[(essay date December 1997) In the following essay, Sullivan perceives Boland's "revisionary struggle" with Irish mythology, which depicts women in subordinate and passive roles as an attempt to "repossess" Irish poetry for women.]
My muse must be better than those of men who made theirs in the image of their myth. --Boland, "Envoi"
Traditionally, the envoi sends the poet's work out into the world with modest hopes, anxious disclaimers, and humble apologies. But in her poem "Envoi" from Outside History, Evan Boland unabashedly announces her agenda: "My muse must be better than those of men / who made theirs in the image of their myth." She must exceed the male poetics of Ireland to correct the mythology inherited from the male tradition because its dangerous appropriation of the female image estranges women from their own bodies and abets the exclusion of women's experience from both literature and history. Discussing her dilemma as an Irish woman poet, Boland states that given a tradition that depicts women as merely "passive, decorative," or "emblematic," "it seemed to me that I was likely to remain an outsider in my own national literature, cut off from its archives, at a distance from its energy. Unless, that is, I could repossess it" (Am. Poetry Rev. 32-33).1 In order to "repossess" Irish poetry for dispossessed women, Boland engages in what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar call a "revisionary struggle" with the myths of the male tradition (Madwoman 49), speaking from both the female body and female experience to authorize her own creativity.
Boland first articulated her nascent suspicion of the male tradition in the collection In Her Own Image, published in the United States within the volume Introducing Eavan Boland. The title of In Her Own Image suggests Boland's usurpation of the Romantics' prerogative of God-like creation. In the poem "Making Up," Boland toys in particular with the Coleridgian notion of the infinite I-am, the God-like imagination. The poem plays with the connotations of the phrase "making up," for as Boland's speaker describes her toilette, she makes it clear as she "raddles" and "prinks" that she is also talking about the "making up" of poetic truths:
I look in the glass. My face is made, it says: Take nothing, nothing at its face value ... it's a trick. Myths are made by men. (ll. 29-40)
Boland's speaker implicitly critiques the male versions of femininity (inscribed in the poem as "thigh and buttock / that they prayed to") by creating a "false" version of herself in a morning ritual, by redefining the lines of her face with cosmetics in the image of ideal women who have been themselves defined in the lines of poetry "made by men." At the end of the poem, the speaker seizes the symbolic tools of artifice: "Mine are the rouge pots / ... out of which / I dawn" (ll. 53-59). This gesture is ambivalent, however, since the tools of creativity she seizes are used to inscribe "made up" (that...