Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Reading Boland's "Night Feed" (1982) Part 3

The next three poems are also about the relationship between the poet and her baby daughter. They are, however, more ambitious in their imaginative leaps, and the language gets hotter. They share the same method: first they describe a painting or a childhood memory, then they compare that description with the poet’s present as a suburban mother. The juxtaposition of these poems encourages one to evaluate the success of the same method in each instance.

In “Fruit on a Straight-Sided Tray,” the poet thinks that the still-life painter’s true subject is not the late melons, grapes and lemons, but “the space between them.” This restful space gives the fruits the feel of “an assembly of possibilities;/ a deliberate collection of cross purposes.” But this same space, in the poem’s turn, also disguises “the equation that kills,” that “you are my child and between us are// spaces. Distances. Growing to infinities.” I think the conjunction between painting and maternity here is too forced. Too many portentous formulations try to make the connection: “the study of absences,” “the science of relationships,” “a homely arrangement,” “the geometry of the visible,” “physical tryst/ between substances,” and “the equation that kills.” The overall effect of the poem is to forget the fruits in the compulsion to make something of them.

In “Lights,” the poet remembers sailing in “the Artic garden” when she was an urban twelve. The remembered space was “A hard, sharkless Eden,” with, in a nice bit of description, Aurora Borealis “apple-green and icy—/ behind an ice wall.” The poet loved the python waves and dreamt of the sirens who lured sailors to their “phosphor graves.” Now, however, the poet does not lie with these mythical sailors, but “lie half-awake,” with “The child asleep beside me.” No more the Aurora. Only

Doubt still sharks
the close suburban night
And all the lights I love
leave me in the dark.

I find the comparison method in this poem a little too methodical. Before: no sharks, a snow-shrubbed orchard, Aurora Borealis, an ice wall, the blaze of the python waves, sailors. After: sharks, the house garden, no Aurora, ice-cap of shadow, the day’s illusory gleams, baby. The poem does not need the extended description of the poet’s present in the second half. After evoking the childhood memory, and stating the essential facts of her present situation, the poem could end with the striking conclusion—“And all the lights I love/ leave me in the dark”—and leave the dark to the reader’s imagination.

This shortened method is what Boland accomplishes in the next poem. In “After a Childhood Away from Ireland,” the poet remembers vividly slipping into an Irish harbor on “plum-coloured water,” and, ship engines stopped, hearing

a noiseless coming head-on
of red roofs, walls,
dogs, barley stooks.
Then we were there.

The memory is not only physical but existential, for the poet had lost “the habit of land”:

whether of growing out of
or settling back on,
or being
defined by.

These lines are superficially clumsy, but crucially vital to the poem’s beautiful thought. When, in the last two stanzas (only two!), the poet bends to kiss her daughter, the way returning emigrants kiss the ground of the homeland, and discovers the daughter’s cheeks are “brick pink,” she recovers the habit of land. The growing out of, the settling back on, the being defined by her daughter.


Reading “After a Childhood Away from Ireland”

In the second busiest harbor
of the world
you can see the steel
corners of container ships,

the oil tankers’ block-
colored trapezoids,
the curves
of luxury liners.

All that pragmatic pride
I am escaping

your bed, a dugout
from Stone Age,
love’s tonnage.


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