Showing posts from June, 2008

Reading Boland's "The Journey" (1987) Part 7

Charles VI of France, called the Beloved, as well as the Mad, married Isabella of Bavaria in 1385. He suffered from bouts of insanity throughout his life, howling like a wolf through his palace, refusing to bathe, and, in later years, believing that he was made from glass.

“The Glass King” ends the journey of this book. It is not only about the relationship between wife and husband, it is also about the relationship between the female poet and the male poetic tradition, as the poet makes clear when she breaks into the story of Charles VI and Isabella in her own person, to “elect” her “prince, demented// in a crystal past” as “emblem// and ancestor of our lyric.”

This male lyric tradition is royal in his authority, and fragile in his powers. In conceiving poetry as a beautiful crystal, he is “out of reach// of human love.” The queen-wife-lover knows she needs his hand to turn stone into lace, the way the medieval stonesmiths did. This modern stoneworker is, however,

an ordinary honest wom…

"Sometimes It Seems As If": A Talk by Robert Frost October 23, 1947

Frost gave this talk at Dartmouth College as part of the Great Issues series, a mandatory course for seniors that used weekly guest lectures to explore important current events of politics, science, and the arts. Transcribed, annotated and introduced by James Sitar, the talk appeared In Literary Imagination Volume 10 Number 1 2008, published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC).

[To take poetry right is] another way to take life right. And that means not to stick too hard to any particular precept. Suppose I said for instance certain ones--they're always rattling around in my mind. Suppose I said this one: the great problem is to know "how to o'errule" . . .

How to o'errrules the harsh divorce
That parts things natural from divine.
See the precept in that is that you must remember it's hard to

o'errule the harsh divorce
That parts things natural from divine.
And for the duration of the piece--if you…

Reading Boland’s "The Journey" (1987) Part 6

Four poems next about the Irish experience of immigration, another kind of journey in this book. The first two—“An Irish Childhood in England: 1951” and “Fond Memory”—make use of Boland’s own personal experience of living in postwar London as a child; the first poem ends with an anecdote about a teacher’s racism. “Canaletto in the National Gallery of Ireland” looks back, through the lens of art, at a nation-republic one left behind. The immigrant speaker of “The Emigrant Irish” wants to find strength in the example of earlier immigrants, to imagine how their “possessions” of hardship and fortitude may become our “power.”

I like best “Fond Memory.” It first describes the London convent Boland attended as a child, wearing darned worsted, eating rationed food, playing English games, and learning how wise the Magna Carta was. When the Reverend Mother announced that the King had died, all the children cried, except for Boland. But she had to fight back tears when, back home after school, h…

Reading Boland's "The Journey" (1987) Part 5

Part III of the book opens with “Listen. This is the Noise of Myth.” The poem meditates on the difference between myth and life, and the consolations of myth.

It begins with “the story of a man and woman” under a willow and beside a weir, near a river in a wooded clearing. They are “fictions of my purpose,” the poet reminds us in the second stanza, before evoking in sensuous detail their wintry flight through the Midlands, to get to that willow. Returning to the start of her story, the middle of theirs, the poet raises our expectations that something is about to happen: “Will we see/ hungers eased after months of hiding?/ Is there a touch of heat in that light?”

Instead of fulfilling our expectations, she asks our forgiveness for setting “the truth to rights.” They never made love; there was no journey; no woodland and no river and no weir. The man and the woman were never the poet’s. Only the myth, or fiction, is hers, only “this sequence of evicted possibilities” called

Invention. Leg…

"Chris and Don" and "The Savages"

I watched "Chris and Don" at the Quad the Thursday before last, with The Quarterback, but did not have much to say about it beyond the obvious epithets like sweet, heartwarming. The documentary, directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, depicts the three-decade long relationship between Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood and American portrait painter Don Bachardy, thirty years Isherwood's junior. The film is somewhat more penetrating and interesting about Isherwood's aristocratic background and his years in Berlin, than about Bachardy's ho-hum middle-class origins. It weaves together Bachardy's contemporary reminiscences (in the Santa Monica home he shared with Isherwood), interviews with talking heads, archival footage, and cutesy animation based on the cat-and-horse cartoons the couple drew in their correspondence.

