Thursday, July 03, 2008

Reading Boland's "Outside History" (1990) Part 2

Violence in the poem “Object Lessons” is depicted on the husband’s coffee mug: a hunting scene with dogs, hawks, picnic linen and pitches, a wild rabbit, a thrush, and a lady smiling as the huntsman kisses her. Violence is also literal here, not just pictorial. With a “shiver/ of presentiment,” the couple found the broken pieces of the mug—pieces of the sparrow hawk and the huntsman’s kisses—on the floorboards they had sworn “to sand down and seal/ with varnish.” The description of the mug evokes Keats’s Grecian urn, an allusion strengthened by the repeated references to the picnic pitches. But the poet not only breaks the mold here, she also shows the immediate, human surroundings of the aestheticised mug/urn: the rough, unvarnished floorboards of a new house.

The next poem “On the Gift of The Birds of America by John James Audubon” is, aptly, an elegy. The bird book speaks to the poet of “the celebration of an element/ which absence has revealed”; the creatures of the air remind the poet of her earthliness, and of her fear of losing her spot on earth. The poem ends with the memory of a day in May, on the Clare hills. The poet can still hear the music of swans flying overhead, and remember how she and her husband looked up, “rooted to the spot.” County Clare is located on the west coast of Ireland, northwest of the River Shannon. By introducing the Clare hills at the end, remembered in the new country of America, the elegy mourns for the loss of home, as well as the loss of life.

In “The Game” the poet varies her main strategy in this section. Instead of describing a concrete object symbolically, she describes, not the card game she overheard as a child in the strange country of England, but her own imaginary game, in which she dreamt of flying over water. That childish game gave her a sense of freedom and control, unlike her feeling in the card room where “the red-jacketed and cruel-eyed fractions of chance” lay abandoned by the players. The poem has a brilliant final stanza:

Later on I would get up and go to school in
the scalded light which fog leaves behind it;
and pray for the King in chapel and feel dumbly for
the archangels trapped in their granite hosannahs.

The English fog, described at the beginning of the poem as “tattering into wisps and rags,” alienated the Irish child, but also enabled her flights of fancy. More painful was “the scalded light” after the fog, when she had to leave the sanctuary of her room for school. In school, not only did she not play the game of “queens and aces,” she also had to “pray for the King.” For the unidentified flying object she imagined herself to be, she found in school the objective correlative: “the archangels trapped in their granite hosannahs.”

The poems in this section Object Lessons experiment with different verse forms. “The Black lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” is written in quatrains, “The Rooms of Other Women Poets” in couplets of roughly equal length. The six-line stanzas of “Object Lessons” are diamond shaped. The stanza of “On the Gift of The Bird of America” has three lines of decreasing length, the third, of 3-5 syllables, very much shorter than the other two. “The Game” is another poem in quatrains. The experimentation is interesting, but the most convincing of them all, in the confluence of subject, argument and tone, is the tercets of the next poem “The Shadow Doll.”

According to the author’s note, a shadow doll was sent to the bride-to-be in Victorian times, by her dressmaker. It consisted in a porcelain doll, under a dome of glass, modeling the proposed wedding dress. The poem begins with apparent innocence, and then gathers, into that innocence, understated menace:

They stitched blooms from ivory tulle
to hem the oyster gleam of the veil.
They made hoops for the crinoline.

Now, in summary and neatly sewn—
a porcelain bride in an airless glamour—
the shadow doll survives its occasion.

The decorum of the occasion is matched by the decorum of the lines in the first stanza, each line making up one whole unit of meaning. The decorum is enhanced by syntactical parallel (“They stitched . . . . They made . . . .”). By compressing the second sentence into one line, the stanza ends with a summarizing effect, an effect named by the next stanza, and equaled with the completion of the doll.

In the second stanza, the second line summarizes the doll in yet another way: the materiality of its meaning, in both its porcelain and its airlessness. The third line summarizes the past. The doll survives, the occasion does not. Both stanzas, in different syntactical ways, are complete in themselves. It’s astonishing how quickly the poet has moved—from doll making to Victorian wedding to the present—in the space of six lines.

The doll stays discreet about “visits, fevers, quickenings and lusts,” and also about how the bride saw herself in the doll. The doll’s discretion is part of the poem’s tact. Boland imagines the fake glamour of marriage represented by the doll, but does not ascribe her own imagining to the Victorian bride. Instead, she connects herself to that bride through the making of marital vows

I kept repeating on the night before—
astray among the cards and wedding gifts—
the coffee pots and the clocks and

the battered tan case full of cotton
lace and tissue paper, pressing down, then
pressing down again. And then locks.

The last line ends a sentence beginning 14 lines (4 stanzas) before it. The whole poem consists of only five sentences, the last of which is the shortest, a final catch. A reference to the shadow doll’s tulle and crinoline, the cotton lace and tissue paper are a weight and a casing so soft and so inescapable. The repetition of the vows sets up the rhythm in these stanzas: the accumulated wedding gifts; the coordinate conjunction “and”; the phrase “pressing down”; and the inevitable “and then.”

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