portrait of freedom and female curiosity just out of the protagonist’s reach. The early stages of sunset oppose the darkness flooding “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” as its main character watches the hours pass through the night, seemingly stuck in her domestic shadow. Though separated by time and place, both women seem to long for that beyond the household, the possibilities dusk brings, the lives just beyond their grasps.
Boland introduces the concept of simultaneously living in two worlds as one woman assiduously declutters her household while another romanticizes sweet moments with her child. In “The Women”, Boland portrays a busy mother, passionate about two lives, when she writes,
This is the time I do my work best, Going up the stairs in two minds, in two worlds, carrying cloth or glass, leaving something behind, bringing something with me I should have left behind, (5-9).
The woman featured is a familiar image to many exhausted moms, running between different rooms and floors of the house in an attempt to cultivate order. She transports numerous objects as she fluctuates from room to room, picking up pieces she may have forgotten earlier. Boland depicts the woman as a mother downstairs, collecting her children and their scattered belongings like dandelion seeds in the wind. Upstairs, she is a poet- no more and no less. Perhaps the woman’s desk and writing possessions live a floor above, her ideas yearning to sit in their present home. The image of a mother stuck between two worlds and two minds is reminiscent of the in-between evening hour as the woman is unable to claim both her time and place of belonging. She is forced to juggle multiple hats, recognizing her child or children’s needs before her own desires. “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” tells a different story, however, imagining a peaceful scenery with a mother burning incense at her desk while envisioning another woman living her life. She says,
Here at my desk I imagine wintry air and the smart of peat. And an uncurtained front room where another woman is living my life. Another woman is lifting my child, (5-10).
The mother appears to dissociate from herself, allowing her mind to wander into another life. Although the poem began under dark pretenses, the imagery takes a smooth turn through the woman’s imagination. As she imagines another woman acquiring her life, Boland watches the new mother figure in her daily tasks. In the middle of the poem, the mother imagines the unfamiliar woman, “Is setting her down. / Is cutting her oily rind from a lemon. / Is crushing that smell against the skin of her fingers,” (11-13). This scene is an especially direct look at this woman’s life, almost making the reader uncomfortable with its intimate look into someone else’s every day activities. In the picture, Boland uses repetition to show the step by step actions mothers often take. “The Women” uses a similar poetic tactic by illustrating the ease of which the woman gathers misplaced belongings while climbing up and down, up and down the stairs. The beauty of each woman’s life is highlighted in her climb from one room, or life, to another.
Metamorphosis drives the middle passages of each poem as both women shuffle through other existences. The mother in “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” continues her dreamlike sequence of picturing another woman inserting herself into the picture as she depicts her zoomed in activities with a lens through which the audience is uneasily peering. Boland’s simple diction and snapshots of familiar homely items conveys a reminiscent tone, one of classic and common familial scenes: breaking bread over the dining table, mugs of hot chocolate clinking in front of the wintry fire, resting listless eyes in the breast of a life giver. Boland trades her wooden workspace for an inquisitive crawler, shedding her skin in favor of new limbs. The woman’s actions are once again narrated as Boland writes, “She goes to my door and closes it. / Goes to my window and pulls the curtain slowly,” (14-15). Boland purposefully leaves the word ‘she’ out of the second line, instead articulating the leisurely drag with separated diction. Boland successfully illustrates beauty in the simplicity of menial everyday tasks by positioning herself in another body and frame of mind. Although the woman’s to-do list stretches on, Boland shows the reader how comforting and pleasing simple motherhood can be. The mother in “The Women” appears to envision physical transformations through her written art rather than in her love for homemaking as Boland writes,
My time of sixth sense and second sight when in the words I choose, the lines I write, they rise like visions and appear to me: women of work, of leisure, of the night, in stove-colored silks, in lace, in nothing, with crewel needles, with books, with wide open legs, (12-17).
In the stanza, Boland prepares the piece for a dramatic shift in perspective, seasoning the story with antithetical beings of differing status. Poetry gives the woman an escape from her cluttered life, opening what seems like a supernatural portal into other lives. Boland lends her main character a Big Brother-inspired omnipotence through which she can liberate herself in a parallel world. The stanza features three different women Boland’s protagonist transforms into: the working class woman, an upper class socialite, and a prostitute. Relating diction to character, Boland incorporates, “in stove colored silks, in lace, in nothing,” (16) as modern scarlet letters, physical brandings used only to stigmatize each woman with her social status. Boland cleverly continues by adding, “with crewel needles, with books, with wide open legs,” (17) with each object highlighting the stereotypical belongings of each respective female character. Often in history, women have been defined by their physical presence and prestige, their value found only in their wealth or power. Boland is drawing critical attention to the aforementioned fact by pulling the reader to each woman’s side, examining her story in the flesh and forcing the flow of empathy for every personal anecdote. The simplicity of the mother’s tasks in “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” directly contrasts Boland’s candor in framing the classist divided only by their social acceptance.
Boland uses her poetry as historical documentation, revealing untold biographies of everyday people in a storytelling fashion. Experiencing the infamous Irish conflicts as a child, Boland encountered biased archives focusing on the religious male-centric struggles. Hidden from published records are the daily experiences and strife of mothers and other female characters. Just as the winners write the history books, most consolidated documents neglect portions of people throughout the decades. Although Boland’s account in “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” seems monotonous and insignificant, she is shedding light on an otherwise forgotten group of people: mothers. In the poem, she recounts,
The kitchen, the child she lifts again and holds are all mine: and all the time the bitter, citric fragrance stays against her skin, (16-20).
