Monday, May 22, 2017

Julie Morrissy on Eavan Boland

“In the old situation which existed in the Dublin I first knew, it was possible to be a poet, permissible to be a woman and difficult to be both without flouting the damaged and incomplete permissions on which Irish poetry had been constructed.”
                        —Eavan Boland, Object Lessons

Ireland used to feel like a very small place to me. Sometimes, it still does. I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that in Ireland. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I understood I could be a poet—like, that is a fine career and life choice to make. I’ve been thinking about the moment when that confidence occurred—whether it was my first publication, or being accepted to gradschool for Creative Writing. But in reality, Eavan Boland had quietly, and much earlier, set me on a track towards poetry for which I didn’t need permission.

I sat my Leaving Certificate in 2002—these are state exams for school-leavers. That year, the poetry on curriculum was by Seamus Heaney, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Michael Longley, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Eavan Boland. I wrote my English exam on Boland, particularly “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me,” “The War Horse,” and “The Famine Road.” Boland’s poems, as is well-documented, carefully explore themes of gender, oppression, domesticity, and public and private space. At 18 years old, I was a young woman struggling to find a place for myself in both the public sphere in Ireland, and the private sphere of my own mind and goals, which I kept mostly to myself.

Boland’s poetry continues to inspire and guide me. I still think the last stanza of “The Black Lace Fan” is among the most powerful lines of poetry ever written. However, Boland’s prose has also had a profound effect on how I see myself, both as a poet and as a woman in Ireland. I opened with a quotation from Boland’s prose memoir Object Lessons, in which she explores the fundamental challenges she faced as a woman in her career and in her life. Since this passage was written, Ireland has had three female Professors of Poetry (our equivalent of Poet Laureate) and many of the leading poetic voices in Ireland are women. Though, we can’t stop there—we need to be much more inclusive. Poetry remains a world of incomplete permissions.

We’ve made great strides, and we owe no small debt to Eavan Boland for that progress. But the position of women’s voices in Ireland remains just that, a work in progress—maybe not when it comes to representation in Irish poetry but as a society we have a long way to go in recognising, respecting, and encouraging the value of women’s experiences. In light of the historical context of women’s marginalisation and in the current context with the near complete lack of bodily autonomy (abortion is illegal and unconstitutional in Ireland), the message I feel most strongly from the Irish State is that, as a woman, my voice doesn’t really count. Object Lessons remains a significant marker of women’s struggle for equality in Ireland, and much of Boland’s meditation on those constrained possibilities remains embarrassingly relevant.

Eavan Boland played a role in making the life I lead possible, by simultaneously impacting the tenets of the Irish literary tradition and the texture of Irish life. Boland is by no means the only woman to have shaped Irish life in this way but for me, her influence is significant. Her work encourages me to keep writing about what I think is important—and, as Eileen Myles says in Inferno, “if a fucking horse can tell his story why can’t I.”

Julie Morrissy is poet and activist from Dublin. Her chapbook I Am Where (2015) is published by Eyewear (UK), and her debut collection Where, the Mile End is forthcoming with BookThug. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize, selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series, and named as one of Ireland’s “Rising Generation” poets in 2016. Morrissy has performed readings at international festivals, including IFOA Toronto. She is pursuing her PhD by practice at Ulster University. 

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