Pilar Villar-Argáiz
University of Granada, Spain | Published: 15 March, 2009 | Views:
ISSUE 4 | Pages: 92-99 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2009-2935

Creative Commons 4.0 2009 by Pilar Villar-Argáiz | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

The following translated poems belong to Eavan Boland’s 2001 collection Code(Carcanet) and they illustrate some of her main aesthetic concerns as well as certain thematic innovations in her mature work. By the time this volume was published, Eavan Boland had already acquired both critical respect and a large readership not only in Ireland but also abroad. In 1990, Mary Robinson quoted Boland’s “The Singers” in her first presidential address. Seven years later, in 1997, her work became part of the Irish Leaving Certificate exam. Because of this, the new generation in Ireland is getting used to the fact that there are Irish women poets as well as Irish male poets.

Boland’s established position within the Irish literary establishment is well-deserved by virtue of both the scope and achievements of her work. She has given a new dimension to poetry itself, by turning women from passive and emblematic objects into creative and active parts of the artistic process. Furthermore, Boland has influenced a whole generation of women writers, through her subversion of inherited literary standards, her revision of nationalist and mythological iconographies, her interest in domesticity and her deconstruction of history as a ‘master’ and ‘masculine’ narrative. One of her main concerns has been to address the importance of women’s ordinary lives and offer a more accurate version of Ireland’s past. This concern is observed in some of the poems from Code selected for translation. “How the Earth and All the Planets Were Created”, “Quarantine” and “Emigrant Letters” focus on those unrecorded stories which need to be brought out of a shadowy past into the pages of her poems: the life of her grandmother, the suffering of the famine victims and the dislocation of exiled Irish men and women. “Quarantine” is particularly moving in its uncovering of love in one of the most tragic events in Irish history.

The most interesting and perhaps defining feature of Code is that Boland is more adamantly concerned with ‘what endures’ after a married life rather than with ‘what is lost’ from an Irish subaltern past. It is her thirty years of married life that the poet pays the most attention to. As Boland expresses in “Against Love Poetry”, one of the key motives of this volume is to subvert the traditional idealisation of love found in conventional poetry. The husband and wife in Boland’s poems are no longer eternal, no longer perfect figures whose love is romanticised. Her main objective in Code is to depict a couple who are united by their very ordinariness, whose love is strengthened by their sharing everyday and apparently ‘insignificant’ events. Boland implies that it is precisely this kind of non-idealised love which is able to survive despite the passing of time. This concern is the one which dominates the poems “Once”, “Embers”, “A Marriage of the Millennium”, and above all, “Lines for a Thirtieth Wedding Anniversary” – one of the most powerful and suggestive poems in this volume.

But Code also shows some other important thematic innovations in Boland’s recent work. One constituent feature of her opus has been her revision and subversion of conventional images of womanhood in Irish poetry (i.e. the mythical, bodiless, and idealised figure of Mother Ireland, for instance). A striking change in this volume is that now Boland, as a more mature writer, seems to come to terms with the Irish literary tradition. “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground” exemplifies this new move in her work. In this poem, the speaker offers a retrospective and reconciliatory view of national cultural conventions, the Irish pastoral genre in particular. She realizes that, by allowing rust to grow on the gates, this literary convention has not intended to arouse national resistance, to record “the action nor 

[the] end” of Irish rebellion, but to cover and “overlay” both hatred and defeat with an utopian vision of a pure and untouched Irish landscape. As an art of peace, nature poetry is able to separate “the place” from “the torment of place”, to forget injustices, Irish oppression and dispossession, and move forwards. Instead of criticising the cultural and political implications of the Revivalist idealisation of nature, Boland now strongly shares their wish to erase all historical traces and to forget, at least momentarily, her desire to recuperate a subaltern past through memory and language. This is Boland’s own way, as she says in the title, of making “a new” and liberating “art on old ground”.

