In Irish poetry, from Ó Rathaille to the rebel songs, a paradigmatic encounter recurs. Up on a hill, or down by the glenside, the poet meets a woman who celebrates Ireland’s pastand speaks of national redemption. This emblematic figure, often glimpsed in a vision or ‘aisling’, can be a glamorous maiden awaiting her Stuart prince, but she also appears as the ‘poor old woman’ of the patriotic ballads. Whether praising the sacrifices of ‘the bold Fenian men’ or complaining (after 1921) of the bondage which shackles one of her ‘four green fields’, this plangent yet bloodthirsty crone is as worn a cultural token as those related feminine stereotypes, Dark Rosaleen and Cathleen Ní Houlihan. In the rapidly modernising Ireland of satellite TV and legalised divorce, she might seem an exhausted figment. Remarkably, however, the Shan Van Vocht keeps cropping up in verse, as though poets hoped that renewed encounters could release the energies still locked in archaic nationalism, and clarify relations between patriotic sentiment and sexual politics.
Justin Quinn tries to get to the bottom of this phenomenon in his lively first collection, The ‘O’o’a’a’ Bird. The pale, red-haired beauty of his ‘Ur-Aisling’ is so thoroughly archetypal that she appears ‘when the world had not yet happened’ and invites the poet to create ‘a nation’:
So I thought ‘Fine!’ and did the lot.
First I laid mythologies
Like slabs across the open land,
Then infrastructure and nostalgias
Unto completion. The hour was late.
She came again, now changed with time,
Which shocked me, but still beautiful.
‘You have usurped my power and name –
Your work misjudged, these people pitiful.’
I shrugged. ‘So usurp it back again.’
Although a Dubliner, Quinn works in Prague, and the sequence from which ‘Ur-Aisling’ comes – ‘Days of the New Republic’ – refers as much to the new Czech state as it does to modern Eire. Quinn’s book shows how a growing awareness of the European dimension of Irish history can defuse the obsession with perfidious Albion and establish parallels between events in Ireland and the emergence of other small states. Certainly, in his Prague aisling, nostalgia is regarded sceptically, as something imposed for the sake of nation formation, and the ageing maiden or ‘seanbhean’ can only undo the present by an act of usurpation.
In the most vivid recent treatment of the topic, the Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill transfers ‘An tSeanbhean Bhocht’ to an old folks’ home. With her ‘faded cornflower blue ... eye’ fixed on ‘the bright days of her youth’, the seanbhean devotes herself in Ciaran Carson’s 1990 translation to ‘lamenting all the halcyon monotony of that pluperfect time’. Ní Dhomhnaill’s quarrel with this figure is not just that in the past men were hanged and ‘mowed down / In their hundreds’ when they answered her imperious call, but that, these days, although she’s decrepit, she still expects trays of cucumber sandwiches and tea served in silver and china. The likes of Emmet and Pearse may no longer be executed for her sake, but in an Ireland which is still conservative in the role it allots to women, ‘chits of girls’ and ‘hussies’ must wait on her hand and foot, and only get grumbles for thanks. In a hard-pressed and resentful ending, the poet says (in literal translation) that she’ll do ‘anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet’. Carson makes his own feelings clear by rendering this, more toughly: ‘anything at all / To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.’
The issues raised by Quinn and Ní Dhomhnaill bear heavily on certain writers who share their gender with the Shan Van Vocht. Eavan Boland, in particular, identifies a double-bind. Maintaining that Irish poets must work in a tradition shaped by nationalism, she observes that the native line is short of women writers. When poets who happen to be women look to the Irish past for models, what they find are texts composed by men in which female experience is suppressed because the feminine so often signifies the nation. Accusing Irish poets of betrayal in the past, Boland goes on to identify a dilemma with paradigmatic implications for contemporary poetry, given that so many once silent groups now clamour for self-representation. When an Irish woman attempts to rewrite the inherited poem, Boland argues, she has to square the circle of authoring a structure in which she tacitly appears as an object, an appropriated emblem. Many of the finest pieces in her Collected Poems explore this difficulty, bringing new kinds of material into Irish verse and experimenting with points of view. And the creative labour of recovery and invention is explicated and extended in the often impressive essays which are gathered in Object Lessons.
