Throughout her poetry, Eavan Boland aims to decolonize and demystify the women in patriarchal literary tradition. Her poems act out, as she herself puts it, “the strange scenario of what happens to a tradition when previously mute images within it come to awkward and vivid life: when the icons return to haunt the icon-makers” (“Writing the Political Poem in Ireland” 485). Boland’s literary career enacts a critique of how the Irish literary tradition emblematizes women and suppresses their real experience. Women have inherited not simply the feminized images of Ireland but also the very archetype of ‘motherland.’ According to Richard Kearney, in an Irish context, Mother Ireland in her various avatars -- the
Boland finds the Irish poetic tradition oppressive and alienating, and consequently adopts what she would later deny as a “separatist” stance from the masculine literary tradition (
Boland states her female identity from the perspectives of the body and sexual pleasure. The poetic language that she envisages in the poetry directly connects female sexuality and writing poetry. In this sense, Boland’s poems evoke Luce Irigaray’s feminist theory. Irigaray argues, in “When Our Lips Speak Together,” that “if we don’t invent a language, if we don’t find our body’s language, it will have too few gestures to accompany our story. We shall tire of the same ones, and leave our desires unexpressed, unrealized. Asleep again, unsatisfied, we shall fall back upon the words of men -- Who, for their part, have ‘known’ for a long time. But
In an essay published in 1987, “The Woman Poet: Her Dilemma,” Boland highlights her particular concern with the special difficulties of being a woman and a poet. Male stereotypes about the role of women in society continue to be very strong in Ireland and make Irish women less confident about their creative abilities. Women must contend as well with another potentially depersonalizing pressure, that of feminist ideology, which urges women toward another sort of conformity (
The poetic speaker delivers the Mimic Muse by means of colloquial language with her aggressive and direct stance: “I’ve caught you out.” The speaker angrily proceeds to attack the Mimic Muse with off-color insults such as “slut,” “fat trout,” “whore,” “tart,” and “ruthless bitch.” Boland intentionally adopts colloquialism as an attempt to escape from literary conventions of the past. By conglomerating words of her own creation, she also gives oddity to the concept it denotes: “An ageing-out-of-work kind-hearted tart.” According to Patricia L. Hagen and Thomas W. Zelman, the speaker begins by holding up a mirror to compel this old epic muse to confront herself (448). The speaker rebukes the Muse erroneously adopted by some women poets, the Muse that encourages women to “mimic” male poetic fashions and thus leads them astray. For women poets, this Muse is “[o]ur criminal, our tricoteuse, our Muse - - / Our Muse of Mimic Art.” The Muse is “a traitor to her sex, a whore luxuriating in (and spawned by) male myths” (Sullivan 335). She continues to uncover her old-fashioned superficial image:
The speaker describes in detail the image of putting on make up. According to Gonzalez Arias, the imagery reinforces, on the one hand, the fictitious and artificial nature of female stereotypes and, on the other hand, women’s tendency to ‘kill’ themselves artistically in order to appeal men (qtd. in Argaiz 250). However, through the makeup imagery, Boland strips the male-oriented Muse with the promise that her “words” will “make your face naked”; here, nakedness refers to an image of Boland’s own creation. The passive and conformist posture of a stereotyped woman wearing all sorts of masks is faced by a fierce woman who tries to shatter all patriarchal poetic conventions. In a direct confrontation against the Mimic Muse represented by “crime cosmetic,” the speaker proclaims that “[y]our time is up.” She violently discards the Mimic Muse symbolized as the image of Mother Ireland, a “looking-glass” for male poets.1 If it is before “mirrors” that the speaker realizes the dangerous lies of traditional poetry in making up, it is also before “mirrors,” ironically, that she will show the Mimic Muse the treachery of her failure to represent faithfully the truths of women’s experience. Depending on the Mimic Muse for direction, the lyric “I,” the female poet, recounts how her former self “mazed [her] way to womanhood / Through [her] halls of mirrors, making face” (
In a final stanza, Boland comes closer to finding the female poetic identity free from masculine inscription of femininity. The speaker suggests that, although this woman has been the prisoner of the mirror for male poets, she has the ability to destroy her former mirror and finally look at her “true reflections,” her own autonomous identity. The speaker declares with an aesthetic credo: “I will wake you from your sluttish sleep. / I will show you true reflections, terrors,” foreshadowing that the reflections spawned by the Mimic Muse are false representations. Her empowerment is reinforced by the use of volitional “will,” which vividly expresses her intention to carry out actions. As the poem goes to the end, the patriarchal Mimic Muse to which women poets have looked for definition and reflection is forced, by reversal, to look into “our mirrors. / Look in them and weep.” As Pilar Villar Argaiz points out, the woman must contemplate herself in the mirror of the maleinscribed literary tradition, in order to kill the aesthetic ideal through which she has been ‘killed’ into art (252). Through a ‘tirade’ against patriarchal representation of women, Boland bursts out with her repressed anger towards literary tradition, in order to come to terms with her own poetic voice: “I do not believe we will reach the future without living through the womanly angers which shadow this present” (
