Coming and Going: Eavan Boland and The Ablative

Author: Kathleen A. Heininge

When Eavan Boland establishes herself as the object in Object Lessons (1996), she is clearly invoking a multi-layered pun: beyond serving as a “striking practical example of a principle or ideal,” as an Irish woman she has felt herself objectified in the national tradition; she has been the object of the male gaze; she objects to her status; she has been the object of the sentence, the noun to which things are done.[1] She invokes the many definitions of “object”: “a statement thrown in or introduced in opposition”; “something placed before the eye”; “something which on being seen excites a particular emotion, as admiration, horror, disdain, commiseration, amusement; a sight, spectacle, gazing-stock”; “that to which action, thought, or feeling is directed”; “the end to which effort is directed”; or “the fact of throwing itself or being thrown in the way.”[2] In the theoretical stance of subjectivity, she lists herself as object.

Object Lessons is an extended rumination upon Boland’s exiled status: exiled from Ireland to England as a child, exiled from the male tradition of Irish poetry, exiled from having been the subject of history and language. She argues that she lacked a voice, claiming that “Every step towards an origin is also an advance towards a silence.”[3] Her efforts to uncover a sense of origin seemed to lie in direct tension with her efforts to become a poet.  Boland argues:

As the author of poems, I was an equal partner in Irish poetry. As a woman—about to set out on the life which was the passive object of many of those poems—I had no voice. It had been silenced, ironically enough, by the very powers of language I aspired to and honored. By the elements of form I had worked hard to learn.[4]

In contemplating the facts of her childhood, she addresses issues of silence, of the formalism of language, of difference. Anxiety about place and belonging permeate the book, as she ties place to language, self, history; her life is seen as a series of comings and goings, and the language of perpetual transition pertains.

Consequently, her use of grammar to identify her position is not confined to the objective. She recounts her struggles with studying Latin, recalling the moment when she finally recognized the astonishing economy of grammar, associating the recognition with her true beginnings as a poet.

I began to understand something. It was something about the economy of it all: the way the ablative absolute gathered and compressed time. One day [...] it was a burdensome piece of grammar. The next, with hardly any warning, it was a messenger with quick heels and a bright face. I hardly knew what had happened. I began to respect, however grudgingly, the systems of a language which could make such constructs that, although I had no such words for it, they stood against the disorders of love or history. [...] And at that point of my adolescence, where the words I wrote on a page were nothing but inexact, the precision and force of these constructs began to seem both moving and healing.[5]

She begins to see the power of words in their very construction, beyond the connotation and denotation, beyond subtlety and nuance, beyond even rhythm and evocation. It is a power that lies beyond political meaning, that allows for subversion and subterfuge, a code which anyone, male or female, can crack. She later notes that mere grammatical constructions can “be monuments of concision” and their compressions “re-structured time.”[6] In her poetry, Boland identifies with and develops the concomitance of the ablative, that shorthand for time, condition, or circumstance, and especially for movement to or away from something.

The ablative, in its economy, continues to be the construct to which Boland turns in her work. Although the direct object of a sentence would grammatically be illustrated by the accusative case (“I see her”), and the indirect object of a sentence by the dative case (“I gave the book to her”), the ablative, and especially the ablative absolute, would be more in keeping thematically with Boland’s own poetic bent. The ablative is associated with the locative, but rather than indicating location, it implies movement away from a place, being carried or taken away. In English, “from” is the preposition most often associated with the ablative, where “to” is the preposition most often associated with the dative (“I am taking the book from the library”).[7] The ablative absolute, the construct with which she was initially captivated, is a noun phrase in the ablative case that modifies the main sentence, generally indicating time, condition, or circumstances surrounding the main clause; it is a case most often used where we might use either the gerund, the present participle, or a subordinate clause to convey the same thing (“Having read the book, I like it”).[8] These constructs, sometimes seeming to conflict with each other and other times to enhance each other, arise continually in her poetry, as both imply movement, a lack of permanence or belonging, and an avoidance, certainly, of the nominative case, the case of a simple active subject—an avoidance which is, of course, central to her point about objects as well as institutions of certainty and authority.