At the heart of both books lies Boland’s encounter, when she was a student, with a poor old woman. During a spring vacation on Achill, in retreat from Trinity College Dublin where she had done less than brilliantly in her first-year exams, Boland found herself talking to the caretaker of her cottage. As she explains in the essay ‘Outside History’, she ‘sensed’, at the time, ‘a power in the encounter’. Now it strikes her with the force of a delayed epiphany:
I can see her still. She has a tea towel round her waist – perhaps this is one image that has become all the images I have of her – she wears an old cardigan and her hands are blushing with cold as she puts down the bucket. Sometimes we talk inside the door of the cottage. Once, I remember, we stood there as the dark grew all around us and I could see stars beginning to curve in the stream behind us.
This woman is an emblem of all the realities abstracted from the seanbhean-as-Erin. She stands for the sufferings of ordinary folk – not least because, according to Boland, ‘she was the first person to talk to me about the Famine.’ And the criticism of bardic stereotyping implicit in her cold-handed presence goes along with retrospective hostility towards the influence of an alien culture. The final twist of the knife, in Boland’s guilty recollection, is that, after talking to the caretaker, she resumed her study of 16th-century English court poetry: ‘I turned my back on her in that cold twilight and went to commit to memory the songs and artifices of the very power systems which had made her own memory such an archive of loss.’
In ‘The Achill Woman’ – the poem which begins Boland’s verse-cycle ‘Outside History’ – the same information is redeployed, sometimes in the same words. Boland began her career in the Sixties by crossing Yeats with the Movement poets, and though her technique has developed, her poems are often still most accomplished when close to discursive prose. In ‘The Achill Woman’, she handles the line with typical decorum, employing a deliberated free verse with bounds set by steady end-stopping and the ghost of an alternate rhyme scheme. Towards the end of the poem, however, she launches an extended sentence which, while it is kept in touch with prose by the up-front matter-of-factness of initial ‘and’ and ‘the’, rises to cosmic grandeur. This move towards involving the planets in the young Boland’s encounter with the old woman is nicely ironised by the way in which the poet’s belated rejection of harmonious servitude to English court culture is written in lines which themselves strike an elegantly Elizabethan note:
but nothing now can change the way I went
indoors, chilled by the wind
and made a fire
and took down my book
and opened it and failed to comprehend
the harmonies of servitude,
the grace music gives to flattery
and language borrows from ambition –
and how I fell asleep
the planets clouding over in the skies,
the slow decline of the spring moon,
the songs crying out their ironies.
There are problems with all this. In a vigorous essay called ‘Inside and Outside History’, the poet Anne Stevenson challenged Boland’s claim that she lacks female precursors, and suggested that her sense of isolation is encouraging feminist correctness at the expense of ‘fire or flair’. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill knocked holes in Stevenson’s account of Gaelic literature in a piece called ‘What Foremothers?’, but that still leaves the scores of Irish women poets who published in English before the Sixties. In any case, Stevenson has a point about gravitas. It is symptomatic that Boland excludes from her Collected Poems the witty, self-deprecating piece called ‘Patchwork’, published in Night Feed (1982), as though anxious to avoid frivolity. The burden of being pioneeringly representative, of being required by history and ethics to realign the axes of poetry, is carried rather ostentatiously in her recent work, and it exacts a price in doubtful politics as well as tonal sameness. How many varieties of Irishness can the Achill Woman represent? It is as hard to imagine a Boland poem about shopping on the Shankill Road as it would be to think of her embracing Justin Quinn’s historical scepticism. At times, one suspects that political distortion is sustaining a traditional narrative of initiation into nationalist consciousness. Can it really be the case, for instance, that the daughter of an Irish diplomat who worked for De Valera, the teenager who was fascinated (as Object Lessons tells us) with rebel songs and martyred patriots, did not ‘talk to’ anyone about the Famine until she went, as a student, to Achill? And how true is it to say that, in turning away from the old woman, Boland chose ‘the songs and artifices of the very power systems which had made her own memory such an archive of loss’? It is stretching history to implicate Wyatt and Raleigh in the Famine.
