On Bloomsday weekend in Dublin a lot of shop-window mannequins – and some people – sported straw hats; some were even in costume, despite the sunshine. The Rosie Hackett bridge is still a novelty. Tourists are oblivious to the fact that if they’d been here a month ago they’d have had to go the long way round to cross the river to the Abbey. My friend remarked that soon there’ll be so many bridges we won’t be able to see the river.
There was a buzz at the door to the Peacock, an even louder one downstairs as we all filed in to hear Paula Meehan (PM) and Eavan Boland (EB) in conversation. I’m getting tired of saying that occasions that feature Paula Meehan speaking feel like a party, but there you are, that’s how it felt.
It was a typically Dublin occasion too, in so far as everyone has to negotiate the city in various different ways but when you arrive there are familiar faces, people to wave at, people to seek out and talk to. Within minutes, the stranger sitting beside you in the theatre will turn out to be the neighbour of an old friend. Dublin’s like that. Don’t ask me why, it just is.
We settled to listen. Maureen Kennelly of Poetry Ireland welcomed us all and read a letter of congratulations from the President, Michael D Higgins, to Eavan Boland. We’re here to celebrate the launch of a new book Eavan Boland: A Poet’s Dublin (Carcanet), but EB has other things to celebrate while she’s home: a New and Selected Poems; her impending 70th birthday; the birth of her first granddaughter.
Jody Allen-Randolph, who co-edited A Poet’s Dublin with Paula Meehan, introduced the two poets, saying that their work has a common purpose in imagining the city. She spoke about the difficult task of finding language, and said that EB’s collection Night Feed rescued Irish poetry from being obscure. EB’s work is as central to our times, she said, as Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own was to hers.
The conversation that followed between PM and EB was remarkable in many ways. It follows similar paths to the printed dialogue at the back of the book: through and around the city, the past, history, poetry, Joyce. If you want a strong flavour of it, buy the book. You won’t be sorry. At the launch, the Books Upstairs people were selling it for €10.
Before I give you some highlights let me say that what struck me most about this conversation was the rarity and generosity of the exchange and what a privilege it was to witness it – people say this kind of thing all the time and readers think yeah, yeah and then what – but this really was a rare and generous instance of two living writers from slightly different generations who have followed, loved and admired each other’s work throughout their careers, each talking about how the other has influenced her and showing her delight in what the other has achieved. They asked each other to read this poem or that, poems they love, poems that made them see their task differently, poems that opened new possibilities for them. There were murmurs of pleasure and agreement from the audience as one poem or another was suggested (“Night Feed”, “Making Money”, “The Pomegranate” for EB; “My Father Perceived as a Vision of Saint Francis” and “The Pattern” for PM).
The time flew in. Coming out of the theatre into the real city we had spent the last hour thinking about in the abstract was unsettling, to say the least. The streets were quiet. It was a sunny Sunday evening. People were most likely in the parks or at the beach, they were studying for exams or they’d headed for the hills. It felt uncanny, as if something had happened while we were gone, something everyone else knew about but us; we’d have to find our way back across the new bridge and try to piece together what it was.
I’d recommend that you buy the book: it’s a selection of poems and photographs by EB. It includes an extended dialogue between EB and PM at the back where you’ll find much of what was said in the Peacock. In the meantime, here are some highlights:
For the cover, EB took a b/w photograph of the figure of Anna Liffey/Anna Livia on what used to be Carlisle but is now O’Connell Bridge. She was distressed by all the machines that now clutter the figure’s head like so much litter. PM and her sister Antoinette Milne worked on the image and coloured it to get the effect on the book’s cover. The equipment is still visible but softened. PM: ‘She looks like she’s under surveillance’ (the original photo is reproduced in the book p.44)
EB: PM’s city of Dublin is not the same as hers. PM’s is inhabited in a way that EB’s never was: she deals with shadows and ghosts. Coming back to Dublin (after a childhood spent abroad) she knew she’d never have that secret language that people have growing up in a city.
PM described hearing EB read for the first time, on the radio. She was with activist friends of hers; when she said she wanted to listen they said, no you don’t – listen to her accent. That crystallised for PM that ‘an accent is not a politics’ and that poetry defeats sectarianism, it’s about human voices.
EB: If a poet doesn’t tell the truth about her time she will not survive it.
EB quoted Adrienne Rich, that every writer’s fear is of a book of myths in which their names do not appear. Young writers often begin to write in a place where they might never be able to write their name. It matters to write your name there. Other people will want to come along and write their names there too.
EB (before reading “Night Feed”): The poem was written at the edges of the city (Dundrum). She’d get up for those night feeds with her baby daughter and see other lights on – other people living their lives – that’s when she made her decision to write the life she was living and not what other people thought she should be writing.
PM: Many young women poets say you/that collection (i.e. Night Feed) saved their lives.
They talked about the influence of their mothers, leading to EB asking PM to read “The Pattern”.
EB: There is an unswerving harsh truth to that poem. It had a great influence on me; you really put the city through the poem.
EB: Once a poem is written it can never be unwritten, but finding and making the space for it isn’t easy.
PM (asking for “Making Money”): A familiar move of yours is to reinhabit legend; another is to take an object and meditate on it, and on the city as Polis, city as State. You present us with a series of propositions to be examined.
EB cited a local history book Dundrum and its Environs as source. A line that stayed with her gave rise to this poem. “At the turn of the (last) century the paper produced there was of such high quality that it was exported for use as bank-note paper.” Mill-work is terrible. She was struck by the idea that these girls who worked in dangerous hard conditions were making money they would never see.
‘The past is … a crime we cannot admit and will not atone’. (“Making Money”)
PM on the work of organizing the material of the book: chronology didn’t work. Many of the poems are like small time capsules, memories. In the end they came up with topography/geography as an organizing principle and put the river at the heart of it, the amazing long poem “Anna Liffey”.
PM: The work you do opens out spaces where I can follow
EB:I don’t think the poets who went before me could have seen the life I have had as a poet; I don’t think I can see the lives of a young poet now, what life they will find.
EB: Poet is what you are, not what you do.
This conversation will be broadcast on RTE Radio on 24th September