A cursory look through her books reveals that Boland’s poetry is indeed rarely static. Much of her work is about transition, movement, and place. A poem such as “Still Life” (2007), ostensibly about the immutability of William Harnett’s painting of a beggar woman in Clonakilty during the Famine, is set against the narrator’s own drive through Clonakilty, a movement that reveals the truth of her assertion: “I believe the surfaces of things | can barely hold what is under them.”[9] Life cannot be still; only the static representation is still, as in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Boland’s own “In Season” (2007), where she wonders how the “man and woman on the blue and white | mug” will find each other, “going towards each other with their hands outstretched.”[10] Likewise, in “Amber” (2007), where the narrator ponders the tension between what is forever fixed in a piece of amber and the moment of its entrapment, Boland’s language reveals that her real interest lies in the movement: “there was once a vast grieving,” the trees were “weeping,” “a plastic gold dripping,” “I am holding,” the dead is compared to the “living,” there is a “chafing at the edges of the unseen, a showing off.”[11] The gerund here, closely akin in appearance to the present participle, serves to undermine the static nature of the amber, infusing the amber with a meaning that allows Boland to compare it to the memory of a loved one: now unchanging but trapped in a moment of transmutation.   

While any number of Boland’s poems would bear close examination to illustrate the way she incorporates the ablative, I would like to examine just one here to illustrate my point:  “The Oral Tradition,” originally published in The Journey (1987) and in her 1996 collected poems, An Origin Like Water. The first stanza reads:

I was standing there

at the end of a reading

or a workshop or whatever,

watching people heading out into the weather. [...][12]

Her choice of the gerund or the participle in each line is telling. Rather than the simple past tense of “stood,” she gives the sense of her temporary and fleeting status of “standing,” even with a root verb that suggests stillness; the narrator only stood for a moment, between coming and going. “Reading” as gerund also establishes the noun of the verb, while at the same time implying ongoing practice, undermined by the casual “or whatever” after “workshop,” too familiar to make note of. In this tension between coming and going, action and stasis, “reading” functions very much like the habitual present tense in Irish, which establishes an ongoing but relatively temporary status. “Watching” has the same function as “standing” in that the narrator’s own status is both still and active, and “heading” applies to the other people, the absolute ablative acting as a modifier for those other people who are indeed going. The tension is that which is held between the narrator and the other unnamed people, and between staying and going, all of which is established through what in Latin would be the ablative case.

The next stanza continues:

[...] only half-wondering

what becomes of words,                    

the brisk herbs of language,

the fragrances we think we sing,

if anything.[13]

Rather than point out every instance of a gerund or present participle, I will only point out that here Boland plays with the idea of words that end in “-ing” without functioning as either gerund or participle, when she gives us “if anything,” as if to tease her own sense of the “brisk herbs of language,” a language that, like herbs, can either heal and poison in their briskness. Later when she uses “evening” and “warning,” she points to the connection between gerunds and verbs, as words make their own transition from one form of speech to another: few of us remember that “evening” is the approach of “even,” the verb function (towards “even,” in the word’s old sense) having been entirely subsumed into its noun function (“the evening”) in our minds.[14]

In the next stanza, as she moves to “We were left behind,” she shifts away from the movement to the staying, at the same time moving to a consideration of “we” rather than “I,” a different kind of movement—one which she further develops later. Now “Two women | were standing in shadow,” also shadowing the first line of the poem. “Their talk was a gesture, | an outstretched hand,” so that even the words are replaced with motion, destabilizing the very idea of language as it is displaced by that gesture:

They talked to each other,

and words like “summer,”

“birth,” “great-grandmother” 

kept pleading with me,

urging me to follow.[15]

The narrator is invited to partake in the conversation through the tension between solidity and fluidity of the words, inviting movement against the simple past tense of “they talked.” She overhears the conversation between the women, one that is fraught with meaning. The ensuing stanzas remark upon her position in the room after the conversation:

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 subtext [...]

The shift here is remarkable, from the stanza where Boland forgoes the active construction of “The rain began” and uses instead “It had started raining,” with “the windows dripping,” where she continues “standing,” “half-listening,” “staring,” she ultimately finds herself “caught.” The next several stanzas are in the nominative case and use the active voice, with the subject clear—the woman whom she is picturing a firm figure. The ablative case is diminished, though Boland continues to use constructions with their origin in the ablative absolute, as she identifies “the archive | they would shelter in” and “an amber in the wreckage of language,” stipulating place with the locative preposition.

Only when she moves back to her own position in the room does she return to the ablative construction of gerund and present participle: “I was getting out | my coat, buttoning it, | shrugging up the collar.”[16] Movement has resumed, the stirring of self and place, as she considers the distances ahead of her: “iron miles | in trains, iron rails | repeating instances | and reasons […].” The iron, solid and hard, attacks through the participles of “repeating” and “singing” as the narrator recognizes “outlines underneath | the surface.”

The conversation she overhears is given without a context:

“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 . . .”


“. . .when she lay down

and gave birth to him

in an open meadow.

