That the Science of Cartography Is Limited * (1994)
-and not simply by the fact that this shading of forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam, the gloom of cypresses is what I wish to prove.
5 When you and I were first in love we drove to the borders of Connacht and entered a wood there.
Look down you said: this was once a famine road. I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass 10 rough-cast stone had disappeared into as you told me in the second winter of their ordeal, in
1847, when the crop had failed twice, Relief Committees gave 15 the starving Irish such roads to build.
Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down the map of this island, it is never so I can say here is 20 the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor an ingenious design which persuades a curve into a plane, but to tell myself again that
25 the line which says woodland and cries hunger and gives out among sweet pine and cypress, and finds no horizon
will not be there.
In one of his early essays, Ezra Pound talks about something he called the "luminous detail." He wanted to find another way to think about history, a way that would be different than just reducing it to a few generalizations, on the one hand, or piling up great stacks of information, on the other. The luminous detail would be a sign: we could understand it immediately, and also feel it. The luminous detail would shine out, and it would take us into the past, so we could remember.
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was one of those great historical catastrophes that seem almost beyond words. A million people died of starvation and disease; millions more were forced to leave everything they knew and emigrate to unknown places. Eavan Boland's poem is about discovering these vanished people, and the discovery is all the more stunning because it's unexpected. The speaker in the poem isn't looking for the past when her friend points out the famine road: she's taking a walk, and thinking about love:
When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.
But the wood contains traces of a history that can't be found on maps.
The science of cartography has no interest in what might have been; it works with a sytem of signs that are abstract and regular. So Boland rejects map-making. Instead, she gives us luminous details: stones covered with ivy and grass, a road that ends before it arrives at any destination. Those who built the road and died are more real because they're never described in the poem; it's as if we'd entered a room just after someone has left. We don't see them, but we feel their presence. The most telling detail is the one that ends the poem, but actually, it's a detail that doesn't exist. The speaker knows that when she looks at a map, the famine road won't be on it.
The Poet´s Life and Work
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1944. Her first book of poetry, New Territory, was published in 1967, and since that time she has become one of the most important poets writing in Ireland. She has published numerous volumes of poetry, including Night Feed (1982), The Journey and Other Poems (1987), Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-1990 (1990), In a Time of Violence (1994), and An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987 (1996). Her prose writings include Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (1995) and the influential pamphlet "A Kind of Scar." Boland has explored the domestic experience of women in her writing and has dealt with issues of myth, history, and nation which have played so large a role in Irish culture. She is a consistent critic of the marginalization of Irish women writers and of the romanticization of women that has characterized so much of traditional Irish nationalist politics. Boland has taught at a number of universities, including Trinity College, University College, and Bowdoin College; she is currently professor of English at Stanford University.
- Sheila C. Conboy, "Eavan Boland's Topography of Displacement."
- Patricia L. Hagen and Thomas W. Zelman, "'We Were Never on the Scene of the Crime': Eavan Boland's Repossession of History."