The Protesters and the Poets

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Carley Moore looks at political purpose of a poet today in her review of A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet by Eavan Bolandy.

In mid-October, when the Occupy Movement was taking off, my husband and I made a few hastily scrawled signs, affixed them to our daughter’s stroller, and went to participate in our first Occupy Wall Street General Assembly meeting. I left that meeting in awe of what’s called “the human microphone.” The way it worked was simple. Whoever had been given the opportunity to speak—anyone could and there was an equally careful methodology for collecting the names of those who were waiting to talk, which was called “stacking”—broke up their speech into short fragments. The audience then repeated back each fragment. If the crowd was particularly large, the say back happened in stages, thereby creating a lovely, sometimes chilling, almost certainly empowering echo. At its core, the human microphone was an attempt to give voice to as many participants as possible, but it was also an active listening strategy. One can’t help but consider the ideas of others, when they enter and exit your body through your mouth. As a writer and a teacher of writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about the politics of voice—how to access one’s voice, how to speak out of what one knows, and how to be in dialogue with other voices. The human microphone is the collective manifestation of this struggle. It claims that the interior has a place in the exterior political, capitalistic economy, and it affirms, without any fancy technology, that individual voices matter and that we need to hear more of them.

It’s hard to admit, but I still struggle with voice myself. In the next year I will turn forty, which puts me firmly at the beginning of middle age. However, my poetic preoccupations and struggles sometimes feel like those of a younger poet. I wonder if I have found the right subject matter for my poetry. I worry that I am not present enough in my work and that I don’t acknowledge the mundane and quotidian. When I am working at my fullest capacity, I still fear that my poetry’s content and form is too grotesque, too real, and somehow too womanly for consumption. And yet I keep on writing. I wonder though how is it that the woman who began as a girl writing poems in her notebooks—the same girl who announced to a room full of giggling jocks and cheerleaders in her eleventh grade American history class that she was a poet—is still looking to find her way?

Eavan Boland’s new collection of essays, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet offers woman poets some insights about the radically difficult paths women poets find themselves on as both readers and writers. It also presents us with a collection of voices, a human microphone, if you will, of alternative blueprints, destinations, roadmaps, and interiors.

In the first section of her book, “Journeys,” Boland, who has written over a dozen books of poetry and non-fiction and directs the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University, argues the primary motivation for her essay collection—her belief that the journey of becoming a woman poet is one that requires two maps and two sets of oppositional directions. She remembers that as a young Irish woman, she “learned to be a writer in the shadow of constraining influences.” She memorized poems, she developed a reverence for past poets, and she believed in the idea of the poet as a solitary and wholly original figure. She admits, “I read continuously. I was sure if I kept reading I would find my name and my life as I looked behind me.” And yet, she didn’t and she couldn’t until she allowed herself to learn about collaborative forms of poetry, and to imagine the more expansive pronoun of “we” instead of an “I.” This “we,” she realized, “gathered in the ordinariness of the house, the cheer and heat of the kitchen, the untidiness of the garden…it spoke to me of down-to-earth communities that had once needed a voice.”

This argument is compelling to any writer who has struggled to find his or her voice, but Boland is careful to name this struggle as particularly female. Nevertheless, this act of naming is subtle and often happens in the realm of story and image. An early recounting of a story, reveals to us Boland as a young woman walking in the lamplight at dusk in Dublin just outside of Trinity College. She is shocked to see one of her own mother’s paintings, who was a noted post-expressionist painter in Ireland, in a gallery window. When she inquires about its’ origin, she sees that it has been signed by one of her mother’s mentors. This act of erasure haunts her, and makes her wonder over her own authorship. Later, Boland describes a trip home from boarding school as a teenager, listening to her father in his den as he discussed history and literature: “I sat there on the steps, my knees hunched up, my chin in my hand, listening. And listening.”

The images continue throughout the book. We see an older Boland sitting in lamp light at her desk with her notebook open, having just put her children to bed. Boland evokes the images of other women in rooms that did not accommodate them. Sylvia Plath, months before her suicide, writing some of her best poetry, in the freezing chill of her son’s bedroom. A letter from Gwendolyn Brooks, in which the poet insists “in red ballpoint” that the poem Boland wants for an anthology is “Too simplistic to represent my entire output.’” The letter then becomes a room for reflection, an occasion for Boland to rethink her reading of Brooks and to recognize its struggles as historical and race-bound in a way she hadn’t fully appreciated before. At the heart of much of the imagery in her book is what Boland calls “interiors,” which to my mind is an attempt to reconcile interior spaces—libraries, bedrooms, kitchens, lost languages—with the exterior politics of the time. Boland means to create a poetics of interiority, and what’s at stake is profound. Citizenship. Authorship. Access. Change.