Decolonizing the female body from masculine literary tradition, Boland, in “Anorexic,” introduces the lyric “I,” who is a specific and self-critical female. Boland’s lyric “I” is no longer a “transcendent and universalizing” male voice, but rather a female voice that explores the trauma of anorexia as “a concrete experience depicted with ironic closeness and familiarity” (Fogarty 98). The poet presents anorexia as a compelling metaphor for female suffering as a response to the male creation myth of womanhood, in which woman signifies an icon of submission. From the anorexic point of view, Boland pictures the female speaker’s psychic struggle with selfcontrol, instead of having self-indulgence2:
Boland stresses that women experience the self-questioning portrayal of anorexia from the inside of the body. In Ireland, the public vision of female sexuality seems to be entangled in the dichotomy between images of femininity as pure, virginal, transcendent and as dangerously erotic, fallen, pernicious. Women’s cultural representatives, the virgin and the witch, appear simultaneously in the opening part of the poem. The configuration of the virgin as an emblem of purity, and the witch as a symbol of female sexuality, embodies a female selfhood alienated from her own body. 3 The speaker attests her frustration with her body: “Flesh is heretic. / My body is a witch.” We pass through the permeable membrane of the language of speaking woman to share her personalized and ambiguous perspective on selfhood. Jody Allen-Randolph indicates that through using anorexia both as an illness and as a metaphor for culture, Boland probes “the relationship between anorexia and myths of human origins which fashion women as virgins or whores” (52). The speaker implies that alienation from the female body is a symptom of the violence directed toward female identity; the anorexic turns that alienation and its attendant violence inward. Boland associates anorexia with patriarchal conceptualizations of female sexuality. Anxious about her own flesh, the speaker confesses her body as something alienated from her: her body is an “it,” a “bitch” with “fevers,” a “witch” she is “burning.”
Culturally oriented by patriarchal conventions to be a beautiful and virginal object of male desire, the female speaker suffers from masochistic violence. Alienation deepens into a sexualized self-hatred as the self-denial of food is transformed into a denial and rejection of female selfhood together: “[Y]es, I am torching / her curves and paps and wiles. / They scorch in my self-denials.” This female speaker seems to be split into ‘fragmentary’ selves. Although the speaker refers to her passive body in the third person, she uses the first person to express her actions, things that she tries to control. The intermingled use of first and third person pronouns in these lines hints at the speaker’s dissociation from her body. As Irigaray accounts, the traditional binary logic has divided women into two, “one outside, the other inside”: one superficial woman, the one who is there for male contemplation, and the real one, the one who carries out autoeroticism and is therefore not sanctioned by patriarchy. These double-selves are constructed by a male logic that wishes to place women in “their compartments, their schemas, their distinctions and oppositions: virginal/deflowered, pure/impure, innocent/experienced” (
The speaker fights against the reality of her body and the needs of its own by starving it and purging the food that she does eat. Anorexia is identified not only as a hatred of the female body but also as a violent desire to annihilate it: “I am starved and curveless. / I am skin and bone. / She has learned her lesson.” Even though “I” and “she” are the same person, the speaker associates the “I” with the person she wants to be -- a self-controlled, obedient, and sinless woman. In the reversal of the myth of origins in which Eve is condemned for having eaten the apple, the anorexic speaker, “[t]hin as a rib,” punishes herself with starvation (
Subverting the female bodily form into the deformed figure, the speaker desires “a sensuous enclosure,” Adam’s body where she can grow “angular and holy” in “only a few more days.” For the speaker, “sinless” is equated with “foodless.” To please a ghostly unnamed presence, the anorexic speaker must become thin, so thin that she can return to the biological origin of the maternal body, imagined here paradoxically as male: “I will slip / back into him again / as if I had never been away.” However, as the final stanzas unfold, the speaker aims to reverse the “fall” from the grace of male body into a pre-anorexic female body of “python needs,” “hips,” “breasts,” “lips,” and “sweat and fat and greed.” That is to say, the anorexic speaker not only wishes to revert this “fall” but also to forget it, to erase from memory as from existence its lists of disembodied fragments. Thus, inclined to examine carefully the anorexic points of view, Boland places the anorexic at the center of private female experience. In so doing, Boland interrogates the depiction of anorexia from the inside of the victim’s mind, revealing how the conformity to patriarchal ideal of women as beautiful objects for male desire leads to self-inflicted torture. Further, as Allen- Randolph argues, on the level of language and metaphor, the anorexic ‘fall’ away from the female body, into a narrative of origin beginning and ending in the male body, becomes a model for the woman writing, representing herself within a masculine discourse (53). Boland’s “Anorexic” implies the danger, undesirability, and even tragedy, of women poets and otherwise, recognizing their “small space” or finding their bearings in a male-dominated system of representations.
