Dear Eavan Boland, I Wanted to Send You a Letter
Amy Robinson on the Poet Who Changed Her Life
April 27, 2020
We never met. But for several years I have been carrying around a letter to you that I was too nervous to send. I would like to send it now, but I cannot. Because you just died, in quarantine, in Ireland.
When I learned of your death, after a hard morning of feeling stuck in my writing and irritated by the walls and humans around me, I pushed my chair back and ran into my bedroom to sob—in a place clear from children’s questions and sticky jam jars and school lessons, but still littered with laundry and books and dust. The detritus of domestic life. A space that you knew, and made beautiful and sacred through your work. A large part of the cutting sadness of your death is that now, in global quarantine, your clear, quiet poems of interior space, candles and knives, women’s voices, and kitchen gardens have even more meaning and heft. We need the tender attentiveness of your words. When we move out of this strange place of sheltering, let us remember lines like this: “Standing here on the front step / watching wildness break out again” and “tendrils, leaps, gnarls of blossom, / asteroids and day stars of our small world” and “Believe it, what we lost is here in this room / on this veiled evening.”
Your poems and your memoir A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet offered me possibility, a way to carve space for my voice out of everyday fatigue when my children were very young. But our literal paths never crossed. In fact, they seemed almost stubbornly divergent. You were an Irish poet at Stanford when I was working towards a Ph.D. in the history of British colonialism, yet I never studied with you. Although I was unhappy with the limits of academic writing, “the poetic” seemed like a distant land to me. In your own words, I still thought that “the ordinary day I lived was not easily included or made welcome there.” When I returned to teach a course at Stanford last year as both historian and published poet, I looked up your office hours to see if I could visit, thank you, tell you my story, and maybe give you the letter I had been too wary to send. But you were on leave in Ireland. It stayed in my computer, in its very own folder, unsent. Now I know that you were working on a new collection, which will be published this fall, called The Historians. We would have had so much to talk about: how to transcend the “old, savage calligraphy” of borders and disciplines, how to find salve for the scars, learned and passed down from father to son, and placed on shelves of triumphalism. Why did I think you would not want to talk to me? Where did I learn that reticence? I am 47 years old. Why has courage taken me so long?
My 13-year-old daughter came into my room last night while I worked on the query for this essay. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m writing a proposal, kind of.”
“What’s it about?”
“Well, you know the poet I cried about today?” She nodded. “Well, she made space for women’s experience, women’s voices, in Irish poetry. And I wrote her a letter once to tell her what this meant to me. But I never sent it. So I’m going to write about that.”
“Why did you never send it?”
I was quiet for a few moments. How to honestly tell her this?
“Because I didn’t think I was important enough.”
My daughter just looked straight at me, and shook her head.
Oh, the glaring irony of not feeling important enough to connect with someone who fiercely, elegantly excavated the concept of importance itself!
And now Eavan, you are dead. I am so sad, and heavy with regret.
“Who will know that once / words were possibilities and disappointments”?
So that someone will know, so that my daughter will know, here, finally, is my halting letter.
I carry you around in a manila folder. Or rather, I carry around the idea of you. Or, even more precisely, the idea of writing you a letter. The manila folder travels inside a canvas bag, a gift from my sister-in-law, with a quote from Louisa May Alcott on its side: “She is too fond of books, and it has addled her brain.”
The bag travels on my shoulder, or in the passenger seat of my car, from home to café to part-time work to school drop-off or pick-up to my little writing studio to waiting rooms to part-time work to dance classes to home again. I’ve hardly ever taken the folder out of the bag but it’s there. Alongside my pencil case and journal and a half-eaten chocolate bar in a plastic bag and field trip permission slips and lots and lots of cough drop wrappers and crumbs…
I want to write you a letter.
When my children were three and six, and I was almost 40, my husband gave me an astonishing gift. He arranged for me to go to Ireland, for nine days, alone. They were blustery, pen and pencil, quiet tea, walk-across-Dublin and Galway and Inisheer days. I started reading fairy tales again, like I did when I was a child, and then dove into the Cúchulainn cycle, and Lady Gregory and Yeats. And then somehow—via Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop probably—I found Patrick Kavanagh. And Paula Meehan. And then more Yeats. I came home and read voraciously about the Great Hunger, which led to questions about my family, about certain passions and silences I grew up with, and also to the words of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, which I think may have led next to a poet named Boland. I looked up at that, because my great-grandmother’s name was Boland. She came over from Ireland at age sixteen, alone on a boat like so many others. But this Boland was not Dorinda. She was Eavan. That’s you.
Through all this I was not writing poems. I did not believe that I knew anything about poems—what or how. Ireland was starting to be slightly more real to me, but not poems, no. They were not on my map…
I look at the piles of insurance bills, registration forms, to-do lists, and school coloring pages, and I want to write you a letter. I listen to my tween daughter talk smack to me and I am frozen, just trying to think—quickly think!—of something to say in response, and I want to write you a letter. My brain is pressing against my skull, an echo of what it did when I entered a coma at age four, and I want to write you a letter. I’m sitting in a dance studio lobby, surrounded by children and teens in short shorts, ponytails, tap shoes, twirling and chattering and watching themselves in mirrors, and I want to write you a letter. So I take out my journal and lo! I am. I am writing you a…
I’ve been quiet because I am trying to find one question to ask that will at least justify my impulse to write, and perhaps even give you a reason to read, or reply. But my strategic mind has lately dissolved. So I have none.
