Dark falls on this mid-western town
where we once lived when myths collided.
Dusk has hidden the bridge in the river
which slides and deepens
to become the water
the hero crossed on his way to hell.
Not far from here is our old apartment.
We had a kitchen and an Amish table.
We had a view. And we discovered there
love had the feather and muscle of wings
and had come to live with us,
a brother of fire and air.
We had two infant children one of whom
was touched by death in this town
and spared: and when the hero
was hailed by his comrades in hell
their mouths opened and their voices failed and
there is no knowing what they would have asked
about a life they had shared and lost.
I am your wife.
It was years ago.
Our child was healed. We love each other still.
Across our day-to-day and ordinary distances
we speak plainly. We hear each other clearly.
And yet I want to return to you
on the bridge of the Iowa river as you were,
with snow on the shoulders of your coat
and a car passing with its headlights on:
I see you as a hero in a text —
the image blazing and the edges gilded —
and I long to cry out the epic question
my dear companion:
Will we ever live so intensely again?
Will love come to us again and be
so formidable at rest it offered us ascension
even to look at him?
But the words are shadows and you cannot hear me.
You walk away and I cannot follow
This poem is taken from Eavan Boland's collection, In a Time of Violence (1994). It's a widely anthologized poem and appears on the Leaving Certificate syllabus here in Ireland. Boland is a highly acclaimed and published poet and often writes on explicitly feminist themes. In 1980 she was a co-founder of Arlen Press, an Irish feminist Press. Her most recent collections Outside History (1990) and The Lost Land (1998) explore the place of women in the past, particularly a past of violence and loss.
I love this poem because of the way it effortlessly weaves myth and the quotidian to achieve a sort of equipoise between the personal, the historical and the philosophical. You will recognize the allusion to Book 6 of The Aeneid by Virgil, where Aeneas visits the underworld and meets the ghosts of his former companions, who are both pleased and frightened to see him. Their failure to properly communicate highlights Boland's motif of separation and loss, as well as the failure of language to fully recreate experience. The poem is addressed to Boland's husband and captures beautifully, I feel, that pining for a fleeting moment of emotional intensity, call it love, happiness, joy.
It reminds me also of an anecdote related by Anthony Cronin about Samuel Beckett: He was visited in Paris by some friends and they decided to take a stroll through Le Bois. It was a fine spring day and each one was trying to outdo the other in extolling the beauties of the flora, the weather, etc., until one finally blurted out, 'it's a great day to be alive', to which Beckett responded, 'I wouldn't go that far now.' The conversation then turned to remembrances and one asked Beckett whether he was ever happy; he replied, 'O yes, I remember it very well, it was after lunch on April 13th, 1961, when I was taking a constitutional not unlike this one and I was suddenly suffused with an unbearable joy.' All joking aside, I think Boland's poem meditates poignantly on such effervescent moments.
John Griffin is the editor for Tuesday Poem this week. He lives and works in Ireland.
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