Boland, in “Menses,” proceeds to expose menstruation to public view, which has not only been ignored, but hidden as shameful in patriarchal society. According to Julia Kristeva, the “abject” is something repulsive that both attracts and repels. In particular, Kristeva emphasizes that menstruation is likely to become a prime “abject,” resulting in personal horror and social prohibition: “Menstrual blood . . . stands for the danger issuing from within identity (social or sexual); it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference” (
The poem starts with a description of the physical sensation of menstruation; the speaker suffers from menstruation’s physical discomfort -- “I am sick of it, / filled with it, / dulled by it, / thick with it.” Further, Boland evokes the fact that traditionally, female menstrual periods have been associated with concepts of pollution, thus intensifying women’s symbolic devaluation with the biblical curse on women after the Fall, as the speaker suggests: “[T]o be the mere pollution of her wake!” / a water cauled by her light, / a sick haul, / a fallen self.” In this poem, the moon symbolizes all the powerful forces at work both within and outside the speaker. Rather than standing as the symbol of female power, the moon both paralyses the woman, in an endless cycle of biological menstruation, and condemns her as a sinful Eve, “a fallen self,” who is punished with menstruation (Argaiz 264). Here, the moon is represented as an entity with its own force, controlling the woman at her whim: “I am the moon’s looking glass / My days are moon-dials.” The speaker envies certain of her garden weeds, which can reproduce independently:
The speaker takes up a separatist stance from male hegemonic narratives, by longing for a dioecious sexual practice; she is jealous of the plants, which are not bound to sexual intercourse in order to reproduce. In this sense, the poetic speaker shows the psychic struggle with her own bodily discomfort, which is brought on by the lunar entrapment. However, as the final stanzas imply, Boland does not portray menstruation as a Kristevan abject, nor as the natural female hardship. Rather, the poet revises and rearticulates menstruation as the potential of female empowerment:
The female speaker embraces menstruation because of its relation to her sexual desire; she attests that menstruation drives her as a part of sexuality: “when I moan / for him between the sheets, / then I begin to know / that I am bright and original / and that my light’s my own.” For the speaker, menstruation seems to be rooted in her own inner self, signifying her potential for motherhood, and sexual desire, in which she would find her own true creative selfhood or “true reflections.” The speaker can create her own “light” grounded in motherhood; motherhood does not appear as a punishment for women, but rather as a source of artistic inspiration. Boland suggests that female desire becomes both the truth and the knowledge of selfhood as the speaker discovers the potency and function of the female body and sets out to reconstruct its value in cultural discourse through creative female writing that flows from bodily experience.
