I am discovering the deliberation behind the arrangement of the poems, and therefore another reason why a poet might want to “collect” all his poems, instead of “select.” After the love poems comes a group of family poems, in which the family is both literal, and a metaphor for the nation.
In “Sisters,” the poet mourns for the death of her sister, seven years ago, and blames herself for betraying her “By letters unwritten, unlifted phones, /Unspoken words.” Now love, death and guilt lock them in a “grim embrace,” a sisterhood that the three “harridans” of Fate, who never “Noticed one untwisted joy,” could not sever.
“The Laws of Love” expands on the sisterhood based on love and loss, with now the addition of national hope. The poem addresses Mary Robinson, a senator then, who would become the first female President of Ireland. Boland and Robinson were born in the same year, 1944. I don’t know how well they knew each other at the time of the poem’s writing. While intimating a personal bond between the two women, the poem knows itself to be a public occasion.
At first light the legislator
Who schooled you, creator
Of each force, each element,
Its secret law, its small print
Nature—while dawn, baptismal as waters
Which broke early in dark, began—
First saw the first of your daughters
Become in your arms a citizen.
The syntax is formal, patterned and deliberate, piling up the appositives, delaying the main verb till the seventh line, balancing phrase against phrase, ringing changes on key words, accentuating its meaning through alliteration. Nature is both “legislator” and “creator.” As the first, it has its secret law and small print; as the second it makes every force and element. This Creator and Lawgiver, at a primeval and daily “first light,” presides over the daughter’s change into a citizen. The change, statutory in fact, is figured as both sacred (“baptismal”) and natural as childbirth (“waters/ Which broke”). This Creator and Lawgiver is, appropriately since the poem is addressed to a woman, a Mother.
Invocation and birth over, the poem describes the pitfalls this Mother-Lawgiver manages to avoid. She does not make for her daughter “a perfumed stockade,” nor impose on her nation “torts for those/ Fragments which matter less and less/ As all fragments.” In bringing up this young daughter, in giving order to this young state, she must focus that force—
Which makes your Moy in its ridge pool
Prime teenage trout for butchery,
While at the same time fulfil
The blood-tie of the tide
that bloody force that grows and kills, that divides and unites—she must “focus” that force “Slowly a miracle/ a closing wound.” The image here, of resurrection and of healing, is at once supernatural and natural.
That hope must contend with the mockery “That sisters kill, that sisters die,” but it is also strengthened by the “laws of love” the poet and the legislator have found between them. In the final image of the poem, wishes may fall, unfulfilled, down a wishing well, but they are still there, as the well is. The breaking waters in stanza one, polluted by the blood-tie of the tide in stanza three, are transformed into drinking water in the end. The well is not only associated with woman’s work, it is also an image of the womb.
“The Laws of Love” is a great public poem, in an age of private lyrics. The poet may never become the legislator of the world (Thank goodness for that!), but the singer is sister to the lawgiver.