I didn't mean to read this so quickly, not nearly all at once, in the space of an afternoon. But I could not stop. Ellen Bass takes the smallest momenI didn't mean to read this so quickly, not nearly all at once, in the space of an afternoon. But I could not stop. Ellen Bass takes the smallest moments—the ones we feel the most deeply for a fraction of a second and let slip away, because we just don't have the time or energy to consider what they mean—she takes those moments and enlarges them until we can walk right inside.
Her mother, felled by some malady of an aged body, has left her home in an ambulance. Ellen steps into her mother's empty room and
I lie in her bed like a fork on a folded napkin perfectly still and alone
The poems that complete the first section of The Human Line bear witness to the dying and death of Ellen Bass's mother and in them, we see the poet contemplating her own decaying body and mortality. There is so much raw regret, disgust, and sweet love, all wrapped up in the same stanzas that at times it's hard to breathe. In Angels, her mother's caregiver pauses for a snack while the corpse of her charge lies prone in the next room and Ellen, who is present, sits and waits for the promised celestial shimmer of her mother's soul that never comes.
Even as I pressed my palm to her heart to prove that it was still, I glanced up in the case the room did brighten.
Part Three is devoted to a woman's experiences of birth and motherhood, the helplessness of the body and heart in the wake of children birthing and beginning to die the moment they leave your body.
How can I begin to grasp it: the Earth in peril, my son's chest shining like polished burl. His spine visible beneath his skin. The way before he was born, when he was still safe in the belly's sheath, I could feee the exact shape of his just-formed foot pressing against the world. – from At the End of the Cenozoic Era
On my way home, I stopped at a bench on a street corner to read. I took this with me to the beach and read it after a series of sun salutations. Before dinner, I put the cat on a leash and walked her around the driveway, The Human Line grasped, open, in one hand. The cat wriggled on the sun-warmed pavement and I read. I read as the onions sautéed, I read as I ate. I sat in the bath until the water cooled, reading aloud.
I cried at over The Woman Who Killed My Cat
But she kept telling me how sorry she was and I couldn't help myself, wrapped my arms around her. Of course she had to return my embrace. And maybe she neeed this too, to be forced against my grief, a owman who'd gotten up that morning, like me, not expecting to kill anything
Were I a younger woman, perhaps Ellen Bass's poetry would not have connected the way it did. But she writes from a place I know, where the disappointments of love, body, family are exceeded only by feelings of tenderness for the same; where all politics really are personal.
Bass reminds me to observe the routine and discover in it the precious, wondrous precious of the sublime.
At gate C22 in the Portland airport a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed a woman arriving from Orange County. They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking, the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island, like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray. She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish kisses like the ocean in the early morning, the way it gathers and swells, sucking each rock under, swallowing it again and again. We were all watching– passengers waiting for the delayed flight to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots, the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost as though he were a mother still open from giving birth, as your mother must have looked at you, no matter what happened after–if she beat you or left you or you’re lonely now–you once lay there, the vernix not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth. The whole wing of the airport hushed, all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body, her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses, little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.
[O]ver a relatively short time--certainly no more than a generation or two--women have moved from being the subjects and objects of Irish poems to be
[O]ver a relatively short time--certainly no more than a generation or two--women have moved from being the subjects and objects of Irish poems to being the authors of them. It is a momentous transit. It is also a disruptive one. . . . What is more, such a transit . . . is almost invisible to the naked eye. Critics may well miss it or map it inaccurately.
Eavan Boland crafts a luminous memoir in the form of literary criticism, examining the coming-of-age of an Irish woman poet. Beginning with the lonely, anonymous death of her maternal grandmother in a Dublin hospital at the age of thirty-one, Boland shows the silenced, the struggling, and finally, the emerging voice of the Irish woman. Object Lessons is a meditation on identity: what it means to be Irish, a notion Boland feels she missed, living her early childhood in London and New York, the daughter of a diplomat; what it means to be a poet, a calling Boland felt early, yet explored as an intellectual pursuit, rather than an emotional one; and what it means to be a woman, which becomes this book's ellipses.