What a child that was

to be born without a blemish!”[17]

The story being told, peculiarly feminine in its topic and sympathies, is what strikes the narrator. “She could feel it coming” marks both the imminence of the moment of childbirth as well as the lack of choice in such a moment. This particular “coming” is both an arrival and an ending, and the woman herself is in transition in several ways, both subject and object within the ablative construction. Thus even the sense of “evening” takes on a graduated sense, not of a moment in time but of a progression of time. But the moment of birth, the stanza in which the boy is born, adjusts to a much more instantiated, nominative and authoritative mode: the woman is active in that “she lay down | and gave birth to him,” and the locative construction of “in a meadow” does not allow for movement or transition; it is a simple announcement of place. The boy seems to have asserted the nominative, until the ablative reasserts itself as feminine through the narrator’s perspective. The women can only comment, “What a child that was | to be born without a blemish!” Grammar supports the shift from, and then the shift back to, the feminine.

Recently, in A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet (2012), Boland returns to the effects of grammatical construction on her poetry: the first person singular pronoun of “I,”—“that obdurate and central witness of the poet” that haunted her with “the beckoning hope of an achieved poetic self”—shifts into a new awareness of the poetic self as “we.”[18] Using personal narrative to begin her analysis, she notes, “A story makes a straight path through confusion,” and the story must be uniquely personal.[19] One cannot avoid “I” in such a tale, even while “we” simultaneously incorporates itself into a genuine lived experience:

And certainly, once inside the poem, two apparently tiny parts of speech assumed a larger role. They reached up from the pages of my books, these pronouns, crying out their different histories like street-hawkers. In the first-person singular I saw the glamour of the most enticing myths of composition. Come with me, it seemed to say. It beckoned me to the silhouette of the hero and the strength of soliloquy. Before I could respond, the we interposed itself. In its strength and poise I recognized the old dignity of poetry—its relation to the tribe. Different traditions, different directions. I was hopelessly torn.[20]

Lost in this dichotomy of pronouns and belonging, Boland recalls her sense of alienation when she began to study Irish poets and recognized her exclusion from Irish history and the language, feeling then that reading can become “intimidation.”[21] A sense of belonging comes to her through an awareness of the ways a pronoun might be inclusive or exclusive, and a recognition that power lies within the ability to wield such pronouns.

As she does with the ablative structure, Boland works out the interaction of pronouns throughout her poetry, but again I would like to choose one poem for close reading from her latest collection of new poetry, Domestic Violence (2007), in which she demonstrates the tension between the way pronouns both exclude and include, sometimes simultaneously, but without the same kind of intimidation and authority that might be wielded by others.

“In Our Own Country” (2007) is a title that must be read somewhat ironically, given Boland’s arguments in both Object Lessons and A Journey with Two Maps about the exclusion she has felt from Ireland’s past. “Our” seems as if it must necessarily include the poet, the narrator, and the reader, as well as perhaps the nebulous circle of people the narrator might be including. Such a circle is reiterated and disrupted in the first lines:

They are making a new Ireland

at the end of our road,

under our very eyes,

under the arc lamps they aim and beam


into distances where we once lived,

into vistas we will never recognize.[22]

“They” remains unnamed, that ubiquitous “they” who is responsible for everything, the passive subject who takes the blame for all the woes of the world, the political dung-heap of complaint. But “Ireland” posits a specific place, a politics, a history, that may or may not include the reader, and “new” posits a particular temporal moment, an ongoing project; if it is “they” who are making the “new Ireland,” the suggestion is that the “new” Ireland is moving on without “us.” The project takes place “at the end of our road,” an indication of both inclusivity (we belong on this road) and exclusivity (we don’t know what road this is). When “road” is meant literally, spatial ownership is clear; meant figuratively, there is no ownership, but a clear sense of being the object of someone else’s efforts to make it “the end of the road for us.” The second “they,” different and ambiguous, implies both the agency of the lamps as they “aim and beam” and of those who are making a new Ireland, shining into a future that is wholly exclusive of “us”: “distances where we once lived” and “vistas we will never recognize.”

The poem continues to operate in this fashion, juxtaposing pronouns to highlight the tension between them and us. “We are here to watch”—which announces a firm, perhaps threatening presence and at the same time announces passivity and helplessness—is set against “They have been working here in all weathers | tearing away the road to our village,” and the result is two clearly opposing forces.[23] An “onslaught of steel” crushes “our timid spring” and “our daffodils in a single, crooked row.” 