After coming out of the Quad, I felt vaguely dissatisfied with the film. For a story billed by Zeitgeist Films as an "against-all-…

Reading Boland's "The Journey" (1987) Part 4

The long poem “The Journey” forms part two of the book. It reworks two male myths. In twenty-four quatrains, the poem rewrites Aeneas’ descent to the underworld, while the 6-quatrain envoi reframes the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The epigraph is from The Aeneid, Book VI: “Immediately cries were heard. These were the loud wailing of infant souls weeping at the very entrance-way; never had they had their share of life’s sweetness for the dark day had stolen them from their mothers’ breasts and plunged them to a death before their time. “

The poet begins the poem angry that poets waste their time on “the obvious// emblem instead of the real thing.” They write about hyssop dipped in lamb’s blood, instead of antibiotics and sulpha. She falls into a dream-like state (“not sleep, but nearly sleep, not dreaming really/ but as ready to believe”) and is visited by Sappho who guides her down to the underworld.

They arrive beside a river in what seemed to be “an oppressive suburb of the dawn.” Th…

Reading Boland's "The Journey" (1987) Part 3

As I read The Journey, I am rediscovering an old truth: good poems are those that cannot be paraphrased satisfactorily. Paraphrasing them is like reporting on the memory of one’s last conversation with someone dear.

“The Wild Spray” is about the poet’s marriage: the indistinct happiness of the early days clarifying into present reality, or, as the poem puts it, “a random guess becoming a definition.” Those early days were an ironstone jug filled with long-stemmed flowers whose names the poet learned only much later: true rose, mountain rose, asparagus fern, rosemary, forsythia. The summer air had a consistency of milk. The lights on the mountain were sharp like crocuses seen through the snowfall of darkness, whereas the light on the street, the streetlamp in the rain, was a planet of tears near the whitebeam trees.


Reading “The Wild Spray”

From Paris you brought back your first gift
for me, a stainless steel wine holder, arched
back in a single curve, seen from the side,
and, fro…

Reading Boland's "The Journey" (1987) Part 2

The next few poems make clear a part of the book’s project: to revivify the forgotten lives of humble women.

The method of revivification in “Mise Eire” is identification with those women. At the start of the poem, the poet asserts she won’t return to Ireland (“where time is time past”). Her roots in the country are brutal. She is the prostitute plying her trade outside the garrison, practicing “the quick frictions.” She is the immigrant on board the Mary Belle, holding her half-dead baby to her, “mingling the immigrant/ guttural with the vowels/ of homesickness.” I am not satisfied by the poem’s method because the identification is incomplete and unconsciously condescending. According to the poet, the immigrant “neither knows nor cares” that

a new language
is a kind of scar
and heals after a while
into a passable imitation
of what went before.

This last stanza describes the poet’s superior knowledge and powers, a sense of superiority not mitigated by that throwaway concession that the immi…

Reading Boland's "The Journey" (1987) Part 1

This next book is dedicated to the poet’s mother, and the first poem “I Remember” is about the mother who is an artist. The poet first describes the “washed out” or “tinted” light in the drawing room (in “bombed-out, post-war London”) in which she sits, “helplessly,” as a nine-year-old to be painted by her mother. Her mother’s brushes stick out of the jar like the “spines” of a porcupine, suggesting the artist’s prickly and self-protective attitude. When the poet is not being “composed” by her mother, she feels herself to be an “interloper” in this workroom. In the morning when she enters the room in her “high, fawn socks,”

the room had been shocked into a glacier
of cotton sheets thrown over the almond
and vanilla silk of the French Empire chairs.

To the poet, the mother covers her fine nature—those French empire chairs— with a cold exterior.

This poem marks a thematic change from the previous book. Night Feed analyzes and quarrels with the relationship between male artists and female wor…

The idea of a poet in "Middlemarch"

"[Will Ladislaw:] To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion--a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only."

"But you leave out the poems," said Dorothea. "I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem."

"You are a poem--and that is to be the best part of a poet--what makes up the poet's consciousness in his best moods," said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.


Reading Boland’s "Night Feed" (1982) Part 8

“The New Pastoral” introduces the last group of poems in the book. Whereas men discovered flint and wheel to read his world (in the form of the pastoral), the female speaker is “a “displaced person/ in a pastoral chaos.” She is “no shepherdess” and hears the “loud distress” of the herds when they are slaughtered. The lamb “unsuckled” alienates her from this male version of pastoral; it reminds her that the pastoral has a violent past in which she once participated.