How the Earth and all the Planets were Created

I went to find the grave of my grandmother
who died before my time. And hers.

I searched among marsh grass and granite
and single headstones
and smashed lettering
and archangel wings and found none.

For once I said
I will face this landscape
and look at it as she was looked upon:

Unloved because unknown.
Unknown because unnamed:

Glass Pistol Castle disappeared.
Baltray and then Clogher Head.

To the west the estuary of the Boyne –
stripped of its battles and history –
became only willow trees and distances.

I drove back in the half light
of late summer on
anonymous roads on my journey home

as the constellations rose overhead,
some of them twisted into women:


pinioned and winged
and single-handedly holding high the dome
and curve and horizon of today and tomorrow.

All the ships looking up to them.
All the compasses made true by them.
All the night skies named for their sorrow.


Cómo la tierra y todos los planetas se crearon

Fui en busca de la tumba de mi abuela
que había muerto antes de mi tiempo. Y del suyo.

Busqué entre hierba de marismas y granito
y lápidas aisladas
e inscripciones rotas
y alas de arcángeles y nada encontré.

Por una vez, me dije,
me enfrentaré a este paisaje
y lo miraré como ella fue vista:

Sin ser amada por desconocida.
Desconocida por no tener nombre:

Glass Pistol Castle desapareció.
Baltray y luego Clogher Head.

Al oeste el estuario del Boyne –
desnudo de sus batallas e historia –
convertido sólo en sauces y distancias.

Conduje en la media luz
del final de verano por
carreteras anónimas en mi vuelta a casa

mientras las constelaciones se elevaban por encima,
algunas retorcidas en mujeres:

inmovilizadas, aladas
y sosteniendo con una mano la cúpula alta
y la curva y el horizonte del hoy y del mañana.

Todos los barcos alzando la vista hacia ellas.
Todas las brújulas verdaderas gracias a ellas.
Todos los cielos de la noche nombrados por su pena.


In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can be best proved.


En la peor hora de la peor estación
del peor año de todo un pueblo
un hombre partió del asilo con su mujer.
Caminaba – ambos caminaban – hacia el norte.

Ella enferma por la fiebre de la hambruna y sin poder mantenerse en pie.
Él la levantó y se la cargó a hombros.
Anduvo así hacia el oeste, hacia el oeste y hacia el norte.
Hasta que llegaron al anochecer bajo estrellas glaciales.

Al amanecer los encontraron muertos.
De frío. De hambre. De las toxinas de toda una historia.
Pero los pies de ella se agarraban a su esternón.
El último calor de su carne fue su último regalo.

No dejes que el poema del amor llegue a este límite.
No hay sitio aquí para el inexacto
elogio de la fácil cortesía y sensualidad del cuerpo.
Sólo hay tiempo para este despiadado inventario:

Su muerte juntos en el invierno de 1847.
También lo que sufrieron. Cómo vivieron.
Y lo que hay entre un hombre y una mujer.
Y en lo que en su oscuridad puede ponerse mejor a prueba.

Emigrant Letters

That morning in Detroit at the airport,
after check-in, heading for the concourse,
I heard, as I was walking towards the gate —
behind me to the left — an Irish voice.

Its owner must have been away for years:
Vowels half-sounds and syllables
from somewhere else had nearly smoothed out
a way of speaking you could tell a region by,

much less an origin. I reached the gate, boarded,
closed my eyes and rose high over
towns, farms, fields — all of them at that very moment
moulding the speech of whoever lived there:

An accent overwritten by a voice. A voice
by a place. Over the waters of the coast
they were entrusted to, trying to think
of loss, I thought of them instead: emigrant letters.

Every word told and retold.
Handed over, held close, longed-for and feared.
Each page six crisp inches of New England snow.
And at the end a name — half signature, half salt.