Boland’s relations with nationalism are so vexed that would-be helpful distinctions, between the ‘necessity of the idea of a nation’ and the ‘fervour and crudity’ of the -ism, become blurred. One advantage of having so much of her work now in print is that it allows one to identify the grounds of this vexation, where the complexity of Irish history meets, and is partly defeated by, her investment in a psychology of belonging. The creative wholeness which connects not just Boland’s verse with her prose but also her early emotional experiences with the political forms of adult imagination makes it clear that a chronic and consuming need to be ‘located’ (to use her word) in a known, possessed place encourages the poet to under-analyse her politics, and to simplify her way to ambiguity. This is not a sly way of saying that Irish nationalism is a neurosis, and that Boland’s fear of dislocation could be resolved more effectively by visiting a therapist than by writing about the oppressed and silenced. It is, however, to respect the honesty of her observation, in the prose text of ‘Outside History’, that she remained faithful to much received thinking about Ireland, despite its sexist distortions, because the brokenness of the Irish past, as understood through a quasi-nationalist perspective, matched her sense of self: ‘its fragmentations extended into mine.’ Repeatedly, Boland explores the negative effects of exile, division and estrangement, shifting focus with provocative ease between national and individual consciousness.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944, but moved as a child to London. In Object Lessons she says that this ‘ordinary displacement made an extraordinary distance between the word place and the word mine’. When interviewed a few years ago, she even traced her psycho-political preoccupations to the ‘estrangement’ which afflicted her in her father’s diplomatic residence. Boland’s dislocation was exacerbated when (after spending time in New York) she returned to Dublin, at 14, to find that Ireland was not her own. She had missed the Catholic festivals, the political meetings, the Irish dances: all those things which gave the Republic its character in the Fifties. Looking back she can see that exile brought her certain gifts. For one thing, it made her so sensitive to the interplay of remembrance and location that, in New York, she ‘began to watch places with an interest so exact it might have been memory’. At the time, however, there was only an insecurity, which nationalism offered to heal. Meeting the poet Padraic Colum in America, she felt ‘a sparkling continuum’ in the ‘broken world of my childhood’ when told that he knew Padraic Pearse. In Dublin, where she learns how hard it is ‘to extricate place from nation’, she is gratified to find herself standing on the spot where Robert Emmet was hanged in 1803. The psychological basis of her selective vision of Irishness could not be more plainly set forth.
Once Boland was settled in Dublin, reading filled in her sense of an Ireland which she did not ‘possess’. But in her first, hesitant poems, ‘I found a temptation to look for that place between the words themselves where I could forget ... the dislocation of a childhood.’ This talk of displacement is not loosely metaphorical: it links Boland’s early creativity to specific anxieties about locale. When she saw the bench in Dublin where Patrick Kavanagh used to sit, and read his sonnet about the spot, she was thrilled by ‘the idea of place as something language could claim even if ownership had been denied’. ‘Because I was starting to locate myself in language,’ she recalls, ‘I was slowly, after so many disappointments, beginning to find myself in place.’ Yet the insecurities persisted, and they gnaw at Boland today. She pities herself, as a student, for having been ‘the sum of all the contradictions and interruptions which had divided me from the childhood I might have had’. ‘When I sit down to write,’ she adds, of that time, ‘I have an uncanny sense of spoiled identity and uncertain origin.’ Though her use of the historical present acknowledges that the dislocation still hurts, does that excuse the ethnic cleanliness of the notion that, by living in London and New York, her ‘identity’ was ‘spoiled’?
