Friday, June 27, 2008

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.” The poet sees the shades of children who died of cholera, typhus, croup and diptheria. She also sees the shades of mothers, some of whom have clipped “a limpet shape” to their nipples to suckle darknesses, and others have their arms “weighed down.” Sappho explained these women are not court ladies nor laundresses, but suburban mothers like the poet, picking up “teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets.”

The poet asks to be their witness, a mission Sappho affirms, and then returns the poet back to her world “where nothing was changed; nothing was more clear/ but it was wet and the year was late.”

The envoi begins: “It is Easter in the suburb.” The poet waits for her muse who acknowledges both the dustbins brightening under street-lamps, and the jasmine’s shadow cast outside her window in her neighbor’s garden. If the muse comes, she will come as “a brightening and/ the consequences of an April tomb.” The poet wishes to put her hand in her muse’s side in order to verify her own faith, for

If she will not bless the ordinary,
if she will not sanctify the common,
then here I am and here I stay and then am I
the most miserable of women.


“[H]ere I am” echoes, among other allusions, prophet Samuel’s words when, as a child, he hears God calling. “[T]he most miserable of women” reverses the formula for Mary, mother of Jesus, who is “the most blessed of women” after the Annunciation. In the last stanza, the Muse is the voice and angel of the Lord, while the poet is prophet, virgin and mother. The appearance of hubris is somewhat obverted by the rhyme pairs: “ordinary” and “I”; “common” and “women.” The aspiration is already justified by the daring substitution of “teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets” for Dido, Deiphobus, Romulus, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, in Boland’s suburban underworld.

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