The pastoral poems that follow traffic with the trope of metamorphosis. In ‘Daphne with her thighs in bark,’ the speaker wishes to teach her next sister that it is better to give in to Apollo than to save herself for the trap of domestic life. Apollo’s “rough heat” will keep the sister warm, and give her good memories which will return to her when she sees the way the chestnut tree “thrusts and hardens.”

In “The Woman Changes Her Skin,” the speaker, tired of hiding her aged face with cosmetics, changes herself into a snake.


Reading Boland’s "Night Feed" (1982) Part 7

Boland writes quite a bit about the Muse. “Tirade for the Epic Muse’ is the companion piece to “Tirade for the Mimic Muse” in the earlier book In Her Own Image. In the later poem, the poet berates the Epic Muse for allowing herself to be used to glorify war. Now that “they” are done with her, the poet tells the wretched Muse to find peace “in my kitchen, in my epic,” where her machines will “know you for their own.”

To write about—to—one’s source of inspiration is to detach oneself from it, so that one can analyze it, punish it, and, perhaps, reform it. To leave one’s muse unnamed is to leave it unexamined.

In “The Mother Muse,” the poet seeks inspiration in a mother wiping her child’s mouth with a nappy liner. If only the poet could trace this mother-figure back to her roots, she might teach the poet to be a “sibyl,” to speak at last “my mother tongue.”

According to Robert Graves, the Muse is a mother-goddess, the source, the origin. Boland’s search for her mother muse swims in the ma…

Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel"

A friend Conrad Chu is conducting the Brooklyn Repertory Opera in its performance of "Hansel and Gretel," and I heard the opera (in English) for the first time this afternoon. I enjoyed it very much. The orchestration was lush and dramatic. It included set pieces like folk songs, dances, and prayers. Wikipedia says that the opera was originally composed as a Singspiel, consisting of a play with 16 songs and piano accompaniment. Based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, the opera depicts the harshness of poverty, temptations conjured up by our needs, metaphysical loneliness, and victory over death.

Mother, played by Kahtleen Keske, rose to tragic heights when she sang of not being able to feed the children. Played by a terrific Mathew Yohn, Father was a drunken figure from comedy ("Tra-la-la-la-la!"), who brought food home in triumph only to find out from his wife she had sent the children into the woods to gather their supper. The music in Act II was enchantin…

Reading Boland’s "Night Feed" (1982) Part 6

In the group of poems on women’s work are three ekphrastic poems about the relationship between the male artist and the women workers he paints.

In “Degas’s Laundresses,” after describing the beauty and competence of these washerwomen, the poet breaks in to warn them not to turn round for the male artist to draw them. Degas’s vision of the women is described as “unbandaging his mind.” A good laundress would understand the twists, turns and blind designs of the artist’s mind, for the bandage is the women’s “winding sheet.” The laundresses have the power to clean, heal, the male artist’s wounded mind.

“Woman Posing” is based on “the painting Mrs Badham by Ingres.” I cannot find the painting, but found a drawing of the same woman by the artist. The poem begins by identifying her: “She is a housekeeping. A spring cleaning.” The frill and lace the artist dressed her in cannot hide “the solid column of her neck.” Ill-at-ease in a place and pose not hers, “[s]he smirks uneasily at what she’s s…

Reading Boland’s "Night Feed" (1982) Part 5

In the middle of the book is a group of poems about housework. Traditionally conceived as women’s work, domestic chores, in poems like “Woman in Kitchen,” deaden the spirit. Women’s work, however, inspires Boland in other poems, as in “Patchwork or the Poet’s Craft.” The title of this poem could either be a question or a statement. Perhaps the poem could be read as beginning with the question and ending with the statement.

The poet is sitting at her Singer sewing machine, with her “sumptuous” trash bag of colors—Laura Ashley cottons—waiting to be cut, stitched and patched together. She senses, however, “a mechanical feel” about her work. She senses her back is to the dark where

are stars and bits of stars
and little bits of bits.
And swiftnesses and brightnesses and drift.

