Sunday, June 08, 2008

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 5

The other two family poems are “The Family Tree” and “Naoise at Four.”

“The Family Tree” begins with playful wit: “I miss them as though they existed.” The poet finds unexpectedly her aunt and uncles “In this woods growing as trees.” Her uncles, “unable even once/ To shed their gravity” are like the yew “Which will not lose a leaf for spring and autumn.” The poem turns dark when it sees in the laburnums cousins who “Will wage their sterile fight, their arid battle/ Pleasuring to poison enemy cattle,” but who are “Innocent children now.” In the end, the poet sees a reversal of her playful first imagining: “I see/ Only woods lost in my family tree.” The poem is too bloodless to support such a conclusion, I think. The nice bits are the description: the yew-uncles with their “Serious loop and swag of dark branches,” and the laburnum-cousins “lace at the wrists, / Ruffles at the throat.”

In the Ulster Cycle of mythology, Naoise and his two brothers were waylaid by King Conchobar who murdered them and forcibly married Naoise’s lover, Deidre. Bolands’ poem “Naoise at Four” is addressed to her godson named after the hero. Myth, the poem begins, is a way of healing—making sense of—old violence, but the poet despairs of solving the present “sudden Irish fury” to a “folk memory.” Instead, she wishes for her godson a return to the wood around his house, a lucky context

Where values can be learned, fixed,
A truce with life negotiated
On terms you yourself can make
Unlike your luckless namesake.

The wish is perfectly understandable, since it arises from the desire to protect a dearly loved child from the country’s mad violence, but, within the terms of this poem and earlier ones, the wish is delusory and deluding; it is to make “a perfumed stockade” Boland praises Mary Robinson for not making for her daughter in “The Laws of Love.” “Naoise at Four,” as if in silent acknowledge of this problem, does not finally convince itself: it includes incidental imagery (“your love/ Is a closed circuit like your glove/ In your mother’s”) and, after setting up the myth for the sake of the contrast with present atrocity, does nothing more with it, but develops an unrelated strand of metaphor, that of credit. To assert in the conclusion “Your currency will not devalue,” is surely, in the money markets, incredible.


Reading “Naoise at Four”

Hannah, my niece, your name,
too, has a long history.
Now you play setting up home
(after marrying Prince Disney),
and dressing up Barbie,

later you will cry for a child
to make you a real woman.
Remember, Hannah smiled,
and in 1 Samuel 2:1-10
sang as well as any man.

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