Thursday, June 12, 2008

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 not wars in the body. I have noted the literariness in some of Boland’s earlier poems, but this disavowal of the earlier work in favor of the pressing present throws out the baby with the bathwater. It surrenders to its zeitgeist, instead of surrounding it. Though I am glad the gender stereotypes in the earlier poetry have been rightly identified (“war-like men/ And wet-eyed patient women”) and condemned, I am disturbed that, in the litany of suburban “horrors,” no mention is made of men’s pain. Only the clichés of “beaten women” and “babies battered.” I worry for the poetry, as much as for the ideas of the poetry.

My fears, as I continue to read, are not assuaged by what the poet proposes to do to her Muse with her words:

Make your face naked.
Strip your mind naked.
Drench your skin in a woman’s tears.

There is an air of exhilaration in these lines, a sense of liberation from the strictures of tradition, the tricks of poetry, the corset of gender role. But nakedness is relative, not absolute. We are always more or less naked, for even stripped to our skin we may find the skin, well, a skin for something deeper, more naked. Onion-like, we are never only naked.

But perhaps my dismay is an overreaction. The poem calls itself knowingly a tirade, and one does not expect a tirade to be subtle. Finally, a manifesto is justified by the poetry it produces. I am going to walk past the demonstration, and try to listen for the demons.


Reading “Tirade for the Mimic Muse”

Whenever I walk past a body of demonstrators,
I feel as if I’m a different species: a mangy dog
when they call for the dogs of war to be leashed,
an inquiring antelope when they call for justice
for the black man shot dead by the cops the night
before his wedding, a giant panda ambling off
when they call for the Chinese to free Tibet.

It must feel good to call for peace, justice, freedom.
It must feel human. I have only personal demons.

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