New Territory was published in 1967 when Boland was only twenty-three. It is remarkably accomplished technically, and unabashed about its poetic ambition. It opens with the poem “The Poets” in which the title creatures, though made “For the shovel and worm,” make themselves, after their death, “absentee landlord of the dark.” The landlord metaphor is striking but also literary: there is no sense in the poem of the word’s historical baggage in Ireland.
The same literariness pervades the book. It treats of Greek figures like Athene and Oedipus at Colonus; of Biblical figures like Isaiah; of historical figures like Emperor Constantine and the Black Prince; of art figures like Chardin; and of Irish figures like Lir’s son and Egan O’Rahilly (the last of the great Irish Gaelic poets). The impression given is that of a well-read student. In the treatment of these figures, the poems rehearse the idea of life as schooling for greatness, and the idea of death as premature expulsion. When imagining the shape of lived life, the poems come up with the stock literary figures of troubadour, pilgrim and conquistador, the last a comparison as untroubled as Keats’s Cortez. I had to refer again to the date of publication to remind myself which century I am in.
The sonnets addressing Shakespeare and Yeats are a curious mix of impertinence and worship. The first Shakespeare sonnet repeats “You wrote because you had to” at the start of the first and second quatrains, the first quatrain explaining the spirit of performance in that period, the second quatrain sack, supper, and status. The third quatrain muddles the poem’s development by continuing “You wrote because of loneliness, London/ Hunger to begin with,” before recovering its stride by rephrasing the book’s motif: “You saw your life flow downwards towards its loss,/ You made of every quill the fire. . . .” The second Shakespeare sonnet, “The Comic Shakespeare,” presumes to ask the Bard, rhetorically, “Would each comedy,/ Each festival and whistle of your prime,/ Today exist if you had wept in time?” The tone changes in the Yeats sonnet to sycophancy: “Whatever we may learn, /You are its sum.” The poem does not specify who “we” are.
Though most of the poems do not appeal to me, yet I applaud the decision to include all of them, all of one’s published early work. Poets sometimes justify their selection on the basis of quality, but what is less often acknowledged is the temptation to present a better picture of oneself. To gather all together shows a yearning for wholeness more human than the goal of quality control. And if some transient idea of quality had winnowed the collection, I might not have read the charming “Requiem for a Personal Friend,” with its wittily macabre dedication: “on a half-eaten blackbird.” Here the speaker, who calls the bird “My best colleague,” is self-assured, without complacency, poignant, without portentousness. The last stanza shows off Boland’s intellectual powers and technical virtuosity, in a winning way:
Little victim, song for song—
Who share a trade must share a threat—
So I write to cheat the cat
Who got your body, of my tongue.
Reading “Requiem for a Personal Friend”
Not a half-eaten blackbird but a flattened pet chick
lies on the bottom patch of grass, mostly,
and on my blue flip-flop the bloody lick
says I am, by accident, my adversary.