Eavan Boland: Intimate portrait of the poet’s life and work

TV Review: Excellent documentary uncovers the impetus behind Boland’s poems

Eavan Boland reading from her collection In a Time of Violence, at a Guinness Writers’ Lunch in Doheny and Nesbitt’s pub, Dublin, 1994. Photograph: Eric Luke

Eavan Boland reading from her collection In a Time of Violence, at a Guinness Writers’ Lunch in Doheny and Nesbitt’s pub, Dublin, 1994. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

As a series of paintings flit across the screen, the poet Eavan Boland gives an affecting appreciation. “My mother painted these beautiful, evocative, quickly-made scenes,” she says, noting “the intimacy of a very fragile moment.”

Eavan Boland: Is It Still the Same (RTE One, Thursday, 10.15pm), an excellent documentary on how the poet’s life and work intertwine, recognises Boland’s ability to do something similar, and, in its deft appreciation, forges a fitting intimacy of its own.

It helps that Boland is such an obliging subject; direct and disarming in speech, neither grandstanding or retreating. She shares confidences freely, such as the subterfuge of her mother’s portrait of Boland as a girl, completed by enlisting her sister as a model.

Is there a sly echo of that transference when Boland confesses that her exquisite poem The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me jumbles the characters of her parents – “She was always early./ He was late.” – grafting one’s trait to the other?

It’s an issue that presenting poetry on television has itself long tackled. Throughout Boland’s career, in fact, we see a number of approaches: reciting from a stool in a spotlight on The Late Late Show in 1990, or reading by her fireplace on an arts show from 1987.

Here, directors Charlie McCarthy and Declan Recks tend to animate her words with floating titles that address the viewer, filmic vignettes that magnify their details, or, better still, merging recordings of Boland from decades ago with her reciting to camera today.

That is an attentive manoeuvre. “Women are considered young, immutable, but they very rarely grow,” says Boland of literature, where a woman is often the object and seldom the subject. “If I was going to grow older, I wanted to grow old in my poetry.”

That her private experiences spur her poetry is as politically charged as her activism within the Women’s Liberation Movement, combating marginalisation, silence and erasure. In both approaches, she is allied with Mary Robinson, a close friend from their days in Trinity College. To see them in each other’s company today – the dreamer and the pragmatist, they agree, with Robinson the former and Boland the latter – is illuminating and inspiring.

Interleaving her biography with her bibliography, the documentary will find an impetus behind Boland’s poems – be that the exile of a peripatetic childhood, the blissful early days of marriage, or breast feeding her first born – and let that lead the way.

“I was going to put the life I lived into the poem, no matter what,” she says. That her poem Child of our Time, a moving response to the Dublin bombing in 1974, is both personally felt and publicly committed, hardly contradicts that.

A professor in Stanford University, Boland will elucidate her work without lessening its wonder, and will skewer a repressive society with a sharp eye for what lies beneath it. (Her deft fileting of the notoriously imbalanced Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing – in which Boland was one of few women writers included – is a masterclass in public debate.)

Over a dense yet swift hour, the documentary honours her assertion that the private experience can animate public discussion, unfussily showing Boland speaking at public events and university seminars, or at home with her grandchildren, watching Robinson quoting her work from the stage of her inauguration, or relaxed in her company on her sofa.

Like that grafted hand in Boland’s childhood painting, or the traits of her parents swapped in a verse, the documentary presents such fascinating exchanges that make lives and experience whole.