The primary displacement comes, however, when the narrator asks, “Remember the emigrant boat? | Remember the lost faces burned in the last glances?”[24] Without incorporating a pronoun at all, the address is to an unseen second person, either singular or plural. The evocation of a memory that could be either personal or national, the inclusion of the “you” inherent in the command to remember, asserts both alienation (I as reader was not there; I am not from Ireland) and implication (I know the stories; I am part of the diasporic “imagined community”).[25] I, as reader, am now part of the exodus and part of the reason for the exodus, because I, in being addressed, know that I am included both in “our country” and in the “they” who are making a new Ireland.  Accompanying this slippage of the reader’s identity—that is, the slippage between I and “I”—the rest of the poem’s pronouns are still more ambiguous, and the reader feels somehow complicit as both subject and object:

We pull our collars tightly around our necks

but the wind finds our throats,

predatory and wintry.


We walk home. What we know is this

(and this is all we know): we are now

and we will always be from now on—

for all I know we have always been—


exiles in our own country.[26]

The inclusive first-person plural abounds here; the repetition of “we” drives her point home. While we lack agency, the wind is able to find “our throats,” the exposed and vulnerable part of us through which we might speak; we are choked, all of us, whoever we are. “We” now move, no longer frozen in place by external forces, and walk home, a location whose very meaning is now disrupted by the question of who “we” might be.

Finally, the narrator announces that “we know” something, and here, for the first time, the sense of total inclusion rests in our having arrived at the same conclusion that she has. The conflict between “them” and “us” is resolved in the only first-person singular pronoun in the poem: “for all I know we have always been.”[27] “I” brings the argument back to the personal, to the revelatory; experience is tied to history for the first time, at the very moment the reader is conclusively and irrevocably included in the poem: we are “exiles in our own country.” Given the context of the poem’s message, the “in our own country” of this line is entirely different from the “In Our Own Country” of the title: it allows for the “obdurate and central witness of the poet” as well as the flexibility of being “inclusive of older histories, older communities.”[28] As Boland notes in Object Lessons, “There is a duality to place. There is the place which existed before you and will continue after you have gone [...]. Both of them prove to me there is the place that happened and the place that happens to you.”[29] This duality exists not only in her evocation of place, but also in her use of pronouns, as even the final “you” in the above quote remains ambiguous.

As Denis Sampson notes in his essay included in this issue of Breac, grammar demonstrates a shift in thinking, one that must be reflected in language. Where Sampson identifies the gap between the “im-” and “em-”of “migration,” such awareness of the gap must be both internal and external; only through the external experience of exile is the internal difference in meaning clear. For Boland, the movement is in the structure of language itself, and is not only recognized as difference but is manipulated as difference. The ablative, as indicative of both “immigration” and “emigration,” provides the nuance of that difference, a nuance that is far more relevant to the exilic experience.  

Similarly, in light of Boland’s epiphanies about the ablative and pronouns, grammar suggests both subjectivity and objectivity, mutability and transition, movement and stasis, identification and obstruction. Understanding how it infuses her work sheds new light on poems such as “Listen: This Is the Noise of Myth” where she announces:

This is mine.

This sequence of evicted possibilities.

Displaced facts. Tricks of light. Reflections.


Invention. Legend. Myth. What you will.

The shifts and fluencies are infinite.

The moving parts are marvelous.[30]

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, (OED Online), s.v. “object lesson.”

[2] Oxford English Dictionary, (OED Online), s.v. “object.”

[3] Eavan Boland, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in our Time (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 24.

[4] Ibid., 114.

[5] Ibid., 74-75.

[6] Eavan Boland, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 232.

[7] For a good, if old, explication of this distinction, see E. Washburn Hopkins, “The Origin of the Ablative Case,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 38 (1918): 47-59.

[8] For more on the gerund form of the ablative, see another old but no less pertinent essay by H.C. Nutting, “The Ablative Gerund as a Present Participle,” The Classical Journal 22, no. 2 (November 1926): 131-134.

[9] Eavan Boland, “Still Life,” Domestic Violence (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 19.

[10] Eavan Boland, “In Season,” Domestic Violence (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 52.

[11] Eavan Boland, “Amber,” Domestic Violence (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 31.

[12] Eavan Boland, “The Oral Tradition,” An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems, 1967-1987 (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 160.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See definitions 1 and 2—the first now obsolete—of “evening” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED Online), s.v. “evening.”

[15] Boland, “The Oral Tradition,” 160.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Eavan Boland, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet (Manchester: Carcanet Press, Ltd., 2012), 20-21.

[19] Ibid., 3.

[20] Ibid., 23.

[21] Ibid., 69.

[22] Eavan Boland, “In Our Own Country,” Domestic Violence (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 27.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] By “imagined community,” I refer to, of course, Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1983).

[26] Boland, “In Our Own Country,” 27.

[27] Ibid.

[28] See Boland, A Journey with Two Maps, 20, 21.

[29] Boland, Object Lessons, 154.

[30] Eavan Boland, “Listen: This is the Noise of Myth,” An Origin Like Water (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996), 187.