Migration, crises and our wired, online world
Eavan Boland at Dún Eochla on Inis Mór for the Aran Islands Poetry Festival. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
Political art is a contrary creation: its occasion, which gives it its initial impetus, can exert a drag that unbalances and overwhelms the poet’s transforming imagination. Alan Jude Moore’s fourth collection, Zinger (Salmon, €12), plots his poems against geopolitical migrations and crises. “The names of conflicts sometimes change,” Moore writes in Texas Once Was Mexico, but his poems’ urgent eye for political crises, which marks their quickfire returns to the Russian scenes of earlier collections and the book’s longer sequences, runs the risk of flattening out their different subjects.
Sometimes Moore does achieve a shocking immediacy: in this year of the Russian Winter Olympics, his poem Krasnodar’s scene of whitewash is brief and well judged as it recounts a bombing “halfway to Sochi” and a “woman from Stavropol / painting the ceiling white / in the bright bright hotel”.
Eavan Boland has always been interested in marrying ethical and aesthetic concerns, and her New Selected Poems (Carcanet, £12.95) will refamiliarise readers with her three best and most acclaimed books, The Journey (1987), Outside History (1990) and In a Time of Violence (1994). In substantial selections from those books her distinctive style – short, heavily punctuated, end-stopped sentences, and her approach to subject matter – revisionist, feminist and historical – lay out an argument about women as poets rather than just the subjects of poems: the anthology favourite Listen. This Is the Noise of Myth, typically, draws attention to how a story (beguilingly) misrepresents the world, even as the poem retells that story itself.
As a counterpoint to such “metapoems” Boland wrote fine poems such as Love, Nocturne and The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me, among others, which newly inhabit and find freedom in domestic and transitional spaces.
The selections here do justice to Boland’s achievement, and also include those books’ reflections on a period the poet spent in London as a child, years that sharpened her outsider sense of Irishness and led to significant poems such as The Emigrant Irish (“Like oil lamps we put them out the back, // of our houses, of our minds”).
In succeeding collections Boland continued to rework these themes, often projecting them on to historical subjects. The excludedness of the emigrant was, though, increasingly and not always convincingly conflated with her experience of being a woman poet in Ireland.
The juxtapositions of Still Life, for example, do not quite gel: the Irish-American painter William Harnett, “a famous realist”, left Clonakilty in 1848 “in the aftermath of Famine. In // the same year” (my italics) as an etching of a starving woman with her dead child was published in the London Illustrated News, an image actually published in 1847. If the facts seem made to measure, does the poetry seem too much like a rhetorical exercise? A poem’s arguments can petrify and neuter the careful detail and pointed realism that elsewhere strengthen Boland’s style.