It was at this point, of course, that Boland’s difficulties with the Shan Van Vocht began. In verse, but also around it, Boland discovered the ultimate dislocation. She learned that she had been ‘born in a country where and at a time when the word “woman” and the word “poet” inhabited two separate kingdoms of experience and expression. I could not, it seemed, live in both.’ Gaps on the poetry shelf support the claim that women writers felt excluded in Sixties Dublin. Derek Mahon, an eyewitness to literary life in Jammet’s back bar and the lounge of the Old Royal Hibernian Hotel, has agreed that Boland made her way in ‘a male-dominated literary culture’. He wonders whether it was necessary for her to ‘struggle’ in that world, but the mock-gallantry of his reasoning – ‘She had only to look at a door and it flew open’ – gallantly concedes the point. In any case, for Boland, the real ‘struggle’ went on inside poems which she now recognises as alien. ‘Radical acts’ were needed to solve the problem: ‘a sense of location’ in time, place and the poem, and then ‘an act of leave-taking’.
Much of this strikes me as indebted to Adrienne Rich. In ‘Blood, Bread and Poetry: The Location of the Poet’ (1984), for instance, Rich writes about the damage done by ‘alienation’ and an inadequate ‘location of the self’ in verse. Like Boland, she laments her youthful ‘fragmentation of identity’, and points to a means of ‘closing the gap between poet and woman’ by exploring ‘the history of the dispossessed’ and understanding her ‘location’ as a lesbian-feminist. Certainly, Rich’s verse once influenced Eavan Boland. After the early phase of formalism, she experimented with short-lined, angry poems in which Rich’s politics meshed with the postures and obsessions of Sylvia Plath. Even in her feminist twenties, however, Boland was learning how to ‘relocate ... within the Irish poetic tradition’ without following Rich’s separatist route. She married, moved to the suburbs and discovered the rhythms of family life. At first she felt that by leaving central Dublin she was abandoning the place of poetry. For decades, after all, the suburbs have been thought prosaic. In Dundrum, though, Boland found subject-matter so neglected that she could not be pre-empted by male poets, and she enjoyed, for the first time, a sense of belonging. Yet, if Dundrum satisfied Boland’s need for security, what she calls ‘the healings of place’ were not simply a function of geography. Once she moved out of Dublin, into the routines and transiences of suburbia, her understanding of space changed.
Thus her first essay about suburbia, ‘The Woman the Place the Poet’, begins: ‘There is a duality to place.’ By this Boland means that a place which develops in time both ‘happened and ... happens to you’, but also that, because the imagination mediates such happenings, Dundrum is inseparable for her from another familially significant site, a hundred miles southwest, where her great-grandfather once ran a workhouse, and where another mother, like herself with two children, would have lost what Dundrum brought her: ‘whereas my arrival in the suburb marked a homecoming, hers in the workhouse would have initiated a final and almost certainly fatal homelessness.’ Boland writes movingly about suburbia as ‘fragile and transitory’. She makes you freshly aware of how this place ‘composed of lives in a state of process’ occupies a transitional zone not just between ‘town and country’ but between the young vitality of new families (‘shouting and calling far into the summer night’) and the quiet of streets with mature gardens from which the children have gone. For her, the temporality of Dundrum is most to be valued, however, because it is open to space-time border-crossings, to almost oneiric relations with the woman from the Clonmel Workhouse. ‘The more I thought of her,’ she writes, ‘the more it seemed to me that a sense of place can happen at the very borders of myth and history.’
Even in Dundrum, Boland cannot write of ‘permanence’ without qualifying it as ‘illusory’. It is as though, by thinking about dislocation in time as well as space, she had translated unhappiness at exile into anxiety about ageing. One affecting poem from the Eighties, ‘Suburban Woman: A Detail’, describes a walk through the dusk, as light and focus fade, and Boland is ‘Suddenly ... not certain/of the way I came/or the way I will return.’ All that she knows is
which may be nothing
more than darkness has begun
softening the definitions
of my body, leaving
the fears and all the terrors
of the flesh shifting the airs
and forms of the autumn quiet
crying remember us.
These tones (and the skilful line-breaks) are characteristic of the best and latest parts of Collected Poems. By inhabiting a place of ‘process’, Boland has become more aware of transience. In both prose and verse she now declares: ‘I want a poem / I can grow old in.’
