Walking Through Light-Filled Rooms In 'Woman Without A Country'
A Woman Without a Country
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I've said before that a good collection of poetry — unlike, say, a good novel, or a good short story — is tricky to talk about. If I love a novel, I'll describe the plot, maybe compare it to the writing of others, talk about the successes and failures of its craft. Poetry collections, though — I just want to read portions out to people, make them feel what I felt, show them concretely the details over which I marveled.
Poet Eavan Boland has been publishing exceptional work for 42 years. Her perceptions are so probing, her voice is so sure and smooth that I felt, reading A Woman Without a Country, that I was wandering through different rooms following an elusive scent or sound or slant of light, only being made fully aware of what I was seeking in the moment of its vanishing. And what I want most of all is to take people through those rooms with me.
A Woman Without a Country is a collection in four parts: "Song and Error," "A Woman Without a Country," "The Trials of Our Faith," and "Edge of Empire." It feels curated with the ease of old habit, a sequence that feels inevitable in its elegance and grace. Of course a poem breaking down the etymology of the word "nostalgia" will lead to a poem featuring Greek myth; of course that poem will pour itself into Roman Ovid. When I speak of inevitability, I don't mean predictability; I mean that structure of limb and likeness that takes hold of our gaze and makes us follow a line of marble statues, marvelling at the hand that broke them out of stone.
I've never read anyone who writes about light in quite the way Boland does. In her hands light becomes tactile, becomes a building material or something to drink. "Light slips down from the Dublin hills," "a medicine of light," "tended light," "inlaid with light," "a squeak of light"— light in multiple and marvellous forms, inflected by landscape, memory, and language.
And Boland treasures single words as if she were contemplating the facets of jewels: some poems' exercises in etymology are akin to slipping on a necklace. "Nostalgia" contemplates the linguistic heritage of the word "cobbler," while the magnificent "Song and Error" muses on the translation of the reason Ovid gave for his banishment from Rome, before pulling back into a breath-taking perspective on language's capacity to colonize. It's masterful work.
The stand-out sequence for me was "A Woman Without a Country;" the dedication alone had me in tears:
This sequence is dedicated to those who lost a country, not by history or inheritance, but through a series of questions to which they could find no answer.
Laced with prose sections titled in numbered "Lessons," it's a powerful mediation between the vast and the small. The poems move from grand ideas of nation to a single woman's life, blurring the reality of which is vast and which is small, and questioning whether that distance between idea and existence can be bridged. This is a passage from "Anonymity," a poem that invites the reader to walk "from room to room" in a museum:
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Powerless queens; stock-still, enslaved
Girls at the entryway to anonymity.
Women without a country
Assembled from the treasures of a country:
A finger of silver. A mineral breast.
An ear poured out in bronze.
I have felt broken open by Boland's language before, most keenly by passages in her "Letter to a young woman poet." In it she remembers how "the poets I knew were not women: the women I knew were not poets. The conversations I had, or wanted to have, were never complete."
I felt, reading A Woman Without a Country, that I was having a conversation — that beautiful kind of conversation where you can't nod enthusiastically enough, where each speaker articulates the other's thoughts as quickly as they occur, where you feel energized and elated and full of new understanding of each other and the world.
I'm profoundly grateful for it.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.