Nationalism and Feminism in Eavan Boland’s Poetry
by Catrin Stewart
Polyphony, Volume 1, Issue 1
First Published March 2019, Manchester
This essay is a discussion of Eavan Boland’s status as a nationalist poet of Ireland, in conjunction with her feminist ideologies, using Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection alongside Benedict Anderson’s definitions of nationalism and national identity. The essay discusses Boland’s poems Woman in Kitchen, Anorexia, Mise Eire, and The Woman Changes Her Skin, focusing on themes of geography and place, borders of the body and displacement, and Boland’s tone and lyricism. Ultimately the debate aims to discern whether Boland’s nationalist ideologies are strong enough to override her feminist ideas and thus characterise her as a nationalist poet.
Eavan Boland may be well known for poetry that addresses Irish identity and nationalism, but perhaps a more visible element of her poetry is its feminist themes. Boland sees the two as connected in ‘the power of nationhood to edit the reality of womanhood’, utilizing ideas of nationalism to create feminist poetry. (See note 1) In order to address this question, I will be reading Boland’s poetry through the lens of feminist critic Julia Kristeva, to argue that the feminist aspects of Boland’s poetry override the nationalist themes. Kristeva’s theory of abjection in her book Powers of Horror allow us to demonstrate how the notion of the abject — the thing that is ‘opposed to I’ and ‘neither subject nor object’— emerges in Boland’s poetry, and how this separates her from Ireland, making it problematic to characterize Boland as a nationalist poet. (See note 2) Boland’s poems demonstrate how she is disgusted by what nationalism, and its androcentrist structures, has done to her identity.
Before beginning my analysis, I will define nationalism in terms taken from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, where he asserts that nationalism is made of ‘cultural artefacts of a particular kind’ that command profound ‘emotional legitimacy’. (See note 3) Boland’s poetry may adhere to being a cultural product, associated directly with the Irish nation, but her poetry does not command emotional legitimacy towards the nation, but rather against it. I will seek to demonstrate these statements by investigating the themes of identity, horror, religion and motherhood in both Boland and Kristeva’s work.
Whilst Kristeva is an important name in feminist scholarship, it must be noted that more recent scholars have questioned her work for its relevance to feminist studies as the movement progresses and modernises. Judith Butler has written in such critique of Kristeva, focusing on her insistence upon the identification of the chora with the maternal body. (See note 4) The issue with this association is that the feminine object or subject is placed outside of the universal or particular binarisms so that she is ‘neither one nor the other, but the permanent and unchangeable condition of both’. (See note 5) Here Butler is showing how Kristeva’s insistence on the feminine and maternal as an example of the chora displaces women and allows them no part in society, not unlike the criticism that Boland makes of nationalism’s immortalisation of women as icons, which puts them in a space that is unreal or, as Boland’s title indicates, Outside History. Whilst I acknowledge these problems in connecting Kristeva and Boland to define Boland’s poetry as primarily feminist rather than nationalist, there are still beneficial readings to be taken from Kristeva that will help facilitate an understanding of Boland’s poetry. Kristeva’s language in Powers of Horror is distinctly geographical as she discusses borders and the placement of the self, which leads us to a discussion of geography and nationality in relation to the abject, as I will demonstrate using Boland’s poems Woman in Kitchen, Anorexia, Mise Eire, and The Woman Changes Her Skin.
In Boland’s essay Outside History, she asserts that ‘women have moved from being the objects of Irish poems to the authors of them’. (See note 6) Whilst this seems as if Boland believes there has been a move towards agency and independence for Irish women, using Kristeva’s writing can show how Boland’s poetry, alternatively, conveys a loss of identity in this move. She becomes ‘neither subject nor object’ of her poetry or of the Irish nation. This not only separates Boland from her ideas of nationalism, but Boland becomes, in this action, ‘outside’ of history, past and present, eradicating her identity. Boland continues in her essay, suggesting that when a woman, once part of the idea of the nation, is ‘simplified’, she ‘becomes the passive projection of a national idea’ without independent thought or ambition. (See note 7) The woman is present in neither her own body or as part of the nation, she is ‘neither subject nor object’ of her own life or of a national narrative.