For Boland, the maiden/crone typology of Irish poetry cuts out becoming old. To find room for her ageing self, the woman poet must challenge not only the patriarchal obfuscation but the timelessness of feminine Erin. According to Boland, indeed, she must subvert a lyric mode which is ubiquitous in the West. In an essay markedly ‘inflected’ (as she now tends to say) by feminist theory, Boland argues that such poets as Herrick and Keats fetishise the sexuality of women to make their eroticism represent the poem’s ability to resist time. Feminine allure is transposed into fabrics or a Grecian urn, so that the ageless ‘erotic object’ can become a ‘beautiful mime of those forces of expression which have silenced it’. As an account of Western lyricism, ‘Making the Difference’ is highly selective and sometimes patently forced – as when Boland says of ‘When as in silks my Julia goes’ that ‘all the while Julia and the silks are silent and still’ although in fact Herrick’s rhyming verb is active. She argues that because the erotic object is a sign of fracture, of sexual incompleteness exquisitely fetishised, its situation in the poem is compatible with the self-estranged state of the Irish woman who is already ghosted as an object in her own verse because of her relation to national tradition. This coincidence is not a reason, however, to scrap Western lyricism. On the contrary, the point of compatibility should become a site of reconstruction. Female poets, she believes, are showing how erotic models can be revised, rather than ditched in a fit of righteousness. Commenting on lyrics by Plath, Carol Ann Duffy and Louise Glück as well as her own, Boland suggests that the ‘poignant place’ of dislocation inside the text can be reconfigured and remapped. This is something which she sees herself doing as ‘Making the Difference’ ends. Musing on her Dundrum home, she decides to use her new knowledge to write about the Liffey: ‘I begin to write about a river and a woman, about the destiny of water and my sense of growing older. The page fills easily and quickly.’
Unfortunately, the gods set traps in solved problems, and they are suspicious of ease and speed. The sequence called ‘Anna Liffey’ is lengthy, and excerpting may be unfair:
I came here in cold winter.
I had no children. No country.
I did not know the name for my own life.
My country took hold of me.
My children were born.
I walked out in a summer dusk
To call them in.
One name. Then the other one.
The beautiful vowels sounding out home.
Where the closeness of poetry to prose was productive in ‘The Achill Woman’, the result here is programmatic. Nothing is realised or made new through and by means of writing: just beyond this passage a biographical diagram leads to a rehearsal of the theory already established in Object Lessons: ‘It has taken me / All my strength to do this. / Becoming a figure in a poem.’ For an opponent of Romanticism, Boland is sublimely egotistical. Four initial Is and two mys in nine lines leave the reader asking Gertrude’s question: ‘Why seems it so particular with thee?’ Dublin is so often chilly that Boland’s appropriation of a cold snap to her estrangement must sound self-important. Since she went to Dundrum as a newly-wed, the fact that she ‘had no children’ is hardly grounds for complaint. Which of us will ever know ‘the name’ for his or her own life – if a single name could be enough?
The pomposities of ‘Anna Liffey’ are inextricable from the poet’s attitude to dislocation. Because Boland is convinced that exile and displacement must be negative, when she argues her way into finding at-homeness in the ‘place’ of self-representation she is obliged to believe that authoritative poetry will result. The rush of her writing then serves to endorse the theory, leading the poet to suspend self-criticism. What ‘Anna Liffey’ actually shows, when compared with texts like ‘Suburban Woman: A Detail’, is that Boland’s work is strongest when anxiety about estrangement makes her sensitive to what is vulnerable and contingent in both life and the ‘remember us’ of writing. More is involved, in other words, than the tendency of Irish nationalism to exaggerate the bliss of belonging: the problem has a linguistic aspect. Seamus Heaney clarifies this, because, while his nationalism incites him to cultivate a poetics of in-placeness, he respects, unlike Boland, the creative value of dislocation. As he says in ‘Place and Displacement’ (1984), the work of Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Heaney himself resembles that of the young Wordsworth – loyal to Revolutionary France but attached to England – in that political and cultural dislocation in Ulster makes their experience of belonging plural. It would be mechanistic to equate such displacement with poetic success, but a sense of varied Irishnesses does facilitate imaginative density, even in the more Fenian parts of Heaney’s Wintering Out and North, because a linguistic heterogeneity takes poetic thinking around more corners, draws more angles of life together.