How their readers stood in cold kitchens
heads bent, until the time came to begin again
folding over those chambers of light:
ice and owl-noise and the crystal freight on

branches and fences and added them
to the stitchwort of late spring, the mosquitoes,
the unheard of heat, the wild leaves, snow again —
the overnight disappearances of wood and stone —

all of which they stored side by side
carefully in a cupboard drawer which never
would close properly: informed as it was
by those distant seasons. And warped by its own.

Cartas que emigran

Aquella mañana en Detroit en el aeropuerto
después de facturar, rumbo a la sala de embarque,
oí, mientras andaba hacia la puerta —
detrás de mí a la izquierda — una voz irlandesa.

Su dueño debía de haber estado lejos muchos años:
Vocales, sonidos a medias y sílabas
de otra parte habían casi suavizado
una forma de hablar por la que reconoces una región,

mucho menos un origen. Llegué a la puerta, embarqué,
cerré los ojos y me alcé por encima
de pueblos, granjas, campos — todos ellos en ese mismo momento
moldeando el habla de quien vivía allí:

Un acento exagerado por una voz. Una voz
por un lugar. Sobre las aguas de la costa
que las resguardaban, intentando pensar
en la pérdida, yo en cambio pensé en ellas: cartas que emigran.

Cada palabra dicha y repetida.
Entregada, retenida, anhelada y temida.
Cada página seis pulgadas crujientes de nieve de Nueva Inglaterra.
Y al final un nombre — mitad firma, mitad sal.

Cómo sus lectores permanecían en frías cocinas,
cabezas inclinadas, hasta que llegó la hora de empezar de nuevo
cerrando aquellos aposentos de luz:
hielo y sonido de lechuza y la carga de cristal en

ramas y cercas, añadidas
a las ortigas de una primavera tardía, a los mosquitos,
al calor desconocido, a las ramas salvajes, a la nieve de nuevo —
a la desaparición nocturna de madera y piedra —

todo lo cual ellos guardaban una al lado de otra
con cuidado en un cajón del armario que nunca
se cerraría propiamente: informado como estaba
por esas estaciones distantes. Y combado por la suya.

Against Love Poetry

We were married in summer, thirty years ago. I have loved you deeply from that moment to this. I have loved other things as well. Among them the idea of women’s freedom. Why do I put these words side by side? Because I am a woman. Because marriage is not freedom. Therefore, every word here is written against love poetry. Love poetry can do no justice to this. Here, instead, is a remembered story from a faraway history: A great king lost a war and was paraded in chains through the city of his enemy. They taunted him. They brought his wife and children to him  —  he showed no emotion. They brought his former courtiers  —  he showed no emotion. They brought his old servant  —  only then he did break down and weep. I did not find my womanhood in the servitudes of custom. But I saw my humanity look back at me there. It is to mark the contradictions of a daily love that I have written this. Against love poetry.

Contra la poesía del amor

Nos casamos en verano, hace treinta años. Te he amado profundamente desde entonces hasta ahora. He amado otras cosas también. Entre ellas la idea de la libertad de la mujer. ¿Por qué pongo estás palabras juntas? Porque soy mujer. Porque el matrimonio no es libertad. Por tanto, cada palabra aquí está escrita contra la poesía del amor. La poesía del amor no hace justicia a esto. Aquí, en cambio, hay una historia recordada desde tiempos pasados: Un gran rey perdió una guerra y fue exhibido en cadenas por la ciudad de su enemigo. Se mofaron de él. Le trajeron a su mujer y a sus hijos  —  él no mostró emoción alguna. Le trajeron a sus antiguos cortesanos  —  el no mostró emoción alguna. Le trajeron a su viejo sirviente  —  sólo entonces él se derrumbó y rompió a llorar. Yo no encontré mi feminidad en las servidumbres de la tradición. Pero sí vi que mi humanidad me miraba desde allí. Es para señalar las contradicciones de un amor cotidiano por lo que he escrito esto. Contra la poesía del amor.


One night in winter when a bitter frost
made the whin-paths crack underfoot,
a wretched woman, eyes staring, hair in disarray,
came to the place where the Fianna had pitched camp.