I like how the plural suffixes in “swiftnesses” and “brightnesses” evoke bits, and a great host of bits. The bits are not just things like stars, but also aspects of things like swiftness and brightness; the bits even in…

Reading Boland's "Night Feed" (1982) Part 4

Taking care of a baby by yourself is brutal. I saw this when I stayed with my sister during Memorial Day weekend to help her with her two little ones—three-year-old Hannah and one-month-old Liesel—while her husband was away on a business trip. They live in a Virginian suburb, in a house about four times the size of their apartment in Singapore. Stairs, back home, belong to outside the home; here, they have come indoors. So, if you don’t want to trek down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to make a milk bottle for the screaming baby, you plan and remember to carry up with you, before going to bed, the red bag with the bottles of milk formula.

To make things easier around the house, you create routines, routines which in turn make your life feel smaller. There must have been times when, woken up by Liesel’s cry for milk, my sister felt what Boland describes in the opening of “Monotony”:

The stilled hub
and polar drab
of the suburb
closes in.

The feeling comes upon the poet, standing “…

Reading Boland's "Night Feed" (1982) Part 3

The next three poems are also about the relationship between the poet and her baby daughter. They are, however, more ambitious in their imaginative leaps, and the language gets hotter. They share the same method: first they describe a painting or a childhood memory, then they compare that description with the poet’s present as a suburban mother. The juxtaposition of these poems encourages one to evaluate the success of the same method in each instance.

In “Fruit on a Straight-Sided Tray,” the poet thinks that the still-life painter’s true subject is not the late melons, grapes and lemons, but “the space between them.” This restful space gives the fruits the feel of “an assembly of possibilities;/ a deliberate collection of cross purposes.” But this same space, in the poem’s turn, also disguises “the equation that kills,” that “you are my child and between us are// spaces. Distances. Growing to infinities.” I think the conjunction between painting and maternity here is too forced. Too m…

Reading Boland's "Night Feed" (1982) Part 2

The next six poems, as promised by the book’s title, are about caring for the poet’s baby daughter. Their language is simple, almost prosaic, their imagery temporal and domestic, their movement tentative, their tone hushed. Their short lines are determined by the phrase more often than not. Except for “Endings,” the last poem of the group, they are written in regular stanzas, each of seven, four, five or three lines. Each stanza usually has a pair of end-rhymes in no predetermined place, but the last line of each stanza often rhymes with a foregoing line.

“Night Feed” takes place at dawn. That time is the daughter’s season, “The moment daisies open,” and “the hour mercurial rainwater/ Makes a mirror for sparrows.” The poet-mother tiptoes into the nursery to feed the baby, and when the feed is over, the daughter opens her eyes “Birth-colored and offended.” Now dawn becomes the time of endings (“Worms turn./ Stars go in”), and poet and daughter “begin/ The long fall from grace.”

In “Befor…

Richard Taddei

Months ago I saw this painting in a shop-window in Chelsea. I thought it pretty and harmless. This morning I saw it again when I was trashing my Time Out magazines.

Gargoyle (Brian)
oil on canvas, 30" X 34", 2006
Collection of Bernard Schleifer, NYC

Richard Taddei is an artist based in NYC, and he has a website. Browsing the catalogue, I found two paintings I like quite a bit. The first for its abstract power, the second for capturing the look on the youth's face.

Seated Nude (Jason)
oil on canvas, 26" X 29", 2007

Apollo II
oil on canvas, 28" X 25", 2007
Collection of Bernard Schleifer, NYC

Reading Boland's "Night Feed" (1982) Part 1

Back to Boland. The title of this collection indicates the main subject, that of maternity. The first poem “Domestic Interior” is “for Kevin,” apparently the poet’s husband. An ekphrastic poem in part, it names the artist—Van Eyck—but not the painting. The description seems to fit The Arnolfini Portrait.

The painting is of a recently married couple, but the poem describes only the woman who is “as round/ as the new ring/ ambering her finger” and who “has long since been bedded.” The man appears in the poem in the figure of the artist “by whose edict” the woman will stay “burnished, fertile,/ on her wedding day,/ interred in her joy.” The pejorative diction here suggests that the male gaze is imperious (“edict”), deceptive (“burnished”), exploitative (”fertile”), and, perhaps, even murderous (“interred”). Though the eye of the poet’s husband is “loving, bright/ and constant,” yet it shows this woman only “in her varnishes.”

