“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.
In “The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish,” the speaker, tired of menstruation, changes herself into a fish. But in the “loomy cold,” the woman still “moons” in her.
In “The Woman in the Fur Shop,” the speaker sees another woman in the shop touching the fur as if it is her own skin. When the woman turns to look at the speaker, the latter turns into an animal with “a splayed tail” and lurks out of the shop.
“The Woman as Mummy’s Head” marks the nadir of these poems; it is, however, also the dark before dawn. The speaker, tired of hiding her age with make-up (again!), pulls off her smile, her nose, her lips, the gristle on her chin, and discovers she can’t hear and see. She puts back her make-up (“my shams, my ambers/ And my old bandages”) so that she can “poultice” these “absences of me.” This poem has teen-angsty lines like “Is someone there?/ I feel you there./ Stand by me.”
“A Ballad of Beauty and Time,” the last poem of the book, is a beautifully wrought parable. It consists of 11 stanzas of 7 lines each. It is written in iambic trimeter, with a flexible rhyme scheme. The speaker has passed the prime of her physical beauty. She seeks help from a plastic surgeon but he tells her he can only “mend the dress” whereas her “quarrel’s with the weave.” She then goes to a sculptor’s studio. She complains to him that his statue is unable to stop her aging. She is “the brute proof” that beauty is not truth. He replies that “Truth is in our lies” and artists practice “the arts of compromise.” His conclusion, which is also Boland’s,:
‘And all I have cast
in crystal or in glass,
in lapis or in onyx,
comes from my knowledge when—
above the honest flaw—
to lift and stay my hand
and say “let it stand”.’
Reading “A Ballad of Beauty and Time”
Sculpting the body is an art
practiced with much preening,
but admiration of one’s parts
has, perhaps, a deeper meaning.
No, not about the love of beauty
which is disinterested;
not about the dream of the body
to be more alive than dead.
Not vanity, as the pure would have it,
admiring their pure souls;
not will, as the weak would crave it
like victory at the polls.
It’s not about the selfish gene
that seeks duplication
and bulges the muscle in the jeans
It’s not a fad. It’s not a fact.
It’s not a petty crime.
It’s simply a desirous act
of parsing passing time,
for time flows on and doesn’t sweat
to rap the human drum,
and so I do my reps and sets
for the rhythm.