Thank you for joining us again for the latest installment of Lyric Essentials! This week, Orlando Poet Laureate Susan Lilley joins us to gush all about legendary Irish poet Eavan Boland, who passed this spring. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: What is your personal connection with Eavan Boland?
Susan Lilley: Eavan Boland has become one of the most important poets to me personally over the last two decades. I first discovered her as a teacher while learning about the AP Literature exam, and her knock-out poem “It’s a Woman’s World” was an essay prompt in the late 90s. I teach that poem to this day, and it is a feast for students to delve into feminist ideas and the magic of the poetic line. A spare, gorgeous, timeless piece.
EH: Has Boland’s work influenced your own poetry or poet’s identity?
SL: I developed slowly as a poet while raising kids and making a living. It always seemed that the same creative energy spent in mothering was also the source of my poetry. Not that I only write poems of domestic life, but the energy stems from the same source–deep deep deep. Boland is that poet, for me, who gave permission to bring all of that experience (and, let’s face it, love and anxiety of child-rearing) into my work. I chose to read “Energies” (from her book Night Feed) here because, like “It’s a Woman’s World,” the imagery of daily rhythms and domestic detail taps at something ineffable and transitory under the surface.
EH: What is your relationship with Boland’s poetry?
SL: I have to say that Against Love Poetry is the book that I reread the most. A poem that seems to have come from her sifting through the lives of the past is a desperately sad love story set during a famine, “Quarantine.” The opening lines are unnerving and bold: “In the worst hour of the worst season/ of the worst year of a whole people/ a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.” The terrible challenge of trying to escape famine-related death only to succumb “under freezing stars” and be found dead in the morning is wrenching to read, but most moving in the narrative are the two lines in the third stanza, which describe and interpret the couple’s last moments before dying of cold and hunger:
“But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.”
After the three four-line stanzas tell this stark tale, the last two bring the story into direct connection with the book’s theme and title:
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
The last stanza lists the categorical facts of the couple’s suffering and death in 1847, and ends with a more sober and powerful definition of love than ever attempted by those courtier-songwriters, Wyatt and Raleigh: “what there is between a man and a woman./ And in which darkness it can best be proved.” I so admire this poem’s leap from narrative to dissection of what love means at “this threshold”—far from the ditties of romantic dalliances at court Boland so obediently studied in her youth. No wonder she’s “against love poetry”!
EH: Boland’s identity as an Irish feminist poet has gained a reputation for giving voice to previously unspoken women’s experiences through poetry—and she gives credit to Sylvia Plath for doing the same for her. Do you feel Boland has given voice with poetry for you and your experiences?
SL: In Boland we have an authentic female voice, a voice both steeped in literary tradition and yet strong enough to buck its patriarchal dominance, a voice that speaks to me both personally and politically as a woman. When Boland says “we [women] were never at the scene of the crime” she is invoking not only Irish history but every woman’s history, and the blessing and curse of the domestic world to which (she says in the introduction to an essential essay collection, Object Lessons) her body led her at the same time she was trying to become a poet. A difficult path, especially “in a country where the word woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed.” This divided experience is shared by women in other countries and other generations, and is undoubtedly still a nagging truth in the lives of many women artists today.
Boland’s literary training simultaneously intimidated her and prepared her for the life of a poet. Her historical sensibility is very present in these poems, but now she seems to have control over what used to subdue and even sometimes alienate her. In the second poem I chose to read, “Thanked be Fortune,” Sir Thomas Wyatt is invoked in the title, a line from his 1535 poem “They Flee from Me,” in which a bereft courtier first whines about his falling popularity with the women of the court and then indulges in a sensual memory (“thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise . . .”). Even a momentary re-examination of Wyatt’s famous poem reinforces Boland’s assertion in Object Lessons that throughout centuries of male dominance in poetry, women have certainly been present, but as “ornaments” and mythic emblems, which objectified and silenced real women. The first line of this love poem about marriage carries us further into the profound dual existence of the speaker which is glimpsed here in the couple’s book-filled bedroom:
Did we live a double life?
I would have said
we never envied
the epic glory of the star-crossed
Instead, this couple learned the “code marriage makes of passion–duty dailyness routine.” Through the bookshelf above their bed, they are vicariously involved in the on-going dramas of all great literature, where “men and women/ wept, curse, kept and broke faith/ and killed themselves for love” only to wake to their own selves at dawn. Although Boland is never afraid to deal in abstract ideas, her sparing and well-wrought imagery is stunning, as in this poem which ends with such a complete sensory picture of the season, the current era of the marriage, and the enveloping natural world, it is downright Haiku-like in its delicious completion:
we woke early and lay together
listening to our child crying, as if to birdsong,
with ice on the windowsills
and the grass eking out
the last crooked hour of starlight.
The image of the grass, complicated and personified by the verb “eking,” takes the poem outdoors but the air is still infused with very human longings and rhythms. I am eternally grateful for how her poems demonstrate the power of women’s experience as poetic material.
And now she is gone. At the beginning of the Covid crisis, she was teaching at Stanford, far from her home and family in Ireland. She chose to go home to weather the pandemic with her family and was enjoying teaching online when she suffered a massive stroke and died at home in Dublin on April 27. For a whole day I sat on my bed with her books all around me. Thanked be fortune, we have this beautiful work in which she lives. Read Eavan Boland!
Eavan Boland is an influential Irish poet and academic, known for being a prominent female voice in contemporary Irish literature. She is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, several volumes of nonfiction, and was the recipient of a Lannan Foundation Award, an American Ireland Fund Literary Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards, among many other honors. She was also an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Irish Academy of Letters. A professor for decades at several institutions, Boland was most recently teaching at Stanford University, where she was the Melvin and Bill Lane Director of the Creative Writing Program. She died following a stroke in her home in Dublin on April 27th, 2020 at 75 years old.
Susan Lilley is a Florida native and is currently serving as Orlando’s inaugural Poet Laureate. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, The Southern Review, Drunken Boat, Saw Palm, The Florida Review, Sweet, and other journals. Her two chapbooks are Night Windows and Satellite Beach. She is a past winner of the Rita Dove Poetry Award and has held a State of Florida Individual Arts Fellowship. She has taught at University of Central Florida and Rollins College, and currently teaches literature and creative writing at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park. Her new full collection, Venus in Retrograde, was published spring of 2019 by Burrow Press.
Purchase Lilley’s first full collection of poetry, Venus in Retrograde from Burrow Press.
Read the official announcement naming Lilley Orlando’s first poet laureate.
Listen to Lilley talk more about her work on the podcast The Drunken Odyssey.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/