A Woman Without a Country, Eavan Boland, Carcanet, 2014, £9.95 (paperback)

Faithful and Virtuous Night, Louise Gluck, Carcanet, 2014, £9.95 (paperback)

Two female poets, lauded and admired, born in consecutive years (Gluck 1943, Boland 1944), now at a high summing-up point in their careers. From there, the differences creep in. They were born on opposite sides of the At- lantic; Gluck in New York, Boland in Dublin. Boland is famous for taking a capital-letter approach to being an Irish Woman Poet; Gluck has what you might call a European sensibility, though her long lines and superficially easy word placement have an American swing. Yet the two read back to back make an intriguing pairing, a study in widely varying poetic tech- niques and intentions.

It’s strange for Boland of all poets to be writing about ‘a woman without a country’ when Ireland soaks into all her work. The title sequence is dedi- cated to ‘those who lost a country, not by history or inheritance, but through a series of questions to which they could find no answer’, which seems unnecessarily twee. A series of elegant, stanzaic poems is interspersed with prose fragments, ‘Lessons’ 1-6, about the poet’s grandmother who ‘lived outside history. And she died there.’ These seem, if not banal exactly, to be protesting more than they need to. ‘The issue between an artist and a nation is not a faith, but a self. The issue between an artist and a truth, is not a self, but an image.’

The poems in the sequence, though, are lovely; they do not lecture but allow the reader some imaginative space. ‘The Long Evenings of their Leavetakings’ opens with a sinuous play of vowels: ‘My mother was mar- ried by the water. / She wore a grey coat and a winter rose. // She said her vows beside a cold seam of the Irish coast.’ In ‘Anonymity’ the poet visits an exhibition entitled ‘Women from Ancient Cultures’. ‘This was a servant: see the flesh tones, / The beads.’ Ultimately there is no difference between her and the others, all the ‘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.’

In ‘Studio Portrait 1897’, the silent grandmother is ‘fifty years away from / the worst famine in Europe, // thirty years behind the new nation’. But Bo- land knows, or shares, very little about this rather average forebear and the effect is a little condescending, rather like the museum exhibition. Perhaps that’s the point.

Elsewhere Boland performs her unsettling trick of subverting cosy domesticity, twisting the comfortable and familiar into the uncanny. A very modern ‘Eurydice Speaks’ in one poem, noticing that ‘The gas-ring burned blue flowers’ and ‘a raincoat was woven out of streetlight’. ‘Talking to my Daughter Late at Night’ could be sickly, but for its unsettling turns: ‘We have a tray, a pot of tea, a scone. / This is the hour / When one thing pours itself into another: / The gable of our house stored in shadow. / A spring planet bending ice / Into an absolute of light. / Your childhood ended years ago. There is / No path back to it.’ The poem turns full circle with the dawn: ‘we put the tray away, / Douse the fire and wash out the cups.’

But Boland the mother is also very conscious of her professional prestige. (And why not?) High tones are aimed at. The dying Ovid makes an appearance in ‘Song and Error’. Boland offers some poetic ‘Advice to an Imagist’. And when the cobbler’s shop in the village shuts down, the academic in her is driven ‘not to elegy but etymology: // Ceapail perhaps, meaning binding or fettering? / Klabba from the Swedish? / More likely cobolere to mend shoes.’ And the final poem sees her self-consciously considering Anne Bradstreet, Berryman’s muse: ‘and I am again // An Irish poet watch- ing an English woman / Become an American poet.’

When Boland talks about her daughter or grandmother, such is her focus on authenticity and identity, we feel sure that a factual basis can be discerned beneath the lines (we could be wrong, of course). It’s very different with Gluck, who ventriloquises and fictionalises in her twelfth collection, ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’. But like Boland, at the same life-stage, much of the focus is on the past, loss and nostalgia. A male artist talks about the death of childhood and a tragic accident; his words elide with other voices, maybe even those of the poet. The story is destabilised, floating free. The boy’s older brother is reading a book whose title he mishears as ‘faith- ful and virtuous night’, presumably some Arthurian retelling. Elsewhere horses and riders amble into the poems, along with fairy-tale imagery; be- tween the man and his analyst ‘An intimacy / had grown up… / like a forest around a castle’. (The poem is called ‘The Sword in the Stone’.)

Gluck’s style is declarative and her regular technique is to use, unadorned, words which carry such a freight of the poetical that they are almost worn through: night, light, stars, winter, flower, sky. Yet she can throw off a kind of casual, metaphysical wit in her very plainness. ‘Under the full moon / Maria was folding the washing; / the stiff sheets became / dry white rectangles of moonlight.’ What just happened? What could have been a clumsy repetition of ‘moon’ and ‘moonlight’ becomes a magic trick, a transformation.

Elsewhere the play of ideas is more grounded, more grave. ‘Of course, in a certain sense, I was not empty-handed,’ says the bereaved boy. ‘I had my colored pencils. / In another sense, that is my point. / I had accepted substi- tutes.’ A prose poem, ‘Theatre of Memory’ begins, with a dry insouciance: ‘Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing, yet incapable of forming durable attachments …’ and you can almost hear the poet’s hollow laugh.

While Boland’s technique could be said to begin from the abstract (nation- hood, identity, femininity) and become more particular and concrete, Gluck works in reverse, her tale of a bereaved artist becoming more and more diffuse and disconnected. In her mirror world, opposites fuse. ‘The whole exchange seemed both deeply fraudulent / and profoundly true’ is not an observation you can easily imagine Boland coming out with. It is a collec- tion of rare and mysterious beauty. The last line of the last poem – ‘This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees’ – hints that some clue has been missed along the way. But full meaning will always remain just out of reach. ‘It is the critics, he said, / the critics have ideas. We artists / (he included me) – we artists / are just children at their games.’

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