The poet opposes the superficial male gaze with “a way of life/ …

Henry James's "A Portrait of a Lady"

What a beautiful, large book. It gives the impression of saying very complex things very simply, without simplifying the complexities. It describes moral qualities without reducing them into abstract principles. It strives for aesthetic perfection at the same time as it exposes the evils in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection. I am reminded of James Wood's The New Republic review of Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. According to Woods, Hollinghurst finally offers an easier choice than James, a choice of the moral way and the immoral way to pursue beauty. James's moral vision is harder. There is no moral way in pursuing beauty. Virtue is grim, harsh, ugly. We choose between beauty and it.


[Madam Merle:] "When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us m…

Peter Green's Catullus

In Number 15, Catullus begs Aurelius not to touch his boyfriend, for

It's you that scare me, you and your great whanger,
a standing threat to boys both good and naughty.
Look, wag the damn thing where and how you fancy,
all you've a mind to out there, cocked and ready--
just leave him out of it, make one exception!

The plea then turns into a threat. Should "ill-will or mindless madness" drive Aurelius to practice "low tricks" on Catullus, he will feel his retaliation,

feet spread and strapped, back-passage widely gaping,
reamed all its length with radishes and mullets!

Ouch! Roman adult masculinity: okay to fuck, but not to be fucked; even mindless madness is subject to the discipline of an iron will. The unstressed syllable at the end of every line gives the line a falling rhythm (as opposed to the strong rising rhythm in English verse), which seems to add to the urbane tone.

Peter Green's Catullus

I don't have Boland with me today, and so started reading Peter Green's translation of Catullus (The Poems of Catallus, University of California Press). I can't say I am not glad to take a break from feminist earnestness and turn to masculinist machismo.

In Number 5, written in hendecasyllables, the speaker asks Lesbia to love him, and to value scandal, gossip, old men's strictures at "no more than a farthing!" Suns can rise and set "ad infinitum," but, once their "brief life's quenched," humans have only "one unending night" to sleep through. The numerical tropes, familiar, even cliched, set up these following marvelous lines:

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then a thousand more, a second hundred,
then yet another thousand then a hundred--

The lines have a winsome spontaneity in the swing from thousand to hundred, and then back to thousand, only to push off to another hundred. The numbers are repeated with nice variati…

David Sylvester's "Looking back at Francis Bacon"

In this book Sylvester reviews Bacon's painting more or less chronologically, but also organizes his discussion into themes: a late starter, a trail of the human presence, a state of unease, all the pulsations of a person, images in series, an escape from emotion, a picture but not a picture. Many sharp insights into the paintings, generously reproduced in the book. One I liked especially is that Bacon's heads are inspired by Picasso, his bodies by Matisse. Bacon preferred Picasso to Matisse because the former exhibits "the brutality of fact."

After "Review," the section "Reflections" meditates, in short prose pieces, on different aspects of Bacon's art, such as "The painter as medium," "Bacon and poetry," "Bacon and Giocometti," "Bacon's secret vice," and "Images of the human body." The third section "Fragments of Talk" gathers together snippets of interviews and conversations Syl…

Reading Boland's "In Her Own Image" (1980) Part 2

There are ten poems altogether in this book, or pamphlet. They are very angry poems about domestic violence, anorexia, mastectomy, and other forms of oppression. They depict women as either victims (“In His Own Image,” “Anorexic,” “Mastectomy,” “Menses,”) or subversive outsiders (a blasphemous votary of fire in “Solitary,” a witch in “Witching,” a stripper in “Exhibitionist”). Men appear as abuser:

He splits my lip with his fist,
shadows my eyes with a blow,
knuckles my neck to its proper angle (from “In His Own Image”);

or robber, in the guise of medical personnel:

I flatten
to their looting
to the sleight

of their plunder.
I am a brute site.
Theirs is the true booty (from “Mastectomy”);

or porn addict:

I’ll show them how

in offices,
their minds
blind on files,

the view
blues through
my curves and arcs (from “Exhibitionist).

The speaker in these poems doesn’t seem to like other women much either. In “Menses,” she envies the plants in her garden that grow from their own stamens, without the messiness of…

Reading Boland's "In Her Own Image" (1980) Part 1

My poet is going for an extreme makeover, or, more accurately, an extreme strip-down. In the opening poem “Tirade for the Mimic Muse,” the poet calls her Muse a “ruthless bitch” whose blushers and brushes could not hide “a dead millennium” in her eyes nor make her “crime” cosmetic. What is the Muse’s crime?

