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Eavan Boland
b. 1944

"The Oral Tradition"


I was standing there
at the end of a reading
or a workshop or whatever,
watching people heading
out into the weather,
only half-wondering
what becomes of words,
the brisk herbs of language,
the fragrances we think we sing,
if anything.

We were left behind
in a firelit room
in which the colour scheme
crouched well down
golds, a sort of dun
a distressed ochre
and the sole richness was
in the suggestion of a texture
like the low flax gleam
that comes off polished leather.

Two women
were standing in shadow,
one with her back turned.

Their talk was a gesture,
an outstreched hand.

They talked to each other
and words like 'summer'
'birth' 'great-grandmother'
kept pleading with me,
urging me to follow.

'She could feel it coming'
one of them was saying
'all the way there,
across the fields at evening
and no one there, God help her

'and she had on a skirt
of cross-woven linen
and the little one
kept pulling at it.
It was nearly night ...'

(Wood hissed and split
in the open grate,
broke apart in sparks,
a windfall of light
in the room's darkness)

'... when she lay down
and gave birth to him
in an open meadow.
What a child that was
to be born without a blemish!'

It had started raining,
the windows dripping, misted.

One moment I was standing
not seeing out
only half-listening
staring at the night; the next
without warning
I was caught by it:
the bruised summer light,
the musical sub-text
of mauve caves on lilac
and the laburnum past
and shadow where the lime
tree dropped its bracts
in frills of contrast
where she lay down
in vetch and linen
and lifted up her son
to the archive
they would shelter in:
the oral song
avid as superstition,
layered like an amber in
the wreck of language
and the remnants of a nation.

I was getting out
my coat, buttoning it,
shrugging up the collar.

It was bitter outside,
a real winter's night
and I had distances ahead of me: iron miles
in trains, iron rails
repeating instances and reasons; the wheels
singing innuendos, hints,
outlines underneath
the surface, a sense
suddenly of truth,
its resonance.


© Eavan Boland
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