What I do have is an earnest admiration for you, and a longing. My earnestness is sometimes embarrassing. But my Zen teacher says that there is space inside of longing, and I believe her. I’ve felt it. That is what is giving me the courage to write…
I don’t have an MFA. Maybe I’m not supposed to say this but all the serious literary magazines feel cluttered with MFAs and ads for MFAs and articles about who went where and who worked with whom. If they’re young, they’re part of some hip literary scene. If they’re old, they’re esteemed and they’ve been writing for ages. I want to write. I want to write you a letter. Who am I to want to write you a letter? Or send it?
I want to write you a letter but I have trouble finding the time. Right now I am sitting on the floor next to my daughter as she builds a foam-board model of Mission Santa Clara on El Camino Real. We are listening to Irish-language Christmas carols, and I don’t understand a word. I am just a few hundred miles north of you, but the distance feels farther than that.
I am 43 years old now. And I only started writing poetry, or falling into poetry at 41.
Somewhere in a pile by the side of my bed is The Making of a Poem, edited by you and Mark Strand. I’m almost halfway through. Somewhere in that pile is your A Journey With Two Maps, underlined, and with notes scribbled in pencil on the last blank page. Your search, your solitude as a mother, and your transformation of the genre from within so that it could be an expression of your life, rocked me. I am remembering myself inside the discipline of history, my silent, adamantine knowing that explanation and analysis could not contain my passion for the music of language, or my desire to fully articulate this beautiful, broken world. I walked away from academia when I became pregnant with my daughter. But now my rock-hard certainty that the question is either/or has loosened. You made a move that breathed your own life into the shape of the poem, a spiraling up from the inside of ordinary depth—nappies, neighbors, women in myth, the staircase at night. The form, the lineage, cracked open, and you entered. You redesigned.
Something needs to crack open in my life.
“Writing a poem, raising a child… these are labors,” wrote Lewis Hyde in The Gift. “Once a gift has stirred within us it is up to us to develop it. There is a reciprocal labor in the maturation of a talent.”
I’ve taken the folder out of the bag.
It’s bedtime. I am so tired. I do too much. I do too much and always, always feel I don’t do enough. I curl sideways on the bedroom floor. Moonlight mottles the skylights and crickets and darkness ring in my ears. My husband stoops, his head silhouetted against the boxed-in sky, and lays his hand cautiously on my hip. “You’re overwhelmed,” he says quietly. I want him to take something away from me but I don’t know what. Not my children. And not the one other thing that no one can take away now, but I still fear losing—poetry. The music. The words. The gift.
I am writing a letter to you, and I have no idea where to start.
This seems so old-fashioned, writing you a letter, but it feels right. I want to ask you about the mythic, cavernous space inside of me. “I can be cooking, / making coffee, / scrubbing wood, perhaps, / and back it comes: / the crystalline, the otherworld…”
I want to know what you would say not just to a young woman poet, but to a middle-aged woman poet with a mind just beginning to dip into the forms and traditions and and rhythms that for a poet who started young might seem by now like a second skin. When I became a mother at 34 I was not like a selkie yearning to return to the sea of some known profession. I was just lost, adrift, not even sure what was sea and what was land.
Motherhood rearranged me. Or intensified a rearrangement that was already coming. And now I feel old. And I also feel naked, writing this letter, the bones of my self-consciousness, and the bones of what still may be possible, showing through my skin.
My map does not match yours though you are helping me more clearly see my own.
The question Who am I? must be desolate territory that I need to cross somehow, alone.
What do you think about the empty spaces on maps?
There is an old Chinese folktale about a young woman named T’sien who leaves home to follow her disallowed lover. Years later she returns, only to find another version of herself who has been asleep the whole time. The sleeping woman rises and comes to the door, the two versions meet, and they merge into one. T’sien was separated from her soul, the story tells us. Which was the true T’sien?
When I heard this story I felt a strong aversion to mapping its separations and apparent redemption onto my life. I just wanted to let it come alive inside me. Not every country is in that book, I tell my son about his children’s atlas, when he complains that it is missing Ireland. Not every moment is in that story. There are places and feelings and stretches of time we may not ever learn about. You know that.
When I heard T’sien’s story a second time, I was drawn to the empty space between her leaving and her dormancy at home, a space so empty that its possibility is silent. There is no map, I suddenly thought. I felt a deep and poignant—but not overwhelming—sadness, to know this. It was a sadness that felt true. And I thought of you, and the gift of your poems, and the gift of your story of becoming a woman poet, and the gift you offered by writing that book about so many woman poets, so many different maps.
I am writing a letter and I am writing my life. I have no map.
I am trying to step into each day as if I dwell in that empty space, like the space between stanzas in a poem. I think I may have enough.
April 28, 2020
I wanted to write you a letter.
In fact, I did write. I wrote and wrote and wrote.
I didn’t send it.
There is something in me deeply ashamed of my own hesitation. But this is the map on which our paths have finally crossed, in language at least, and I cannot change that.
I do not write because my sadness and shame are extraordinary, but only because they are real. Let this be an ode to the slow, tentative work of undoing, and making, and healing. Let it be a different kind of tribute: not a clarion declaration of accomplishment, but testimony to the ordinary, complicated days and voices and lives—women’s days and voices and lives— that you lifted, to the light.
Let this be the thank you that I wish I’d had the courage to slide into a crisp white envelope, well in advance of global pandemic.
May we meet outside history, Eavan, though “We are too late. We are always too late.”
“The Rooms of Other Women Poets,” “Bright-Cut Irish Silver,” “What We Lost,” and “Outside History,” from Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-1990 (Norton, 1990).