We can see the evidence of this loss of identity within Boland’s poetry in the relationship between the poem’s speaker and the poem’s subject. In Woman in Kitchen, the entire poem describes a woman other than the speaker, saying ‘She watches’, ‘She stands’. (See note 8) The pronouns distance the speaker from the female subject of the poem yet the emphasis on sensual details such as the ‘noise’ and loss of ‘sight’ creates an intimacy that suggests a relationship between the two, perhaps even that they are the same person, the speaker alienated from her own body. (See note 9) Moreover the third stanza sees Boland use free indirect discourse to connect the speaker and subject further. She observes that ‘the kettle in the toaster is a kingfisher swooping for trout above the river’s mirror’, an imaginative and vivid picture that only the subject would know. (See note 10) This idea of distance between speaker and subject is more explicitly demonstrated in Anorexic, where Boland mixes the pronouns ‘my’ and ‘she’, ‘her’ and ‘I’. (See note 11) She also refers to her body as separate from her self; ‘My body is a witch. I am burning it.’ (See note 12) This lack of identification also adheres to Kristeva’s statement that abjection ‘is above all ambiguity’ as Boland is neither author nor object, despite her statement of movement to authorship in Outside History.
Such ambiguity is also a theme distinct in the setting of her poetry. Often, the subject of the poem is more focused on where, rather than who, the poem is describing. The subject of Woman in Kitchen ‘has nowhere definite to go: she might be a pedestrian in traffic.’ (See note 14) Her place in her own home is uncertain, let alone as part of a nation. Andrew J. Auge points out this ‘exilic sense of displacement’ that is prevalent in Boland’s poetry, yet he says that this intersects with ‘a profoundly lyric sensibility’. (See note 15) I would contest this to suggest that Boland’s poetry does indeed have a sense of displacement, but that it is combined with abjection in that it creates feelings of unease or disgust rather than lyricism, which has positive connotations. The language that Boland uses to describe setting is similar to Kristeva’s; she describes the space that surrounds the dejected as ‘never one, not homogeneous [...] but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic.’ (See note 16) This catastrophic division is more evident within Boland’s writing in relation to displacement than lyricism.
This brings me onto a discussion of the tone of Boland’s poetry, in relation to Kristeva’s assertion that the abject is immoral and sinister. Her most significant example of this is the corpse, which is ‘the most sickening of wastes, [...] a border that has encroached upon everything.’ (See note 17) For Kristeva, the corpse is the ultimate example of the abject, crossing the border between life and death, creating feelings of horror and disgust. We may also examine Benedict Anderson’s discussion of death in relation to nationalism, to demonstrate how ideas of the abject and nationalism come together within Boland’s poetry to distance her from the role of a nationalist poet. Anderson says that cenotaphs and tombs of unknown soldiers are the most indicative examples of modern cultures of nationalist as they are ‘saturated with ghostly national imaginings.’ (See note 18) Despite the tomb being empty, simply the idea of a soldier who has died for his country is enough to invoke emotion within a nation. Boland’s work combines the concepts behind both Anderson and Kristeva’s discussions of death to distance her from nationalism. For example, when Boland writes ‘So when the king’s head / gored its basket — / grim harvest’ she is referring to the execution of Charles I. (See note 19) By combining a reference to a famous event in British history, especially one that was such a victory for the Irish, with the description ‘grim harvest’, Boland evokes nationalist discourse but condemns it with words of disgust. Not only does Boland sit on the border between disgust and fascination towards nationalism, embodying Kristeva’s theory that the abject is what crosses borders, she does this in reference to death and horror, adhering to the emotions Kristeva describes.
In Anorexic , Boland further demonstrates this crossing of borders through the depiction of the female body. In the lines ‘heaving to hips and breasts / and lips and heat / and sweat and fat and greed’ Boland is depicting the subject purging her body of what she believes to be bad things. (See note 20) The use of the repetition of the word ‘and’ creates a vicious and relentless rhythm that speeds as the reader progresses to the harsher language of ‘sweat and fat and greed’ and simulates the rhythm of heaving or gagging, making the lines that much more visceral. The purging of the abject in this scene is synonymous with the desire to erase the female body, akin to the erasure of female identity as discussed earlier. These depictions of erasure or a lack of substance can show how nationalist, androcentric discourses have led to female detachment or hatred towards the self.
