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Tamar Yoseloff
Tamar Yoseloff

Tamar Yoseloff’s most recent collections are The City with Horns (Salt, 2011) and Formerly, a chapbook incorporating photographs by Vici MacDonald (Hercules Editions, 2012) which was shortlisted for the 2012 Ted Hughes Award. She is also the author of two collaborative editions with the artist Linda Karshan and the editor of A Room to Live In: A Kettle's Yard Anthology. She lives in London, where she is a freelance tutor in creative writing. Her fifth full collection, The Formula for Night, is due from Seren in 2015.


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Poets Reading Poets 6


The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me

Eavan Boland, Object Lessons (Carcanet, 1990)        

 

It was the first gift he ever gave her, 

buying it for five francs in the Galeries 

in pre-war Paris. It was stifling. 

A starless drought made the nights stormy.

 

They stayed in the city for the summer.  

They met in cafés. She was always early.

He was late. That evening he was later.

They wrapped the fan. He looked at his watch.

 

She looked down the Boulevard des Capucines.

She ordered more coffee. She stood up.

The streets were emptying. The heat was killing.

She thought the distance smelled of rain and lightning.

 

These are wild roses, appliquéd on silk by hand, 

darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly. 

The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent, 

clear patience of its element. It is

 

a worn-out, underwater bullion and it keeps, 

even now, an inference of its violation. 

The lace is overcast as if the weather 

it opened for and offset had entered it.

 

The past is an empty café terrace. 

An airless dusk before thunder. A man running. 

And no way now to know what happened then –  

none at all – unless, of course, you improvise:

 

the blackbird on this first sultry morning, 

in summer, finding buds, worms, fruit, 

feels the heat. Suddenly she puts out her wing – 

the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.

 

 

This is, for me, a desert island choice – one of my favourite poems by one of my favourite poets. What I love about this poem in particular (and about Eavan Boland’s work in general) is the way she weaves narrative and lyric, the personal with the historical. She has said of one of her other poems that it represents ‘a small inventory of my views’. This poem is about large subjects: legacy, inheritance – how you grapple with a story which isn’t yours, for which you don’t know all the details, but which informs your character, your ideology. In the search for how to tell that story, it is also a poem about why (and how) we write poems. Boland fits those large subjects into this small, perfectly-formed frame. The poem is in quatrains, the lines roughly in pentameter. There are some loose end-rhymes (the last stanza falls into a more regular abab scheme, by way of resolution), but the poem wears its formality lightly. 

 

The only time the poet suggests any personal connection to the subject is in the title. The central narrative is presented in the third person, so that the characters remain fictional, mysterious. I always recall the Paris flashback scenes in Casablanca when I read the opening three stanzas; this is what Boland wants – to recast the protagonists (her mother, and possibly her father? We are never told the identity of the man) as film stars, romantic heroes. But that impersonal approach also reminds us that this is not the poet’s story. The only thing she truly possesses is the fan. 

 

The first three quatrains are end-stopped, self-contained. The first stanza establishes that the fan ‘was the first gift he ever gave her’ (which assumes that there were more). It gives us the time and location (‘pre-war Paris’) but also gives us the weather (‘stifling . . . stormy’), which could be the actual weather, but also the emotional climate. The storm on the horizon is the war, of course, but maybe also a hint of what is to come in the relationship. The sky is ‘starless’, after all. 

 

The second stanza starts from the point of view of the couple and then we cut from her (‘She was always early’) to him (‘He was late. That evening he was later’ . . . but he is buying the fan, so maybe he can be excused). There is a lot said about time; the way it passes slowly when you are waiting for something, quickly when you know the present moment is fleeting. Those short sentences make us think of units of time. The bare bones of the story. 

 

The third stanza belongs to her, the mother, the heroine. And in the final line of that stanza, we enter her mind, share her sensory perceptions: ‘She thought the distance smelled of rain and lightning.’ ‘Distance’ makes us think of something far away, but also of the passage of time expressed in the poem – the daughter looking back into her mother’s past.

 

And then Boland’s masterstroke. She allows that enigmatic last line of the third stanza to lead us into the fourth – straight into the present life of the fan. She shifts tense with the word ‘These’ and although she doesn’t enter the poem in the first person, we can see her holding the fan close, inspecting the ‘wild roses, appliquéd on silk by hand, / darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly.’ She has no idea of course how those roses would have been stitched; we begin to feel a move beyond the fan towards a different sort of connection, possibly with the seamstress who made it (like the poet stitching together the poem), with the emotional life of the woman who received it. And then we get the lines:

 

          The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent, 

          clear patience of its element. It is

 

          a worn-out, underwater bullion and it keeps, 

          even now, an inference of its violation. 

 

This is the first time Boland has used an enjambment over stanzas, moving us suddenly and startlingly from a physical description of the fan’s tortoiseshell frame, to a statement about the tortoise’s shell itself – something reticent, patient, precious, and in its rarity and endangerment, eventually violated; removed from its underwater domain to make the fan. And ‘worn-out’ – she never wants us to forget that this is an object of the past, an antique without practical worth in our modern age. These are strange, unsettling lines; she follows them with: ‘The lace is overcast as if the weather/ it opened for and offset had entered it’.

 

‘Overcast’, like ‘worn-out’, suggests the wear and tear of the years. The fan becomes a symbol for something more – for the past, but maybe also for the knowledge we hold in the present. And people can become worn-out too; we have left the lovers in the past, we do not know if they lived happily ever after. In the next stanza, she brings narrative and metaphor together: ‘The past is an empty cafe terrace . . . A man running’. And still, we do not know the fate of the lovers. Nor will we. It is the poem’s job to make a metaphor of the past, to ‘improvise’, as Boland says. That’s what we are always doing in poems, isn’t it? Attempting to make sense of the past, to make a meaningful connection with those close to us, but also those who are distant. 

 

And so, once again, in the final stanza, the poet moves into the present, trying to find a suitable metaphor, if not an ending. She observes ‘The blackbird on this first sultry morning / in summer’. The weather is hot, like the weather of that summer in Paris, but not stormy, oppressive. The blackbird is busy with the business of sustenance, of living, but she is also the vehicle for the poet’s improvisation: in those last two lines the blackbird is joined metaphorically to the fan, and ultimately to the woman who was once young in Paris before the war, and once loved a man who presented her with this gift. ‘Suddenly she puts out her wing –/ the whole, full, flirtatious span of it’.

 

 

Many thanks to Carcanet for allowing us to reproduce this poem on the Writers' Hub.


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