Poetry: New Collected Poems by Eavan Boland

John Redmond admires Eavan Boland's forlorn, regretful collection

New Collected Poems by Eavan Boland
280pp, Carcanet, £14.95

Should a poem want to stop? In The End of the Poem, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben associates the conclusion of any poem with a crisis, a catastrophe, in which the poem fears its identity may be lost as it plunges down towards prose. Yet some poets enjoy the crisis so much that their poems end many times. Such a writer is Eavan Boland, for whom the full-stop might have been invented. Using unusually emphatic line-endings, her poems appear to relish cutting themselves. A Boland poem often begins with a one-word line which is also a one-word sentence: "Dusk." "Look." "August." "Ballyvaughan." Pursuing a staccato aesthetic draws some of the poems into self-parody but others, such as "This Moment" are pleasantly atmospheric: "A neighbourhood. / At dusk. // Things are getting ready / to happen / out of sight. //Stars and moths. / And rinds slanting around fruit."

Few other poets, I think, would use a full-stop to separate the first two lines - or the last two lines. Typically, the poems creep forward cautiously, full-stop by full-stop, as though trying to hear the echo of their own footsteps. Such a style suits the forlorn, emptied-out environments one finds everywhere in this book: still, suburban houses that feel like stage-sets into which a character from Pinter or Beckett might walk - and doesn't.

Living in the comfortable suburbs of south Dublin, Boland came to maturity as a writer in a period when poets from the republic were decisively dominated by their colleagues from Northern Ireland. Some of those northern poets, like Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, she knew well from student days in 60s Dublin. Carving out a poetic identity at such a time was not easy. Before her emergence, Irish poetry, north and south, had been notoriously male. So it is quite understandable that much of the critical reception of Boland's work has focused on the difficulties she faced as a woman writer. In a lyric voice that was new to Irish poetry, she addressed the depression and loneliness of suburban womanhood:

A child
shifts in a cot.
No matter what happens now
I'll never fill one again.

As well as the subject-matter, the stiff, self-editing quality of her tone helped to convey an overwhelming sense of repression. But this tone was not there from the start. Boland's early work was blandly derivative: a blend of Yeats and Auden with bits of Longley and Mahon thrown in. The decisive break came in 1980 with the publication of the pamphlet In Her Own Image and the collection Night Feed. In these two publications, Boland's line drastically shortened, the full-stops multiplied, the subject-matter sharpened, and a new voice was adopted: that of Sylvia Plath. Indeed, In Her Own Image and Night Feed are so closely modelled on Plath's Ariel that they are practically imitations. Boland's "Menses" is a good example: "I am the moon's looking-glass. / My days are moon-dials. / She will never be done with me. / She needs me. / She is dry."

Boland has not concealed her influences - her prose memoir, Object Lessons, admits them - but she has seemed more comfortable citing as an example another American poet, Adrienne Rich. This is despite noticeable differences of temperament. While both are feminists, Rich is an "activist" in a way that Boland is not. When Rich argues on behalf of "a lesbian continuum" (by which she means an intense, not necessarily sexual, sense of solidarity between women) she employs exactly the kind of daring language that Boland would never use. But Rich has been useful to Boland as a kind of ideological touchstone, supplying an explicit, intellectual framework to which she can point.

To read Boland's work though the spectacles of gender, however, is not always helpful. Her best work occupies the narrow, negative terrain of emotional self-denial that no gender really owns. A sentiment we find in Mahon's "Leaves", for example, is very close to the heart of Boland's work: "Somewhere in the heaven / Of lost futures / The lives we might have lived / Have found their own fulfilment." Her poems regret, as Mahon's do, what might have been, but they do not articulate the might-have-been. To paraphrase Mahon, their conviction, that they could have been more than what they are, is what they are.

Those wishing to investigate Boland's work might do better to start with the more manageable Outside History, which selects from the crucial period 1980-90. The over-inclusiveness of New Collected Poems, particularly of material predating 1980, dilutes the quality of the book. It is, we sense, "for the record" - and we're going to experience all of the record whether we like it or not.

Given that much of the most promising poetry in Ireland today is being written by young women (Caitriona O'Reilly, Vona Groarke, Sinead Morrissey, to name a few), literary history may eventually see Boland's writing as a necessary stepping-stone. Something of this is suggested by Boland herself in "Is it Still the Same", one of the book's concluding poems. There she contemplates the position of a younger woman poet and wonders if, compared with her own day, conditions have changed. The poem ends with three lines which are self-regarding but fair:

I wrote like that once.
But this is different.
This time, when she looks up,
I will be there.

· John Redmond's How to Write a Poem is published by Blackwell

John Redmond

The GuardianTramp

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