A Boland supporter might object that Heaney can afford to be confidently inclusive, and to stud poems like ‘A New Song’ with Anglo-Norman and Irish, because he inherits the authoritative position of male subject analysed in ‘Outside History’. But what could be more assured than the verse of ‘Anna Liffey’? Boland has for years confused terseness with intensity. In the lines I’ve quoted, she writes a confident telegraphese which belies the intricacy of her theme and compares poorly with the flexible movement of the younger Irish women poets cited in Object Lessons: Eileen Ní Chuilleanáin, Paula Meehan and Medbh McGuckian. If these women are discouraged by history from becoming subjects in an Irish poem, they find syntactical and semantic means to new perspectives. As her latest book, Captain Lavender, brilliantly shows, McGuckian in particular uses and is used by language in ways which push her far out beyond the Movement-affilialed denotativeness of Boland.
It is true that, like Boland, McGuckian has talked of occasions when her verse came ‘quickly and easily’. What she means by that, however, is that in certain ‘vatic’ states, language takes command. Where Boland disablingly believes that her best poems are those in which ‘life beckoned to the language and the language followed’, McGuckian has said that she feels ‘at the mercy of the language itself ... As soon as I put a word down, another word has to obey that word.’ When this process lakes fire, she senses that she is not writing the poem at all, ‘that it’s being written through me’. Though the typical McGuckian lyric starts from autobiography, it runs to sensuous abstraction by branching out through metaphor. Rather than follow life, she says, her ‘poems have their own life.’ It is natural to refer these views back to Symbolist poets like Mallarmé, and McGuckian does owe a great deal to the confluence of Symbolism and Modernism in Rilke, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva. If anything, that debt has grown between her first book, The Flower Master (1982) and Captain Lavender. But her awareness that language can become poetic through auto-suggestive displacements is shared by writers as far back as the Shakespeare of the mature sonnets. To that extent, Boland’s deliberations and McGuckian’s surreal obliquities represent equivalent but opposite reactions to physical and psychological dislocation within literary traditions which have misrepresented women.
McGuckian is as clear as Boland that dislocation affects her poetry. The Troubles in Belfast, she has said, ‘did give me a sense of dislocation, a sense of being two people or a divided personality’. From the outset, she has used images of fracturing, fusion and pregnancy, in a syntax which devolves towards ellipses, to explore creative dislocation (as she puts it) in ‘unconscious’ ways. Pregnancy, in fact, is crucial, because McGuckian believes that generation creates an inward border state (the analogy with Ulster is there) where opposite sexes combine and divide, where the masculine can be internalised. This is one reason why her biological vision is not strictly essentialist. It has at its quickening root a fascination with the androgynous. ‘Sperm names, ovum names, push inside / each other’, she subversively puts it in the title-poem of Captain Lavender. McGuckian has encouraged the thought that this trail in her work goes back to childhood. Though she has spoken of her growing trust in women, she has made no secret of the inspirational importance to her of close relations with men. Like Boland, she has a seanbhean in her poetry: the spiritually intense Catholic grandmother remembered in The Flower Master, who enjoyed, according to McGuckian, a ‘very tactile, a very sensuous relationship’ with her in infancy. But the real mothering came from her father, and this seems to have led her to associate her creativity with the masculine: to ‘think it is a “he” very much when I’m writing’, and to cross-dress her muse. Time and again, the poems about her father’s death, which dominate Captain Levender, play gender-games.
Take these lines from ‘Elegy for an Irish Speaker’:
he speaks so with my consciousness
and not with words, he’s in danger
of becoming a poetess.
Roaming root of multiple meanings,
he shouts himself out
in your narrow amphora,
your tasteless, because immortal, wine.
