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 mainstream of poetical thought, but the new thing here is the gender of the swimmer. Like other poets, Boland comes from the Muse, but as a mother she identifies with the Muse, and as a straight woman is free from—is cut off from?—sexual passion for the Muse. The challenge for her is to make poems of passionate identification, without resorting to the deep resources of Eros.
Reading “The Mother Muse”
If love is a muse, my muse is a man
who swims out of the dark and rises
to his hind feet, to his full height,
his trident tall as a tree, and thick.
But I fear my muse is my mother
stirring hot soups, scouring pots
till they reflect her smile of steel
that says, I always aim to please.