Friday, June 20, 2008

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 include “drift,” unformed or unnamed aspects of things. The strong stress on “drift,” after the relatively lighter stresses on the plural suffixes (where the stress is expected to fall in regular iambic pentameter) gives the idea of “drift” a paradoxical form and force.

Though the stars appear to wait like the Laura Ashley cottons for someone to join them together, stars are still stars and not scraps of cloth. Stars are joined by great art, so the (male) poetic tradition insists, whereas patchwork is viewed as a mere craft, usually performed by women. The female poet asks of her second-hand sewing machine, “But is it craft or art?”

She answers herself by choosing to remain “here,” on earth, rather than aspire to the heavens, to sit “cross-legged in the dining-room,” cutting and aligning her patches. She admits “[t]here’s no reason in it”; its rationale will only be seen when the patchwork is complete. When it is finally laid across the floor, like “a night-sky spread,” it will “hit” her:

These are not bits.
They are pieces.

And the pieces fit.

The poem’s argument is not a demonstration of fact, but a statement of faith. The poem’s form, however, demonstrates the basis for that artistic faith. By shaping the “random” thoughts at the beginning of the poem—the bits, the drift—into the final shape of the poem, the poet gives herself, and us, the faith to go on. Patchwork or the Poet’s Craft? Patchwork is the poet’s craft.


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