By retelling an infinitesimal portion of the woman’s life, Boland is crafting a new definition of history. Textbooks may focus only on the bloody battles, devastating genocides, and world-changing achievements of pale men in petticoats, but Boland wants to rewrite the narrative in favor of the smaller folk. If all life stems from the soul of women, why not share their stories more often? Boland continues on the historical path in “The Women” as she recalls a famed fable in Greek mythology- the rape of Europa by Zeus. In the myth, the maiden is violently defiled by Greek god Zeus who takes the form of a bull. Boland incorporates the legend when she writes,
who fled the hot breath of the god pursuing, who ran from the split hoof and the thick lips and fell and grieved and healed into myth, (18-20).
Throughout history and in modern day, women have been used as bartering tools, their dignities and bodies violated by society and the men it empowers. Following a brutal assault or public suffering, the women are forced to quietly grieve and progress. Europa’s defecation is rarely remembered, but the world never forgets Zeus in all his golden glory, an untouchable god among men. While Greek myths remain library classics, the rape of Europa is revived in the grieving of black mothers succeeding their worst nightmares- losing children to police brutality or other forms of violence. Unwillingly tortured in silence, these mothers face the ultimate grief as their misfortune often goes unpunished. Boland illustrates the struggle when she says, “and fell and grieved and healed into myth,” (20), acknowledging the world’s expectation of women to gracefully move on after tragedies occur. Boland doesn’t include commas in the line, compelling the reader to skim the cataclysmic fragment without the tug of pathos. Noting Europa’s suffering “healed into myth”, Boland is recognizing how feminine pain is often marginalized by becoming a footnote in the great story. Rewriting Europa’s story allows Boland to etch her history in stone, erasing the idea that successful male interactions are of greater importance than female grief. Boland doesn’t let Europa become a background character, but instead, reclaims her femininity and agency in speaking her tragedy into existence. In a similar manner, Boland includes the brief and seemingly uninteresting morsel of the mother’s daily life in “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” by supporting the woman’s equally paramount existence to that of both Europa and Zeus himself. Although both passages appear uneven in gravity, Boland wants the reader to discover the brilliance of hidden historical figures. Bridging the gap between supernatural and menial, Boland fortunately accomplishes her task of re-crafting the concept of history and what it means to be worthy of historical publishing.
Boland closes her writings by folding introduced stories into themselves, reclaiming her agency and disavowing victimhood using comparative imagery to recall landscapes and moments she once loved. Revisiting the myth of Zeus and Europa, Boland rejects the opportunity to become a female martyr, instead choosing to strip any power from Zeus and become the identifying all-powerful character in a story of her own. In “The Women”, she announces,
into me in the evening at my desk testing the water with a sweet quartet, the physical force of a dissonance— the fission of music into syllabic heat— and getting sick of it and standing up and going downstairs in the last brightness, (20-25).
Boland requests the stories infiltrate her being, naming them director in her one woman written play. Using metamorphosis, Boland’s main character transforms from the heat of Zeus’ bull mouth back into the crippling mother conflicted between two worlds. By identifying with Zeus in the passage, Boland refuses to obtain Europa’s defiled mind, instead trading the victim for the will of the conquering beast. The same victimized maiden disappears from the remainder of the poem as does her villain while Boland absorbs the bull’s fame and power. Boland’s diction is sweet and contradictory to the middle passage of the piece, forgetting the violence committed against Europa in favor of a rhythmic experience. The piece concludes with Boland’s protagonist peering into the garden and landscape in which she once found brilliance and beauty. No longer is the scenery enveloped in blush tones and organic contours, but rather
into a landscape without emphasis, light, linear, precisely planned, hemisphere of tiered, aired cotton, a hot terrain of linen from the iron, folded in and over, stacked high, neatened flat, stoving heat and white, (26-31).
As soon as Boland removes her writer’s ‘hat’ and leaves the upstairs of poetry and art, her alluring and delicate environment loses all its beauty. Rejoining society and her role as a mother forces the main character to see the world without the magic she envisioned. Instead of floral blooms, never-ending lush terrain, and crayon-colored skies, Boland’s protagonist sees only domestic work: cotton, linens, and piles of leftover laundry crowding spaces where clarity once sat. In “Suburban Woman: Another Detail”, Boland contributes a similar view, closing the woman’s transformation into another life by saying,
She stares at the road in the featureless November twilight. Stares for a moment at the moon which has drained it. Then pulls the curtains tightly shut. And puts herself and my child beyond it, (21-26).
The woman in the passage, although experiencing memorable, intimate moments with someone else’s child, simply sees darkness beyond the unknown walls. Beauty is fleeting and the woman seals out any possibility of a colorful, bright future for both herself and the baby. Both endings of Boland’s poems are dismal as they lock both women away in claustrophobic houses, adopting Rapunzel’s trapped fate. The reader can only hope that tomorrow sees a cloudless sky for Boland’s protagonists, a grassy field of hope and wonder, an infinite bridge securing the gap between the contrasting lives of poetry and motherhood.
Although the women in Eavan Boland’s poems “The Women” and “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” adopt ostensibly bleak lives, they can tiptoe between the boundless worlds of creativity and domesticity. Boland demonstrates the complicated yet attainable relationship among the two as both mothers carry the weight of supernatural gifts and life-giving responsibilities upon their backs. By the end of the poem, the pair shut the world of freedom from their homes, but just as curtains can be pulled back, so the gap can close between the love of a mother and her yearn for eternal poetry.