With what drums and dances, what deceits
Rituals and flatteries of war,
Chants and pipes and witless empty rites
And war-like men
And wet-eyed patient women
You did protect yourself from horrors,
From the lizarding of eyelids
From the whiskering of nipples,
From the slow betrayals of our bedroom mirrors—
How you fled

The kitchen screw and the rack of labour,
The wash thumbed and the dish cracked,
The scream of beaten women,
The crime of babies battered,
The hubbub and the shriek of daily grief
That seeks asylum behind suburb walls . . .

You get the idea. The poet berates herself for writing about past wars and not the present ones, the wars abroad and not the wars at home, wars in the abstract and …

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 9

5 more poems to the end of this war horse.

“Chorus of the Shadows” is a poem “after Nelly Sachs,” a Jewish German poet and dramatist who escaped from the Nazi concentration camp on the last airplane flight to Sweden. The Shadows, presumably persecuted or murdered Jews, begin the poem by comparing themselves to puppets strung by a puppet master. They end by delivering an ultimatum to the planet which “scripts” their part, to take away light, give them a new part to play or a stake in the luck, “the frail/ Perfect luck of a dragonfly above/ The rim of a well.”

I did not care enough for “The Greek Experience” to try to make sense of it.

In “Suburban Woman,” the woman is torn between town and country in five heroic sections, and in much violent language. I cannot tell if she is an allegory for the shell-shocked country, or the shell-shocked country an allegory for her. The first strikes me as a forced comparison, the second as overblown. In the fifth and last section, the poet enters the poe…

TLS April 11 2008

frm Barbara J. King's review of Gregory Radick's The Simian Tongue: The long debate about animal language, and Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature:

In his zoo work, [Richard] Garner invented what we would today call the primate playback experiment. . . .

This re-emergence [of the playback technique] is mainly due to the work of the British ornithologist-turned-primatologist Peter Marler. . . .

The Amboseli vervets made scientic history. When the vervets heard a played-back call originally uttered in the presence of an eagle, they fled into the bushes. For leopard and snake calls, they responded in distinct but similarly adaptive ways. Seufarth, Cheney and Marler proved that the calls contained not just high-arousal cues but specific information about the environment.


"Linguists," [Pinker] writes, "call the inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them 'conceptual semantics'. Conceptual semantics--the la…

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 8

Two poems “after Mayakovsky” follow. Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893 – 1930) was a Russian Futurist poet who celebrated the Revolution and the rise of the Soviet. Boland’s poems are free translations.

“Conversation with an Inspector of Taxes,” a wryly humorous explanation for not paying taxes, is “Concerned to discern the role of the poet/ Within the ranks of the proletariat” (rhyming couplet concluding the 6-line stanza). The poet tries to explain writing poetry to the Tax Inspector in terms the latter would understand. So: rhyme is roughly equivalent to a promissory note; in the petty cash of sense, poets “moisten the coins of nuance”; as for the question of taxable travel, this poet has “bitted and stampeded Pegasus.” His debts, the poem turns, are not to Bureaucracy, but to Poetry, not monetary, but “debts of honor” to the revolutionary Red Army, to the “winter flowering cherry of Japan,” and to “the fastness of my winter cradle,” his homeland.

“The Atlantic Ocean” is a far …

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 7

“Dependence Day” praises the snail for its industry; then commiserates with the silkworm for being forgotten when “skirts come pouring down like milk”; then asks the shadow “How necessary was your hurt?”; and finally prays to Christ to instruct the poet

So my heart might not harden
Since yours at last found light relief:
Sleeping partners in a garden,
Your final acolyte a thief.

The association between the addressees is loose and light. To its delight, the poem finds surprising phrasing for old ideas. I am surprised by its religious spirit.


Reading “Dependence Day”

Today I will acknowledge
my supporters. My chair,
my desk, my wardrobe rails,
but not my bed, that edge,
and certainly not the stair
that promises and fails.

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 6

After “Naoise at Four,” three out of the following four poems deal with the theme of children as victims.

