[Beginning a series of minute posts that examine certain poems in detail, forming a thought diary of what I’m reading as I trawl through poems by the bucket-load. Not a guarantee that all poems contained within one discrete post can be linked, just what is occupying my brain space.]
And Soul by Eavan Boland
Smooth Horizon of the Verb Love by Nicole Brossard
Eavan Boland is one of the main poetic juggernauts to come out of the island of Ireland. Writing extensively throughout her life, Boland has been lauded across the world. This poem, ‘And Soul’, concerns the death of the poet’s mother, and a watery summer. The title interests me; the abstract concept of soul is prefixed by and, as though the end of a long sentence, almost, or the end of a life. If spoken aloud, the title almost sounds like ‘And So’. More strikingly, all subjects within this poem are drowned in water (images). The mother’s soul is remembered in this poem, as notes the omission of ‘body’ from the title / phrase ‘body and soul’.
“My mother died one summer—
the wettest in the records of the state.”
Dancing from a climatic personal event and coming bereavement to a rainy summer over the course of two lines, the homely, familiar images of a chequed tablecloth, dissolving in the rain, or crops being drowned. The image of an “Empty deck chair” concludes the sequence of weather-beaten objects. Unoccupied, its only role now, “collected rain”; This empty deck chair follows me through the reading of this poem, becoming an oppressive monument, even in its lack of utility (what with no one to sit in it, or even with it).
The poetic voice turns away from lonely, back garden-esque illustrations to Boland’s mother: “As I took my way to her”. What a peculiar verb. Possession is implied here. The poet is now in possession of a memory of their dying mother, in this poem at least.
[“a theatre of wet trees” Boland on the summer her mother died]
“I heard once, that the body is, or is
said to be, almost all
water and as I turned southward, that ours is
a city of it,
one in which
every single day the elements begin
a journey towards each other that will never,
given our weather,
The body is as ephemeral as the rain that ravages Ireland; as temporary as a puddle of fresh rainwater, evaporating in the sun. Linguistically, Boland infuses these waterways with the significance of her mother’s drifting life.
“coast canal ocean river stream and now
Boland’s construction of this poemé is beautiful. The poetic voice summons different stages of wet weather, to evoke the evanescence of humanness, of human life; life unto death, wave into sea spray. This poem is (characteristically of the poet, perhaps) reserved, no overt demonstrations of grief or other such emotion with a capital E, yet there is an accepting, poignantly conclusive tone. The lines themselves shorten (consider the last four), the poetic voice slips away, rhythm decreases beat by beat, line by line, into nothing.
“mist into sea spray and both into the oily glaze
that lay on the railings of
the house she was dying in
as I went inside.”
Note the concluding word. In shelter, the poet is protected from this incessant rain, this Irish Summer. The full stop concluding this line needs no explication. I’m (still!) drawn to the image of this desolate deck chair, at this poem’s conclusion. As though the poetic voice turns from this sodden gallery, this sodden poem, to tend to her mother, to present “the last tribute of a daughter”. …
Nicole Brossard is an acclaimed French-Canadian poet and novelist from Montreal. I happened across this poem by fluke, given Brossard’s minimal exposure to the English-speaking world (because her poems have only recently been translated from Québécois within the past ten years). This poem, much briefer than the Boland poem, is a three part reflection on lesbian love, an “urban image from the eighties”.
This is tangibly a female space in this poem (a space we need more of, let’s kick the gross men out), with every subject or image concerning a femininity. Pleasingly, Brossard presents more visceral elements than the soft-edged images like “nights of ink and dawn” of the first section. There is an aural hush to this poem, “gentle ways/ to swoon in a corner”.
The final, third section deserves replicated in all its beauty.
focus on yes, on the woman’s
caress not silence not word
focus beyond. Hold me back
I have not been so enthused by a quatrain in a long time. From the unpuctuated, arrhythmic line which enforces ‘not’ this, ‘not this’, to the lack of any kind of punctuation capping the line, this final stanza sends the poem soaring. These four lines speak to a contemporary society, one which interprets just as much in the silence between words as the words spoken themselves, one in which positivity and optimism are simply seen as an ephemeral stage pre-understanding. Brossard calls here for, I conclude, a positive, eyes-on-the-middle-distance, hopeful sight line. While we might have conflicting ideas regarding the efficacy of a positive outlook, at least for a moment, ‘Hold me back’ contains all the promise of things to come, whether they become fulfilled or not.
These two poems are not in the same ballpark, they are also not on the same continent (heh), yet I think they both represent fine, fine poetics.
More, I hope these reflections challenge you to think about the poems yourself, and hopefully generate some conflicting readings. Find below where one can find these poems if they’re feeling even more adventurous. More to come, I hope.
‘And Soul’ from DOMESTIC VIOLENCE by Eavan Boland, W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2007.
‘Smooth Horizon of the Verb Love’ from Selections by Nicole Brossard, University of California Press, 2010.