As an Irish poet and a young mother living in the suburbs of Dublin in the 1970s, Boland writes movingly about the difficulty of encountering new American poetry and poetry in translation. The middle section of her book, “Maps,” is an occasion for her to revisit (or claim for the first time) the value of a distinct group of women poets—Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Mew, Sylvia Plath, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paula Meehan, and an unknown female poet writing in Latin in the Middle Ages. In writing about these poets, Boland demonstrates her powers as a critic and close reader, but she also showcases a particular kind of poetic, political interiority. In their swerves in and out of domestic spaces, these poets are exemplars of the kinds of transformative powers that the second path can offer poets and readers of poetry. She admires Rich for her ability to change our conceptions of both “the interior of the poem and external perceptions of the identity of the poet.” She marvels at Bishop’s exilic energies, her “precision and surprise of the traveler.” She argues for Charlotte Mew’s voice-driven line and awkward subversive sexuality. She praises Irish poet, Paula Meehan for her expertise in creating a “poem shaken by the local but shaped by the wider aesthetic. The public poem. The political poem.” She revisits Gwendolyn Brooks’ power in helping us see a street in Chicago, for saying “Look at this. Remember this,” and for chronicling shifting conceptions of black identity at a charged political moment. These essays become the road maps that Boland uses to lead us to the final essay of the book, “Letter to a Young Woman Poet.”

But just before this final section, Boland recounts a missed opportunity from her youth. While working as a maid in a hotel in Dublin, she encounters Sheila Wingfield, a disappointed poet, long past her prime at the time of their meeting. They chat, but Boland is tongue-tied, and she makes no attempt to ask her about her life. To my mind, this failed conversation is the impetus for the essay “Letter to a Young Woman Poet.” Boland wants to get it right, to tell us what we need to do next. She continues to work in images—the room at dusk, in diminishing light, and she is in shadow. She wants to change the past of poetry, “not by intellectualizing it. But by eroticizing it.” To illuminate this, she offers up a strange, discomfiting image from her own past. She remembers a man, who she used to work for in that same hotel. He had a strange affliction, a wound that wouldn’t heal, and each night he retreated to his room to dress it. There is something in his broken body that interested her. His body disrupts the solid unquestioned masculinity of the statues of famous Irish men she regularly passed by on her way to work. He represents a kind of failed masculinity. This failure, this open wound, cared for and looked after, is the kind of erotics that Boland is aiming for. She means to linger over the domestic wounds that are too often hidden and invisible. For her, this is how the woman poet must work.

The genre of the essay has always made a space for a first person pronoun—an I—that gestures towards a “we.” It makes sense then, that Boland’s discovery of this expansive pronoun in poetry would allow her to inhabit so comfortably this latest collection of essays. Poets and essayists can be comfortable collaborators, and often these collaborations take place in the body of one writer. Boland works in the tradition of many fine poet/essayists or essayist/poets, who have used the essay form to articulate a poetics and a poetic history that perhaps could not be so explicitly named in poetry. A few collections that come to mind are: Marilyn Hacker’s Unauthorized Voices: Essays on Poets and Poetry 1987-2009, Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures, Heather Mchugh’s Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, and Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978.

While A Journey with Two Maps is my first encounter with Boland’s writing, after reading her excellent book, I can think of many female poets who consistently eroticize history, and who have taken on her charge, albeit in pleasingly offbeat and avant-garde ways. The best example is probably Eileen Myles. In her recent book, Inferno, Myles chronicles a character, which may or may not be herself, as she becomes a lesbian and a poet. Myles is always transgressive and pleasingly conversational in her politics. But I would want to add to Boland’s maps a third one—or the recognition that there are in fact, hundreds of maps—and that’s what makes the poet’s and the citizen’s struggle to find her voice so challenging and so vexing.

How do you find a road, any road? Read Boland essays and poems. Read Myles. Occupy something. Use your voice. Feel its chords strengthen and strain in your throat. Write and revise. Find a community. Read and share. Listen and wait.

* * * Carley Moore grew up in Jamestown, a small, snowy city in upstate New York. She is the author of the young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles (forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in March 2012). Her poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Aufgabe, The Birdsong Collective, The Blue Letter, Coconut, Conduit, Connotation Press, Fence, Linebreak, and Painted Bride Quarterly. She’s a full-time faculty member in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University, where she teaches writing. She is a founding member of the Brooklyn Writers Collaborative and a long-time Associate for Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, New York and is the co-curator of the POD reading series with poet, Matt Longabucco.