Furthermore, in “Solitary,” Boland candidly deals with a private aspect of a woman’s life -- masturbation, whereas “Menses” hints at the autoerotic female desire. The poet represents what Vicki Mahaffey calls a “complex cacophony of desires” (110) by infusing her with the erotic power of an unflinchingly graphic poem about masturbation. By writing about female masturbation, the poet attempts to connect female pleasure with artistic expression and the female voice. The title of this poem presents the poetic speaker as alone in articulating her female bodily experience. The poem starts with the description of female experience as a sacred act:
Boland illustrates that female desire functions not only as the reality of the self, but also as discovery of a mode of understanding that has been previously repressed. In reacting against all traditional misrepresentation of femininity, the poetic speaker parodically casts herself as a “votary” whose autoeroticism is a form of worship. Working in the realm of mysterious power of “[n]ight,” the speaker invites the reader to imagine both the interiority of a dark “chapel of unreason” and the exteriority of “[n]ight” “in the shrubbery” to emphasize the sense that the “votary” believes her activity to be private and unseen -- “I am alone / no one’s here / no one sees / my hands.” From the beginning, Boland draws our attention to “[h]ere in the shrubbery” in which the “votary” finds the “shrine” of female genitalia. The word “votary” itself signifies not simply a person who vows to live a religious ascetic life, but also one who worships fervently. However, ironically, in this poem, our “votary” is beyond rational thought in the “chapel of unreason” and only “[f]lames” shoot from her fingers; she seems to be ‘finger-expert’ enough to “pick out” the “heart” of desire. For the speaker, masturbation becomes an act of religious worship of the self. The female speaker refuses to engage in sexual intercourse with men, and claims her superiority by making clear that “only” she has access to “the true sensual rhythm of her own body” (Kelly 51). Her body embodies the very place of an origin of “sacred heat.” By celebrating her autoeroticism, the speaker calls into question the puritan dual view of body and mind. While the female speaker in “Anorexic” adopts the traditional opposing binary logic of flesh vs. soul, the speaker in this poem destabilizes the duality of body and mind:
The speaker openly makes her dominion over her own body: “my fingers,” “my hands,” “my thumb,” “my flesh,” and so on. Through the possessive constructions of the body, the speaker explicitly asserts herself; her body is her identity, so consummating her sexual desire is a way of coming to terms with her own true selfhood. At the climax of masturbation, the speaker’s “cry blasphemes” as she exults in her “animal” nature.” These poetic lines remind us of Irigaray’s concept of “autoeroticism”: “[A]s for woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation, and before there is any way to distinguish activity from passivity. Woman ‘touches herself’ all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact” (
Furthermore, in “Mastectomy,” Boland pays attention to the violence and aggressiveness that invades the female body in patriarchal society. The female speaker ardently criticizes male surgeons who usurp her breast, a symbol of her identity as a woman. Boland focuses on the symbolic connection between the male victimizer and patriarchal authority over female body. The poetic speaker attests that the victimized female body represents the site where all sorts of male atrocities are committed: “I could see / through them . . . / opening / their arteries, / fields gulching / into trenches / cuirasses stenching, / a mulch of heads / and towns” (
Against the Freudian concept of the breast as an erotic object for male fantasies, Boland emphasizes that the breast, in this poem, stands for not only procreation, but also female sexual pleasure. Moreover, Boland rewrites the Freudian terms of penis-envy, according to which the woman longs for what she can never have. The poet highlights that it is the man who lusts after the woman’s breast as “home /of wonder “and “the wetness / of their dreams.” In their envy, the surgeons deprive woman of what “slaked them first.” Boland’s revision of Freudian psychoanalytic theory evokes Irigaray’s arguments. According to Freudian and Lacanian notions of psychoanalysis, female sexuality is conceptualized in the light of masculine parameters. The constitution of women’s sex represents “deficiency,” “lack,” “atrophy” of the masculine sex, and even “penis-envy” (
1As Virginia Woolf points out, “[w]omen have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (53). 2In an interview with Rebecca E. Wilson, Boland states her interest in adopting the speaking voice of one of the patriarchal victims, the anorexic: “I have to say that I think In Her Own Image is a misunderstood book . . . . I wrote it with a puritan perspective, but it was taken to be a confession of a number of diseases which I had and neuroses which I was clearly giving evidence of! There are certain areas that are degraded because they are silent. They need to be re-experienced and re-examined. Their darker energies need to be looked at. This is what In Her Own Image is about, seeing the image by looking at it” (82). 3According to Naomi Wolf, female fat is the subject of passion , and women feel guilty about female fat, because they implicitly recognize that under that myth, their bodies are not their own but society’s, and that thinness is not a private aesthetic, but hunger a social concession exacted by community. “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience” (97).
Dismantling patriarchal modes of representation by rewriting the female body, Boland’s