This idea of self-hatred formed through nationalist ideas can also be linked with religion. Born in Dublin, Boland’s roots are heavily influenced by the Catholic religion that dominates the culture of Southern Ireland. The patriarchal structures that form nationalism are also found in religion, notably Catholicism, and this combination of the two in Boland’s poetry creates a strong sense of female erasure. Kristeva states that abjection of self is proof of the ultimate humility before God, and we may use Anorexia to show how Boland portrays herself as the abject in order to give herself to God, as her nation’s religion has taught her to undervalue herself. This idea is represented through a resentment of flesh and the body. Boland shows this immediately and frankly in the first line; ‘Flesh is heretic’. (See note 21) As Boland portrays the anorexic subject, she uses religious allusion to demonstrate how her identity is overtaken by masculinity. She is described as ‘Thin as a rib’, evoking the concept of Eve taken from Adam’s rib. (See note 22) Furthermore, the lines ‘How warm it was and wide / once by a warm drum / once by the song of his breath’ display a desire to return to being Adam’s rib, not only erasing her own physical presence and identity but also doing so by returning to a state where the male dominates. (See note 23) Here, Boland’s subject of Anorexia experiences abjection, becoming the subject of disgust, and her method of tackling this is to erase her femininity, and evoke a time of religious and patriarchal structures that are so inextricably linked.
Finally, I will address the theme of motherhood in Boland’s poetry and how this distances her from the status of ‘nationalist’ poet. We may view this in two ways: Boland’s role as a mother herself, and Boland’s relationship with Ireland as her ‘mother’. Auge uses Kristeva’s theory here to point out that her depiction of mother as a ‘split subject’ can be used to view Mother Ireland, and that in this, ‘Boland elicits a conception of national identity, that like maternal subjectivity, is open to heterogeneity’. (See note 24) Mise Eire can help us explore this concept most effectively. With the title meaning ‘I am Ireland’, Boland is asserting the nationalist theme of the poem, and moreover, it is parodying Patrick Pearse’s poem of the same name. Whilst Pearse evokes the image of the Hag, a personification of Ireland, Boland condemns it, listing images of ‘real’ women of Ireland instead such as the ‘woman of a sloven’s mix’, a prostitute ‘who practices the quick frictions’ or the ‘woman in the gansy-coat’ instead of idealised and unrealistic icons of Ireland. (See note 25)
Boland’s Mise Eire addresses the idea of what it is to be an estranged child of Ireland. The line ‘My roots are brutal’ has a dual meaning — either the roots of Ireland are violent and terrible enough to make her say ‘No. I won’t go back’, or alternatively, they are brutal in their strength to hold her in the grips of Ireland. (See note 26) In this line we can recognise Kristeva’s ‘split subject’. As a daughter of Ireland, Boland (or the speaker of the poem) is split in her desire to be part of the nation but the resentment she feels towards nationalism. This division is also portrayed in the contradictory language of the poem. Despite the ‘homesickness’ she ‘won’t go back’. (See note 27)
As well as evoking Mother Ireland, Boland also becomes the mother in lines such as ‘I am the woman [...] holding her half-dead Baby.’ (See note 28) Not only does she, in this moment, border the role of both daughter and mother, her child is ‘half-dead’, reminding us of the earlier discussed horror aspect of Kristeva’s theory. Boland also refers to ‘a new language’ as ‘a kind of scar’, a scar as a signifier for death and the bordering of the inside and outside of the body. (See note 29) The baby is a reminder of such abjection, one that has been created by Mother Ireland, as the women have had to migrate from Ireland. The nationalist discourse that iconises women retracts from the real experience of maternity and places pregnant women and mothers in a space outside of society, just as the theory of the abject is embodied through the pregnant body bordering life and death, internal and external.
