The Journey

Article excerpt

Eavan Boland's most recent books are Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Her Time and An Origin like Water: Poems 1967-87, both with W.W. Norton. She was recently poet-in-residence at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, during its centenary year. She is Professor of English at Stanford University and teaches there one quarter a year.

JANE HOOGESTRAAT was on the poetry board when the editors were preparing the Spring 1986 issue of Chicago Review, in which Boland's "The Journey " would appear. She remembers: "When the Chicago Review received Eavan Boland's 'The Journey, 'Paul Baker immediately called my attention to the poem. After I too glibly said, 'No, this has been done before and is too easy, 'Paul replied, with classic decorum, 'Read it again.' The poem later appeared in the Spring 1986 issue and, a short while later, in Boland's The Journey."

EAVAN BOLAND recently wrote to us about how she came to write this poem:

"The Journey" emerged from a complex and painful event. When our daughters were very small, my husband and I went as Fellows to the International Writing Program in Iowa City. It was roy first exposure to an intellectual and analytic approach to poetry and I was very taken with the discussions, arguments and emphases on the future and present of the form. Then our smallest daughter, only a year old, got ill with meningitis. She made a full recovery. But the sense of an abyss opening in front of us, which suddenly closed, remained with me for a long time. And with that sense came an increasing impatience on my part for the actions and events which poetry refuses to name and record. I deliberately cast this poem in the elite form of the dream convention: where the poet descends to hell with another poet and comes back wiser. I descend with Sappho and come back no wiser. If anything, the poem records my longing to witness something which we were spared but others were not. After the poem was finished I submitted it to the Chicago Review and was delighted and honored when it was accepted.

Immediately cries were heard. These were the loud wailing of infant souls weeping at the very entrance way, never had they had their share of life's sweetness for the dark day had stolen them from their mothers' breasts and plunged them to a death before their time.

Virgil: The Aeneid, Book VI

And then the dark fell and 'there has never' I said 'been a poem to an antibiotic: /never a word to compare with the odes on the flower of the raw sloe for fever

'or the devious Africa-seeking tern or the protein treasures of the sea bed. Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious

'emblem instead of the real thing. Instead of sulpha we shall have hyssop dipped in the wild blood of the unblemished lamb so every day the language gets less

'for the task and we are less with the language'. I finished speaking and the anger faded and dark fell and the book beside me lay open at the page Aphrodite

comforts Sappho in her love's duress. The poplars shifted their music in the garden. A child startled in a dream. My room was a mess

the usual hardcovers, half-finished cups, clothes piled up on an old chair and I was listening out but in my head was a loosening and sweetening heaviness,

not sleep but nearly sleep, not dreaming really but as ready to believe and still unfevered, calm and unsurprised when she came and stood beside me

and I would have known her anywhere and I would have gone with her anywhere and she came wordlessly and without a word I went with her

down down down without so much as ever touching down but always, always with a sense of mulch beneath us, the way of stairs winding down to a river

and as we went on the light went on failing and I looked sideways to be certain it was she, misshapen, musical - Sappho - the scholiast's nightingale,

and down we went, again down until we came to a sudden rest beside a river in what seemed to be an oppressive suburb of the dawn. …