Boland was born into post-war Ireland, came of age in the paradigm-shifting 60s, and found herself a young wife and mother during Ireland's violent, turbulent 70s. Throughout it all, she circles in and around her national, artistic, and sexual identities, working to bring them together and give them voice through her poetry. She challenges the myth of the Irish poet and the objectification of the Irish woman as symbol of national identity, reduced to the role of crone or angel.
Although Object Lessons is very specifically about the Irish cultural, political and domestic experience, it is a graceful treatise on poetry and feminism. She opens the door to the poets who influenced her thought, including Paula Meehan, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath, and speaks with quiet authority about form and theme.
The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became. The wrath and grief of Irish history seemed to me, as it did to many, one of our true possessions. Women were part of that wrath, had endured that grief. It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth.
Having so recently read Lyndall Gordon's excellent Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft and of course, Virginia Woolf's incomparable A Room of One's Own I believe Boland's comment could extend to nearly any society at any age, including the present. And poetry could extend to prose, to politics, to the family.
Eavan Boland's clear and lovely poetic voice translates well into her essay prose. This was a inspiring, perceptive read. ...more
This book and the impression it left on me have not been far from my mind since I finished it several days ago. I had a feeling of deja vu in the earlThis book and the impression it left on me have not been far from my mind since I finished it several days ago. I had a feeling of deja vu in the early pages, and realized I had picked up Thirty Girls and set it aside last year after only two or three chapters. I can't recall why it didn't speak to me then, but I'm so glad I returned to complete it.
The 'I've read this before' feeling also rose because I so recently read Francesca Marciano's striking Rules of the Wild, written several years before Thirty Girls. But the settings--Nairobi, East Africa--and the central character, a white, Western woman at unease in her expat surroundings, running from one past, yet colliding with her bohemian, privileged present amidst suffering and war, are one and the same. Yet the books diverge at least as much as they run parallel. They complement, rather than compete.
Whereas Marciano brought us deeply into Esme's psyche as she seeks to weave herself into the fabric of an African life and to find her calling, Minot's Jane knows she is just a visitor, and one with a specific mission: to tell the story of thirty teenaged girls kidnapped by Ugandan rebels.
Telling this story is also Minot's mission, and she does so with aching, devastating beauty. She gives voice to one girl in particular: Esther Akello. It is through Esther's eyes and ears, to the sound of her voice, that we see, hear and feel the trauma of those stolen children of Uganda. Could we not hear, too, the voices of their sisters to the north, those women and girls of Nigeria who are also casualties of fractured borders and ceaseless conflict?
Cognitive dissonance splinters the framework of the narrative, as it shifts from Jane's story to Esther's. It caused this reader considerable frustration. Jane is accompanied by a ragtag crew of bohemian whites: Lana and Don, Pierre and Harry. Harry was born and raised in Kenya. He's worked to save wild dogs, worked for this NGO and that, yet he doesn't seem to have a passion for much beyond hang-gliding. His detachment is echoed in nearly every Western-born and/or white character: they take pride in their adaptation to and knowledge of Africa, but their existence is pointless. Take them away and no one would notice--their footprints are material, their contributions immaterial. Jane slips in the mud and into Harry's arms early in the book; fifteen years her junior, Harry becomes the prism through which Jane considers her aging self, both her physical degradation and her moral lassitude. Although I was curious and followed Jane's story, I felt as detached from her and her new friends as they seemed to be from the terror unfolding in Uganda.
Where this story pulses and breathes is in the bearing witness of the horrors experienced by the Thirty Girls. Minot's language changes as she so beautifully captures Esther's voice; it becomes plaintive and poetic, yet strong and clear as a bell. The girls' survival becomes a thing we keen for.
The narrative weaves Esther and Jane's story in tighter and tighter braids until at last they meet. What this meeting brings, who changes, who goes on and why is something for a reader to discover. But Susan Minot does loving, compassionate justice to the girls who are taken, were taken, are still being stolen today. Whatever weaknesses this novel may have, it tells a strong, necessary story in precise, yet lovely language.