The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine. She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.
Eavan Boland 1994
Good evening Friends and Family! This is one of the first poems I read when I got my Norton Anthology of Poetry, and I loved it so much that I did a research project on Eavan Boland last semester. That means that I have some previous theories about Boland's work, and that this discussion will have some more biographical information than usual, but that does not in the least diminish this poem's power or beauty. I particularly love the last four lines, which are as full of tension and anguish as any lines I have ever read.
A bit of backstory on Boland will be helpful before I dive into this poem. Eavan Boland is a female Irish writer in the second half of the twentieth century. She grew up in England, where she felt as if she never had a country or nation as did the British. Boland deals with problems of representation and marginalization, both in being Irish and being an female Irish poet. Women Irish poets have been dreadfully under-represented in Irish literature for hundreds of years. With the help of such poets as Nuala ni Dhomhnaill (pronounced ni gau-na) and Boland, that trend is slowly changing, but the problem remains dire. An anthology called the Irish Literary Review appeared in 1992 that only incorporated two women poets in nearly one thousand pages of poetry. This fact incenses Boland, who contends that the Irish woman appears in Irish literature only as an emblem. She is either the sturdy washer-woman or the beloved, frail beauty. Boland sees that this (literal) subjugation of women cages real women. Boland is *very* aware of the problems of representation.
It may thus seem strange that she chooses the myth of Ceres and Persephone to illustrate a solution to this problem. After all, myth is perhaps the oldest form of written/aural representation that we have. She, however, states immeadately that this myth is useful because she "can enter it anywhere. And [has]". Boland is Persephone in her youth, learning that the world is not all springtime and flowers, experiencing winter in the form of a lonely English childhood. Throughout Boland's poetry, England appears as "a land of strange consonants," while Ireland is a land of vowels. Just in case you read more of her stuff. Ceres enters the picture when Boland inhabits her as a mother panicking over a lost daughter. Panicking, yes, but still aware that "winter was in store for every leaf... was inescapable for each one we passed/ And for me." In writing this, Boland demonstrates her acceptance that winter will come; despair and grief are inevitable. A character or person who can accept that something bad will happen actually creates room to live and to feel, something a female Irish emblem could never do.
The decision about whether to allow her daughter to eat the pomegranate, thus entering a world of pain and betrayal and fear, becomes the crux of the poem. All a parent wants is for her child to be happy and real, so it could be confusing that Boland chooses to say nothing. However, she would rightfully argue that a life lived in half-feeling, in total ignorance of the real world is worse than a life rife with sadness. Stagnancy is the worst feeling of all, so Boland keeps quiet. By speaking up, she would "defer the grief [and] diminish the gift." The gift is not only a life with a full emotional range, but the gift of being able to enter the myth. Boland keeps the myth itself alive by opening its doors to her daughter. Were she to warn "Persephone," she would have cut off the story's energy. It would simply become a dusty anecdote to be taken down and admired instead of a vivacious and relevant myth. Just as Boland does not want this for any person, so she does not want it for a story or form of representation.
I love many things about this poem, but what strikes me the most is how seamlessly Boland melds her story and that of the ancient myth. I distinctly remember being surprised when the pomegranate jumped out of the millennia-old story onto her daughter's plate. One minute everything was clear about who-was-who-when, and the next the tales got all mashed up. But I loved that - it brought both the poem and the Ceres/Persephone legend to life more powerfully than any storybook ever had or could. By living the story and then telling it honestly and painfully, Boland adds to our own emotional range. This is her goal, and it is one which I hope she will continue to puruse.