Your face is made of shadow. You are reading.
There is heat from the fire still. I am reading:

She asked every one of them in turn
to take her to his bed, to shelter her with his body.
Each one looked at her  —  she was old beyond her years.
Each one refused her, each spurned her, except Diarmuid.

When he woke in the morning she was young and beautiful.
And she was his, forever, but on one condition.
He could not say that she had once been old and haggard.
He could not say that she had ever … here I look up.

You are turned away. You have no interest in this.

I made this fire from the first peat of winter.
Look at me in the last, burnished light of it.
Tell me that you feel the warmth still.
Tell me you will never speak about the ashes.


Una noche de invierno cuando una gélida escarcha
hizo que el sendero de tojos crujiera bajo los pies,
una mujer desdichada, ojos fijos, pelo desaliñado,
llegó a un lugar donde los Fianna habían montado el campamento.

Tu cara está hecha de sombra. Estás leyendo.
Todavía emana calor del fuego. Estoy leyendo:

Ella pidió a cada uno sucesivamente
que la llevaran a la cama, que la cobijaran con su cuerpo.
La miraban uno a uno —  parecía mayor de lo que era.
Todos la rechazaron, la desdeñaron, excepto Diarmud.

Cuando él se levantó por la mañana ella era joven y hermosa.
Y era suyo, para siempre, pero con una condición.
Él no podía decir que una vez había sido vieja y demacrada.
Él no podía decir que ella siempre … aquí alzo la vista.

Me ignoras. No te interesa esto.

Hice este fuego con la primera turba del invierno.
Mírame en el último rescoldo de su luz.
Dime que todavía sientes el calor.

Dime que nunca hablaras de las cenizas.


The lovers in an Irish story never had good fortune.

They fled the king’s anger. They lay on the forest floor.

They kissed at the edge of death.

Did you know our suburb was a forest?

Our roof was a home for thrushes.

Our front door was a wild shadow of spruce.

Our faces edged in mountain freshness,

we took our milk in where the wide apart

prints of the wild and never-seen

creatures were set who have long since died out.

I do not want us to be immortal or unlucky.

To listen for our own death in the distance.

Take my hand. Stand by the window:

I want to show you what is hidden in

this ordinary, ageing human love is

there still and will be until

an inland coast so densely wooded

not even the ocean fog could enter it

appears in front of us and the chilled-

to-the-bone light clears and shows us

Irish wolves: a silvery man and wife.

Yellow-eyed. Edged in dateless moonlight.

They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe.

Cierta vez

Los amantes en un cuento irlandés nunca tuvieron buena suerte.

Huyeron de la furia del rey. Se tumbaron en el suelo del bosque.

Se besaron al borde de la muerte.

¿Sabías que nuestro barrio fue un bosque?

Nuestro tejado fue un hogar para los tordos.

Nuestra puerta principal una sombra indomada de abetos.

Con rostros perfilados por el frescor de la montaña,

bebimos nuestra leche donde las huellas

bien separadas de salvajes y nunca vistas

criaturas, extinguidas hace tiempo, seguían marcadas.

No quiero que seamos inmortales ni desgraciados.

Que escuchemos nuestra propia muerte en la distancia.

Toma mi mano. Ven a la ventana:

Quiero mostrarte que lo que se oculta en

este amor humano cotidiano, envejeciendo

sigue ahí y seguirá hasta que

una costa tierra adentro tan densamente arbolada

que ni siquiera la niebla del océano puede penetrar

aparezca frente a nosotros y la luz que hiela los huesos

se abra y nos muestre

los lobos de Irlanda: un hombre y una mujer plateados.

Ojos amarillos. Perfilados por la eterna luz de la luna.

Emparejados de por vida. Son legendarios. Están a salvo.

