Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Eavan Boland's "A Journey with Two Maps"

Saw the book in Powerhouse Arena last Sunday when we were wandering around Dumbo, GH, WL, TB and me, bought it and started reading it immediately. It forms an interesting companion to this Irish woman poet's body of poetry. Again and again Boland returns to her memory of being a young wife and mother in a new suburb outside of Dublin in the 1970s, when violence in the North unsettled life in the South. "Domestic Violence," which ends the first section of biographical essays, records especially succinctly Boland's forceful attempt to subvert the received poetic tradition in order to make room for, and give significance to, the domestic poem.

The second section titled "Maps" consists of critical pieces on women poets who gave her help and direction in questioning the tradition that she loves. There are essays here on Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Mew, Sylvia Plath, Edna St, Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, Gwendolyn Brooks and Paula Meehan. The most illuminating essay is on Bradstreet. Boland shows how the contemporary of Marvell and Milton wrote herself into a Puritan New Englander. There are few surprises in the other pieces, though the judgments are always sympathetic and persuasive. The writing is sometimes more obscure than necessary, but the obscurity is partly a result of desiring to be suggestive, not definitive. 

The last section is made up of a single essay, a letter to an imaginary Young Woman Poet, in a conscious nod to Rilke. The letter exhorts the young poet to change the tradition, and not to change or curb herself to fit the tradition. As is the case in such missives, the letter-writer is writing mostly to her younger self. The final figure of friendship between generations is deeply humane and democratic.

Throughout the book Boland strives to recover the context of a poet's life in order to read the poet's text more deeply. It is an approach that runs counter to Pound's strictures against biographical criticism, also adopted by the New Critics. For Boland, however, the life is bigger than the poem, and too much is lost when the life is disregarded. This book provides Boland's life to go with her poetry. 

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