The Search for Metaphor in Eavan Boland's Domestic Violence
Essay by Joanna Cooper


In Eavan Boland's 1994 memoir, Object Lessons, she discusses the tension she felt between her desire to become part of the Irish literary community and the lack of place for women's everyday experience in the literature admired by that community, at least as she knew it when she was coming of age in the early 1960s. Boland writes, "Nothing I saw in the tradition--not the poems I read on the page or the conversations I heard from male contemporaries-- encouraged me to follow my body with my mind and take myself to a place where they could heal in language: in new poems, in radical explorations. On the contrary. There was a deep suspicion of the ordinary life. It was assumed to be a narrow and unpoetic one" (110). Added to this schism was the pull between British and Irish poetic traditions, which Boland describes as a tension between a tradition of lyric poetry that celebrated individualism and a bardic, nationalist tradition that was always part of larger political discourses, for, in Ireland, "a complex and vital relation had existed between poetry and faith, between the vocation of the poet and the demands of a society" (81). As a young woman, Boland realized that the material and bodily realities of her life meant that she was neither the romantic "artist-hero" of British literature or the nationalist hero of Irish verse.

The strongest poems in Boland's latest collection, Domestic Violence, show the poet searching for an appropriate metaphor to express these pulls between different types of "domestic" history. With its references to objects such as still lifes, tapestries, plates, official papers, textile mills, and "polished lemon wood," this work is about a poet peering into the surfaces of national and personal domestic life, revealing that the private and the national are woven into each other but somehow foreign to each other. There is a lovely but fraught intimacy to these poems that mirrors the intimacy of a still life painting, in which, somehow, the public and the private intersect, but never really touch. In Object Lessons, Boland writes of how the literary community she sought to join extended "constant invitation to alter my inner world to make it acceptable to the conventions of the poet which had developed and were sustained around me" (117). With her latest collection, Boland honors and explores the female private world that is at odds with the "public forms" that have surrounded it.

The first section of the book, a poem sequence called "Domestic Violence," begins with a lovely, vaguely menacing Plath-like atmosphere:

It was winter, lunar, wet. At dusk

Pewter seedlings became moonlight orphans.

Pleased to meet you meat to please you

said the butcher's sign in the window in the village.

This opening poem sets up the book's themes of political and private histories that intersect but never quite touch. The young couple is described watching as their "island/ Broke out its old sores for all to see":

We stood there wondering how

the salt horizons and the Dublin hills,

the rivers, table mountains, Viking marshes

we thought we knew

had been made to shiver

into our ancient twelve by fifteen television

which gave them back as gray and grayer tears

and killings, killings, killings,

then moonlight-colored funerals . . .

The images enter their home, but the life of the couple (and of the poem) remains in the home. Boland writes, "We lived our lives, were happy, stayed as one." Even so, something else haunts the memory of that time, perhaps the remembered voices of an unhappy neighbor couple, or just the sense that "nothing is ever entirely/ right in the lives of those who love each other":

. . . if I can be safe in

the weak spring light in that kitchen, then

why is there another kitchen, spring light

always darkening in it and

a woman whispering to a man

over and over what else could we have done?

Many of the strongest poems in the collection meditate on this uneasy intersection of the personal domestic history and larger historical forces. In "Silenced," the poet speaks of Philomel whose "sister's husband, Tereus, given to violence,/ raped her once/ and said he required her silence/ forever. When she whispered but/ he finished it all and had her tongue cut out." Philomel turns to weaving to tell her story, and as the poem ends, poet and weaver merge:

An Irish sky was unfolding its wintry colors

slowly over my shoulder. An old radio

was there in the room as well, telling its own

unregarded story of violation.

Now she is rinsing the distances

with greenish silks. Now, for the terrible foreground,

she is pulling out crimson thread.

It is, perhaps, significant that the poem hints at latent power in female art but stops short of retelling the national dramas emerging "unregarded" from the radio. Interestingly, some of the least effective poems here are the ones that directly address oppression of the Irish. Whether this is because these are the moments when the poet strays from a more nuanced sense of history evinced elsewhere, or simply because these straightforward truths are more difficult to translate into fresh image and metaphor, the language at times goes slack. An example of this is in the poem "The Nineteenth-Century Irish Poets": "But now, looking back, I think they were poisoned--/ every word they used contaminated by the one it was not./ Now, when I take the book down after midnight,/ I read every line as if it came from a burned throat." When Boland returns to the mysterious intersections of history and lived experience, she is on surer footing. In "Formation," she intertwines a scene of reading a novel with thoughts about history and her own memories of the classroom:

Midnight--a sound of car alarms and sirens.

I am reading a novel of nineteenth-century Ireland.

Sedition is in the air. Betrayal is in the future.

My face is caught

in the coarse waters of polished lemon wood.

What is the body anyway but a stranger

bringing news of somewhere else?

Here she jumps off from the familiar language about "sedition" and "betrayal" and takes us into a surprising turn, in which the danger and betrayal are present in every life, as every person is "caught" in time, a body moving through existence that "bring[s] news from somewhere else."

Some of the most intriguing pieces in the collection are the most "meta-figurative"; in these poems, the speaker takes us along in her meditation on how metaphors gain their power. In "Instructions," the speaker explains, "To write about age you need to takes something and/ break it. . . . A branch, perhaps, girlish with blossom. Snapped off./ Close to the sap." The poem is about the devaluing of women and about the power of language both to constrain and to arm the previously constrained: "Now take syntax. Break that too. What is left is for you/ and you only:/ A dead tree. The future. What does not bear fruit. Or thinking of." In "Atlantis--A Lost Sonnet," Boland touches on something essential yet mysterious about the interplay of metaphor, myth, and memory.

Surely a great city must have been missed?

I miss our old city--

white pepper, white pudding, you and I meeting

under fanlights and low skies to go home in it. Maybe

what really happened is

this: the old fable-makers searched hard for a word

to convey that what is gone is gone forever and

never found it. And so, in the best traditions of

where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name

and drowned it.

The poem moves from a question about Atlantis to a memory of Dublin to a larger, elusive set of questions about memory, culture, sorrow, and legacy. The mystery and quiet power here, and elsewhere in the collection, suggest that Eavan Boland is a necessary and enduring voice of our time.