Lines for a Thirtieth Wedding Anniversary

Somewhere up in the eaves it began:

high in the roof  —  in a sort of vault

between the slates and gutter  —  a small leak.

Through it, rain which came from the east,

in from the lights and foghorns of the coast  —

water with a ghost of ocean salt in it  —

spilled down on the path below.

Over and over and over

years stone began to alter,

its grain searched out, worn in:

granite rounding down, giving way

taking into its own inertia that

information water brought: of ships,

wings, fog and phosphor in the harbour.

It happened under our lives: the rain,

the stone. We hardly noticed. Now

this is the day to think of it, to wonder:

All those years, all those years together  —

the stars in a frozen arc overhead,

the quick noise of a thaw in the air,

the blue stare of the hills  —  through it all

this constancy: what wears, what endures.

Versos a los treinta años de aniversario de boda

Todo empezó en algún lugar del alero:

Arriba en el tejado  —  en una especie de bóveda

entre las pizarras y el desagüe  —  una pequeña gotera.

A través de ella, la lluvia que venía del este,

de las luces y sirenas de la costa  —

agua con fantasma de sal de océano  —

se vertía en el sendero abajo.

Años una y otra vez

la piedra empezó a alterarse,

sus vetas desprendidas, erosionadas:

su granito redondeándose, cediendo

tomando en su propia inercia aquella

información que el agua traía: de barcos,

velas, niebla y fósforo en el puerto.

Esto sucedió en nuestras vidas: la lluvia,

la piedra. Apenas nos dimos cuenta. Ahora

éste es el día para pensar en ello, para maravillarnos:

Todos aquellos años, todos aquellos años juntos  —

las estrellas en el arco helado sobre nuestras cabezas,

el sonido rápido del deshielo en el aire,

la mirada azul de las colinas  —  por encima de todo

esta constancia: lo que perdura, lo que prevalece.

A Marriage for the Millennium

Do you believe

that Progress is a woman?

A spirit seeking for its opposite?

For a true marriage to ease her quick heartbeat?

I asked you this

as you sat with your glass of red wine

and your newspaper of yesterday’s events.

You were drinking and reading, and did not hear me.

Then I closed the door

and left the house behind me and began

driving the whole distance of our marriage,

away from the suburb towards the city.

One by one

the glowing windows went out:

Television screens cooled down more slowly.

Ceramic turned to glass, circuits to transistors.

Old rowans were saplings.

Roads were no longer wide.

Children disappeared from their beds.

Wives, without warning, suddenly became children.

Computer games became codes again.

The codes were folded

back into the futures of their makers.

Their makers woke from sleep, weeping for milk.

When I came to the street we once lived on

with its iron edges out of another century

I stayed there only for a few minutes.

Then I was in the car, driving again.

I was ready to tell you when I got home

that high above that street in a room

above the laid-out hedges and wild lilac

nothing had changed

them, nothing ever would:

The man with his creased copy of the newspaper.

Or the young woman talking to him. Talking to him.

Her heart eased by this.

Un  matrimonio para el milenio


que Progreso es una mujer?

¿Un espíritu buscando su opuesto?

¿Buscando un matrimonio verdadero que alivie su rápido latido del corazón?

Te pregunté esto

mientras estabas sentado con tu vaso de vino tinto

y tu periódico de las noticias de ayer.

Estabas bebiendo y leyendo, y no me escuchaste.

Entonces cerré la puerta

y dejé la casa detrás de mí y empecé

a conducir toda la distancia de nuestro matrimonio,

desde las afueras hacia la ciudad.

Una a una

las luminosas ventanas se desvanecieron:

Las pantallas de televisión se enfriaron más lentamente.

La cerámica se convirtió en vidrio, los circuitos en transistores.

Los viejos fresnos eran árboles jóvenes.

Las carreteras ya no eran anchas.

Los niños desaparecían de sus camas.

Las esposas, sin previo aviso, eran de pronto niñas.

Los juegos de ordenador se convirtieron en códigos de nuevo.

