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Teaching caged birds to sing

book cover

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet
Eavan Boland
Carcanet Press Ltd (UK) and W.W. Norton & Company (USA)


A woman poet, according to Eavan Boland, needs to resolve her relation to poetic tradition. We need to map the past, “not to learn from it, but to change it;” if we don’t, “it will change us.” Rather than intellectualise the past, Boland instructs women poets to “eroticize” it—in so doing they will be given a second map, one of their own becoming. This intriguing stream of thought is the central argument of A Journey with Two Maps, an argument that all too quickly runs underground revealing this attractive book as having something of an identity crisis.

Boland opens with elements of autobiography: the search for her own map. In her “Letter to a Young Woman Poet,” she ends with an element of instruction. What lies between is a series of unconnected essays that appear to have been written over a period of years and brought together in an attempt to fit her theme. The lives and the poetry of Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath, are examined together with less well-known poets like Elisabeth Langgässer and Charlotte Mew. The essays are all interesting in themselves, but they do not strengthen or illustrate the arguments on becoming.

Boland’s own major challenge in developing as a poet was the “hard to formulate” and “radical doubts” that beset her during her early years of becoming when she was finding her place within an almost entirely male province, possessed as it was of an almost entirely male history: “an archive of silences.” While the autobiographical material is engaging, it is brief and, to a degree, withheld. Boland describes her years as a young mother and poet, yet babies neither scream nor cause maternal ambiguity, creative frustration does not explode, and Boland is never overrun by the contradictions and complexities of being human. “I loved the sensory world of neighbourly routine and small children. The first delicate smell of an Irish spring: which was like crisp white linen.” There’s a safety to her tone, which distances Boland from the insecurities and pressures that most women poets face.

Early in the book, she writes:

And here I could leave it, this story. As a personal narrative; as a chronicle of reading and writing. As an unremarkable account of choices and changes of heart. I could abandon this account, fixed and printed as it is with the image of an indecisive reader and unconvinced poet; a wom an shifting here and there between ideas of art and systems of authorship. I could leave it were it not for one thing: The story changed.

While Boland’s poems advanced beyond these boundaries to leave us lucid directions of becoming, A Journey with Two Maps never really escapes from the enclosure of the above quotation. Restricted by her natural discretion, weighed down by her over-focus on doubt, along with the essays that do not appear to have been written specifically for this book, Boland fails to fully open the Pandora’s box of her argument. We are not given clear examples of what she means by ‘eroticising’ the past and are only shown a glimmer of the hope that the elusive second map might contain.

A Journey with Two Maps is an engaging collection of essays that is overshadowed by our hunt for Boland’s central argument and our hunger for answers to the questions seeded by the book’s provocative title. The reader is left with the sense that the book was created to suit a publisher’ s predatory in stincts. Women poets drawn like moths to the lamp-like suggestion that this book will empower them in their becoming are likely to be disappointed. The same material under less ambitious banners would have made for more rewarding reading.



Grace Wells debut collection When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things won the 2011 Rupert and Eithne Strong Best First Collection Award and was shortlisted for the London Festival Fringe New Poetry Award 2010.