Books: The statues of O'Connell Street

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The Lost Land

by Eavan Boland Carcanet pounds 17.95

Prufrock, ever hesitant, had to prepare to face to meet a face. The Irish poet Eavan Boland, over a writing career now spanning 30 years, has had a somewhat similar problem on her hands: how to define herself as a female Irish poet against the deadening weight of an intensely chauvinistic Irish literary community.

Her last book, Object Lessons (1995), was an extended prose meditation upon "the life of the woman and the poet in our times" within the context of Ireland and its history. In the masculine tradition of Irish poetry the country had predominantly been represented as a woman - and women had generally been depicted as the beautifully passive objects of male attention. Boland needed, within her own poetry, to define a space for herself - and needed to find a way not only of confronting the fact of herself as a female writer living with a young family within the happy clutter of domesticity in a suburb of Dublin, but also some way of writing about all the forgotten women who had suffered and died as a consequence of Ireland's "wounded history".

In Boland's view, these matters, given the esteem in which poetry is held in Ireland, were deeply serious ones, requiring no excuse or apology: "who the poet is," she wrote in that book, "what he or she nominates as a proper theme for poetry, what selves poets discover and confirm through this subject matter - all of this involves an ethical choice."

Her new book of poems is a grave continuation of these arguments with herself and others about the proper positioning of the female poet in relation to Ireland, its languages, and its history as a colonised country. Its style, in general, is spare in the extreme - as if Boland had concluded that it would be inappropriate to indulge in rhetorical or figurative excess of any kind.

It begins with a sequence called "Colony". The first poem, "My Country in Darkness', evokes the lingering death of the Bardic tradition in the 18th century, and it brings to mind words that she uttered in the 1994 Ronald Duncan Lecture at the South Bank: "These poets," she said then, "were hostages to history ... Amid fragments of language and downright grief at the loss of their patrons, they became loud and distraught voices of elegy." While Boland acknowledges their grief, she is also, as a child who spent much of her own childhood at school in London, and speaking and writing as she does the lingua franca of English, aware that she is set apart from them. But being a Dubliner by birth and current residence, and an Irish poet alive in the present, these voices are still ghosts in the air, clamouring for attention, if not appeasement, of some kind.

In another poem entitled "Unheroic", she recalls how, as a girl of 17, she worked at a Dublin hotel and, after work, walked down O'Connell Street past all those unbending and grandiose statues of patriots and heroes. To what extent could she give herself permission to claim them as her own, raised so high above the bustle of the street as they are, and seeming to epitomise "Ireland hero history ...?" The answer comes in the form of a rumour: a manager at the hotel has a secret wound - from war or illness - which he slips up the back stairs to dress from time to time. This awareness of human frailty becomes a way of addressing the difficult knowledge of her country, as she looks "into the patient face of the unhealed".

This subtle, probing, unadorned book is typical of Boland's powerfully persuasive manner as a poet. She is a writer who eschews all noise and clamour. She is never tempted to reach for a wide and vainglorious vocabulary in support of her serious claims for attention. She merely sets things down, with an almost childish love of the meticulous and the precise. It is a pleasingly punctilious reticence in support of themes - memory, identity, the very nature of the idea of the "lost land" of Ireland - that in other (perhaps male) hands might have required a good deal of beating upon the breast - and, perhaps, even upon the great Lambeg drum of rhetorical persuasion.