“Amber,” a poem by Eavan Boland

It never mattered that there was once a vast grieving:
trees on their hillsides, in their groves, weeping –
a plastic gold dropping
through seasons and centuries to the ground –
until now.
On this fine September afternoon from which you are absent
I am holding, as if my hand could store it,
an ornament of amber
you once gave me.
Reason says this:
the dead cannot see the living.
The living will never see the dead again.
The clear air we need to find each other in is
gone forever, yet
this resin once
collected seeds, leaves and even small feathers as it fell
and fell
which now in a sunny atmosphere seem as alive as
they ever were
as though the past could be present and memory itself
a Baltic honey –
a chafing at the edges of the seen, a showing-off of just how much
can be kept safe
inside a flawed translucence.

Eavan Boland (2006)

Introduction by Andrew McCulloch – 21 February 2012

Eavan Boland, born in Dublin in 1944, said she became a poet at a time when the words “poet” and “woman” were “almost magnetic opposites”, especially in Ireland, where poetry was seen as a kind of “ordained male succession” and made little reference to the physical or emotional experience of women. Perhaps the heavy political undertow in Irish poetry helps to explain why domestic themes were considered undignified by the literary establishment; the beleaguered position of the feminist community in Ireland also explains why, when she started to write, Boland had almost no tradition on which she could draw. In such circumstances, she says, there are two things a woman poet can do: include the devalued experiences that have been left out of poetry in “separatist structures”, or subvert existing structures so that they have to include them. This is also a way of dealing with other kinds of exclusion: as she points out, all Irish writers are using “someone else’s language” and having to fight through “someone else’s history”. But Boland’s subversion is not driven by feminism or postcolonialism. If she writes about the small wonders of domestic life in a tradition dominated by the monumental and the heroic, it is quite simply because, for her, the personal is political.

This is especially clear in the title poem of her most recent collection Domestic Violence (2007), in which she compares the quarrels of an unhappy couple to the outbreak of sectarian violence: both are deplored but, at some level, recognized and understood. “Amber”, from the same collection, has a more nuanced political resonance. In his collection North (1975), Seamus Heaney finds disturbing parallels between Iron Age bodies exhumed from the peat and horrors closer to home. But the memories preserved by Boland’s “ornament of amber” are tender, not tribal. The seeds and small feathers delicately caught inside its “flawed translucence” remind her “just how much / can be kept safe” rather than how many times old wounds can be reopened.


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