Although I have connected Boland’s poetry of motherhood with Kristeva’s discussions of maternity, it must be acknowledged once again that Butler has written considerable criticism against Kristeva’s discourse on maternity. Butler asserts that Kristeva’s writings on motherhood are not feminist but actually only ‘a temporary and futile disruption of the hegemony of the paternal law’, and that her theory depends on the ‘stability and reproduction’ of this law that she is seeking to displace. (See note 30)
Yet Boland’s engagement with maternity and motherhood can be seen as a distinct rejection of such paternal structures. Whilst still embodying Kristeva’s ideas of abjection, her separation of mothers and the nation is a criticism of structures that have forced the separation, not a dependence upon them. Boland’s poetry replicates the stereotyping of the androcentric tradition that it critiques. (See note 31) It’s a Woman’s World does this by using the idea of history being dominated by men, employing bathos to move from ‘milestone[s]’ to ‘the loaf left by the cash register’, contrasting male history with women’s domestic lives. Boland writes that ‘our windows moth our children to the flame of hearth not history’, replicating the problem that a mother’s life is domesticated, with the ‘hearth’ instead of part of a larger ‘history’. (See note 32) However, this separation of the mother from nationalist history is still feminist as it is a criticism of the place women are forced into. They have the potential to be ‘star-gazers, fire-eaters’, yet they are bound by their culture. The poem ends with the line ‘just my frosty neighbour coming home.’ (See note 33) By ending on ‘coming home’ Boland reinforces the idea that mothers always have to return to domestication, even if their mouth has become ‘a burning plume’ just moments before (See note 34)
Boland, in her essay Outside History, claims that ‘in all of this, I did not blame nationalism’. (See note 35) It may seem to the reader that, despite her repudiation of Irish national history, she is still a nationalist poet. However, by returning to Benedict Anderson’s discussion of nationalism, it can be maintained that regardless of the ‘emotional legitimacy’ of her poems, the subject of this emotion is always against the nation and in favour of female experience. Her essays may still contain nationalist ideas, albeit new and edited ones, but as a poet, Boland is distinctly anti-nationalist in relation to Ireland. My discussion of her poems in tangent with Julia Kristeva’s theory has facilitated this assertion, and furthermore demonstrated that Boland’s poems lie in a feminist realm, suggesting that perhaps it is more accurate to characterise her as a postcolonial feminist poet due to her renegotiation of the idea of the nation in a more favorable light for women.
1. Eavan Boland, ’Outside History’, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, (London: Vintage, 1995) pp.123-153 (p.126)
2. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (NewYork: Columbia University Press,1982), p.1
3. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edition (London: Verso, 1991) p. 4
4. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the discursive limits of sex (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 15. Accessed 26 December 2017 via https://www.dawsonera.com/readonline/9780203828274.ThechoraisaconcepttakenfromPlatothatdefinesthechoraasaspaceorinterval.Platoonoccasiondescribesthechorainreferencetomaternity,thewombbeinganexampleofit
5. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, p.16
6. Eavan Boland, ‘OutsideHistory’,in Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time,(London: Vintage,1995) pp.123-153 (p.126)
7. Boland, Outside History, p.136
8. Eavan Boland, ‘Woman in Kitchen’, Collected Poems, (Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited,1995), p.76 9. Ibid.
11. Eavan Boland, ‘Anorexic’, Collected Poems, (Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 1995), p.58-60
12. Eavan Boland, ‘Anorexic’, p.58
13. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p.9
14. Boland, Woman in Kitchen, p.76
15. Andrew J. Auge, ‘Fracture and Wound: Boland’s Poetry of Nationality’, New Hibernia Review, 8, 2004, pp.121-141 (p.122)
16. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 4
17. Ibid., p.3
18. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, p.9
19. Eavan Boland, ‘It’s a Woman’s World’, Collected Poems (Manchester, Carcanet Press Limited,1995), pp. 79-80 (p. 79)
20. Eavan Boland, Anorexic, p. 60
21. Ibid., p.58
22. Ibid., p. 59
23. Ibid., p.59
24. Andrew J. Auge, p.123
25. Eavan Boland, ‘Mise Eire’, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited,1995), pp.102-103 26. Eavan Boland, ‘Mise Eire’, p.102
27. Ibid., pp.102-103
28. Ibid., p.102
29. Ibid., p.103
30. Judith Butler, ‘The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva’, Hypatia, 3, (1989), pp.104-118 (pp.105-106)
31. Andrew J. Auge, Fracture and Wound, p.122
32. Eavan Boland, It’s a Woman's World, p.79
35. Eavan Boland, Outside History, p.136