It comes as no surprise to learn that her father did not speak Irish: personal grief works itself out by reflexive indirection. A poem about death comes round to questions of language. Why, though, the gift of Gaelic? In a book which is engaged, with unusual directness for McGuckian, with the Troubles, the poet grapples with loss by imagining a war death for her father, by regarding him as a political prisoner and by having him represent indigenous culture through his Irish-speaking. Partly to deal with the guilty love which persuades her (as bereavement often persuades) that her father never enjoyed the life which he deserved, she blames Britishness for impugning his identity. Like Boland, in other words, her nationalism is psychologically driven. In McGuckian, though, the issue is no longer how the Irish poem dislocates a female subject: it is whether the writer can be other than estranged from language when English is not properly her tongue but she cannot use Irish as her own. Boland is aware of the slow death of Gaelic; but it does not precipitate in her work the crisis registered by McGuckian, who seeks to estrange what estranges her by setting out to make ‘English sound like a foreign language to itself’. One root of the younger poet’s dividedness, in other words, comes back to her having more than one ‘name’ for her own life, since her title-pages gaelicise what was, apparently, anglicised at baptism. What McGuckian grants her dead father is something she seeks for herself when she changes ‘Maeve’ to ‘Medbh’: ‘a spiritual reunion with my native, Irish-speaking, peasant, repressed and destroyed, ancestors and ancestresses’.
McGuckian is at her most startling in a piece in Captain Lavender called ‘The Aisling Hat’. Here the aisling tradition, which merges with nationalist writing about the ‘poor old woman’, is sophisticated by cross-dressing designed to put a male figure centre-stage. ‘The Aisling Hat’ shows McGuckian trying a genre on for size, and, in the self-aware way which sometimes weakens this book, fusing the image of her father with that of feminine Erin. The dead man is not just characterised by masculine cragginess – by a ‘Promethean head’ topped with ‘ash-blue quartz’: he is ‘intoxicated like a woman’ and, somehow, ‘pregnant’. McGuckian’s way into the aisling genre must, of course, be historical, but she characteristically picks her way through space time, and, relational here as always, stresses family links: ‘I search for a lost, unknown song/in a street as long as a night,/stamped with my own surname.’ Later in the poem, her poor old man will be called a ‘broken sign of the unbroken continuum’. Yet if her father provides a link to the ‘native, Irish speaking’ McGuckians, that does not give the poet a sense of belonging, but pitches her into linguistic perplexities.
It makes her think, for instance, of Gaelic as fugitive, migrantly displaced, once English is heard in Ireland: ‘to speak/is to be forever on the road,/listening for the foreigner’s footstep.’ But there is hope in the aisling’s last phase, as the father’s corpse grows to resemble that of a Republican hunger-striker, before weirdly coming back to life through the body of the poet. As in ‘Elegy on an Irish Speaker’, his strength lies in his metamorphosing into a poetess who inherits his powers of resistance along with a notionally wordless language. For the father is a ‘carefree skater on air, his language/cannot be worn down.’ Roused by his example, ‘The Aisling Hat’ ends with a burst of nature worship in which the dead man’s goodness is so generally significant as to be written into nature:
I need to get to know his bones,
the deep sea origins of the mountains,
the capsule of his crypt,
how life below starts to play
with phosphorus and magnesium.
How cancelled benevolence gains a script
from a departure so in keeping
with its own structure – his denial
of history’s death, by the birth of his storm.
Having ecologically disposed of her father, McGuckian celebrates his recycling – not just to assert that the dead man lives but to imply that Irish historical suffering can, through him, find a new script in the playful aisling, and be reborn with a voice like thunder. Typically, though, the circumstances which give rise to the work and which can be retrieved from it, yield in importance to richness of texture, enlarged powers of suggestion and an abstracting delight in the medium. McGuckian’s quick shifts and mixed palette (crossing the Wordsworthian-elemental with the scientific and literary-reflexive) put her at a remove from Boland’s calculated lyricism in verse which explores the dislocations the older poet resists.