What happened? How did Boland’s poetry acquire, as if suddenly, a depth of emotion, an individual voice, an unforced authority it did not have before? The spiritual event, if such it was, seemed to be the discovery of the intractability of the world. As the wife-speaker of the first poem “The Other Woman” puts it: “I know you have a world I cannot share.”
The world refuses poetry. When a child is murdered, how can we think of writing a poem about it? And yet poets do, for a variety of reasons, noble and ignoble, but also for the un-ignorable need to say something about it. So, in “Child of Our Time,” Boland finds a way to write about the murder, a way of grappling with a resisting world that is, at the same time, an embrace. Her way lies in tragic paradox: the child we should have known how to teach teaches us instead. The opening lines of the first stanza set up the paradox:
Yesterday I knew no lullaby
But you have taught me overnight to order
The second stanza describes what should have been. You, the mother-poet tells the child, should have had “rhymes for your waking, rhythms for your sleep, /Names for the animals you took to bed.” The domestic detail is moving, and provides a counterpoint to more exalted language. The third stanza, while paying full attention to the child, is also a manifesto, of a sort. The poet must learn
To make our broken images rebuild
Themselves around your limbs, your broken
Image, find for your sake whose life our idle
Talk has cost, a new language. Child
Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.
Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.
The gesture here is entirely appropriate, the rebuilding of images likened to building a casket for the broken body, robbed from the cradle. The language is sober and dignified, the lullaby broken and orderly.
Reading “Child of Our Time”
When I say “The world is intractable to poetry,”
I am not selling a tract.
It is a sigh in a city, a toothache, an outcry,
it is to find buried in beauty a small fact.