Los códigos se plegaron

regresando al futuro de sus creadores.

Sus creadores se despertaron del sueño, suplicando leche.

Cuando llegué a la calle en la que vivimos una vez

con sus cercas de hierro de otro siglo

permanecí allí sólo unos minutos.

Luego volví al coche, conduciendo de nuevo.

Estaba preparada para decirte cuando llegara a casa

que en lo alto de esa calle en una habitación

sobre los setos extendidos y las lilas salvajes

nada les había cambiado,


nada lo haría nunca:

El hombre con el ejemplar arrugado del periódico.

La joven hablándole. Hablándole a él.

Su corazón aliviado por ello.

How We Made a New Art on Old Ground

A famous battle happened in this valley.

You never understood the nature poem.

Till now. Till this moment  —  if these statements

seem separate, unrelated, follow this

silence to its edge and you will hear

the history of air: the crispness of a fern

or the upward cut and turn around of

a fieldfare or thrush written on it.

The other history is silent: the estuary

is over there. The issue was decided here:

Two kings prepared to give no quarter.

Then one king and one dead tradition.

Now the humid dusk, the old wounds

wait for language, for a different truth:

When you see the silk of the willow

and the wider edge of the river turn

and grow dark and then darker, then

you will know that the nature poem

is not the action nor its end: it is

this rust on the gate beside the trees, on

the cattle grid underneath our feet,

on the steering wheel shaft: it is

an aftermath, an overlay and even in

its own modest way, an art of peace:

I try the word distance and it fills with

sycamores, a summer’s worth of pollen

And as I write valley straw, metal

blood, oaths, armour are unwritten.

Silence spreads slowly from these words

to those ilex trees half in, half out

of shadows falling on the shallow ford

of the south bank beside Yellow island

as twilight shows how this sweet corrosion

begins to be complete: what we see

is what the poem says:

evening coming  —  cattle, cattle-shadows  —

and whin bushes and a change of weather

about to change them all: what we see is how

the place and the torment of place are

for this moment free of one another.

Cómo hicimos un nuevo arte en tierra antigua

Una famosa batalla ocurrió en este valle.

            Nunca entendiste el poema pastoral.

Hasta ahora. Hasta este momento  —  si estas afirmaciones

            parecen distintas, inconexas, sigue este

silencio hasta su límite y escucharás

            la historia del aire; la frescura de un helecho

o el ascendente vuelo y giro de

            una tordella o de un zorzal inscritos en él.

La otra historia es silencio: el estuario

            se encuentra allí. La decisión fue tomada aquí:

Dos reyes preparados a no darse cuartel.

            Entonces un rey y una tradición muerta.

Ahora la oscuridad húmeda, las antiguas heridas

            esperan su lenguaje, su verdad diferente:

Cuando veas la seda del sauce

            y el borde más ancho del río girar

y oscurecerse más y más, entonces

            sabrás que el poema pastoral

no es la acción ni su final: es

            esta herrumbre en la verja junto a los árboles, en

la rejilla del ganado bajo nuestros pies,

            en el eje del volante: es

la secuela, un revestimiento e incluso en

            su forma más modesta, un arte de paz:

Intento la palabra distancia y se llena de

            sicomoros, del valor del polen veraniego.

Y al escribir valle la paja, el metal

            la sangre, los juramentos y armaduras se quedan sin escribir.

El silencio se extiende lentamente desde estas palabras

a esos acebos parte dentro parte fuera

de sombras que caen sobre el vado llano

            de la orilla sur junto a Yellow island

mientras el ocaso muestra cómo esta dulce corrosión

            empieza a completarse: lo que vemos

es lo que el poema dice:

            el anochecer que llega  —  ganado, sombras de ganado  —

y las matas de tojo y el cambio de tiempo

            a punto de cambiarlo todo: lo que vemos es cómo

el lugar y el tormento del lugar están

            en este momento libres uno del otro.