This book consists of three sections: Object Lessons with 11 poems; Outside History, a 12-part sequence; and Distances with 12 poems. This three-section division was used for the first time in the previous book The Journey, and, like that book, the middle section gives the collection its title. The division reminds me of a triptych, with its central and flanking panels.
Another similarity to The Journey lies in the opening poem. Like “I Remember,” “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” is a poem about Boland’s mother, and functions as a kind of invocation to the Mother Muse, most explicitly sought out in Night Feed.
“The Black Lace Fan” also sets the strategy of this section Object Lessons. The fan, a gift from an ex-lover to the poet’s mother, is described in such a way as to evoke character and situation. Its “wild roses . . ./ darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly” suggests the mother’s passion. Its tortoiseshell, though it has “the reticent, clear patience of its element,” is “a worn-out, underwater bullion,” and keeps “an inference of its violation.” What is violated is not only the Hawksbill turtle, but also the mother’s trust in her fickle lover. The violence used to make beautiful objects is a theme in this section.
The past, in the form of the fan, is passed from mother to daughter, but its story is always incomplete. The poet has to “improvise,” to imagine what happened after the lover left her mother. She imagines that, after having her heart broken, her mother, like a blackbird on a sultry morning, puts out her wing—“the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.”
In “The Rooms of Other Women Poets,” the violation is inferred from the wild flowers “dried and fired” on the saucer, “a savage, old calligraphy” which the poet refuses to have in her room, and wonders whether other women poets think the same way. She thinks they, like her, prefer the “unaggressive silence” of cane chair and plain table bearing up a quire of foolscap. She imagines they share similar rooms, with “honeyed corners, the interior sunless,” and through the windows see
the bay windbreak, the laburnum hang fire, feel
the ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early.