In “Anon,” the poem is compared to a “love child” the author abandons without giving it his name. In “Elegy for a Youth Changed to a Swan,” the mother-speaker prays for the woods to become a broad ocean, so that her forest-loving son, now a swan, may see not “the cold crest,/ But branches of the whitebeam and the maple.” “O Fons Bandusiae,” a translation of a Horatian ode (Book 3, XIII), devotes a stanza to the kid goat to be sacrificed to the sacred fount.

And tomorrow we will bring
A struggling kid, his temples sore
With early horns, as sacrifice.
Tomorrow his new trumpeting
Will come to nothing, when his gore
Stains and thaws your bright ice.

I don’t know how the Latin compares with this, but here are the same lines in an English translation by A. S. Kline I found by googling. Kline says he/she follows the original Latin meter, and gives a reasonably close English version.

tomorrow we’l…

Human Anatomy Online

An educational website. Looks interesting. You begin your tour of the human body by choosing a system. . .

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 5

The other two family poems are “The Family Tree” and “Naoise at Four.”

“The Family Tree” begins with playful wit: “I miss them as though they existed.” The poet finds unexpectedly her aunt and uncles “In this woods growing as trees.” Her uncles, “unable even once/ To shed their gravity” are like the yew “Which will not lose a leaf for spring and autumn.” The poem turns dark when it sees in the laburnums cousins who “Will wage their sterile fight, their arid battle/ Pleasuring to poison enemy cattle,” but who are “Innocent children now.” In the end, the poet sees a reversal of her playful first imagining: “I see/ Only woods lost in my family tree.” The poem is too bloodless to support such a conclusion, I think. The nice bits are the description: the yew-uncles with their “Serious loop and swag of dark branches,” and the laburnum-cousins “lace at the wrists, / Ruffles at the throat.”

In the Ulster Cycle of mythology, Naoise and his two brothers were waylaid by King Conchobar who murdered…

Conor McPherson's "Port Authority"

I watched my second McPherson play last night in a converted church (Gothic Revival) in Chelsea. The Atlantic Theater company, founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy, runs this off-Broadway theater, as well as an acting school which practices an acting technique called Practical Aesthetics, originally conceived by the two men.

Directed by Henry Wishcamper, the play interweaves three monologues spoken by three men at a bus terminal. Kevin (john Gallagher, Jr.), the young man who just left home to live on his own, hangs out with loser-bands, and lets the girl he loves walk away. Dermot (Brian d'Arcy James) is a middle-aged exec who thinks he's going somewhere, finally, in his career, only to find himself back at square one, with a wife who chose him because she pitied him for his mediocrity. Joe (Jim Norton), living in an old age home, recalls giving up a romantic opportunity because he was too afraid. As Kevin puts it, the world has only two souls we all share: the one who f…

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 4

I am discovering the deliberation behind the arrangement of the poems, and therefore another reason why a poet might want to “collect” all his poems, instead of “select.” After the love poems comes a group of family poems, in which the family is both literal, and a metaphor for the nation.

In “Sisters,” the poet mourns for the death of her sister, seven years ago, and blames herself for betraying her “By letters unwritten, unlifted phones, /Unspoken words.” Now love, death and guilt lock them in a “grim embrace,” a sisterhood that the three “harridans” of Fate, who never “Noticed one untwisted joy,” could not sever.

“The Laws of Love” expands on the sisterhood based on love and loss, with now the addition of national hope. The poem addresses Mary Robinson, a senator then, who would become the first female President of Ireland. Boland and Robinson were born in the same year, 1944. I don’t know how well they knew each other at the time of the poem’s writing. While intimating a personal bo…

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 3

Love poems: not of the eternal horseman, but of the mortal husband. The book begins with “The Other Woman,” and, after a squad of four social poems, returns to the hearth with an album of five love poems.

In “The Other Woman,” the poet knows she cannot rival the ideal woman her husband commands to come, “like a harem wife,” into his novels. The fictitious Other is beautiful, young, immortal, obedient; she does not bind him to “the married state”; she is perfect because she is perfectly shaped by and for his desire. Yet the poet insists at the end of the poem that she has “the better bargain” compared to her rival,

For I imagine she has grown strange
To you among the syntax and sentences
By which you distance her and would exchange
Her speaking part for any of our silences.

This turn in the final quatrain does not convince. The poem offers no reason why the ideal woman would grow strange to the husband, nor evidence that he wishes to distance her or exchange “her speaking part for any of our…