This poem may be found in Eavan Boland’s book of collected poems on page 157 and it is from her sequence outside history. It starts thus:-
The German girls that came to us that winter and
the winter after and who helped my mother fuel
the iron stove and arranged our clothes in wet
thicknesses on the wooden rail after tea was over,
spoke no English, understood no French.
We are in Boland’s childhood in Ireland and the political situation in Europe has isolated these girls and put them into linguistic isolation, perhaps similar to that experienced in childhood. This long starting sentence sets the lamenting pace with which this poem is infused. She continues to say that they spoke rapidly; “syllables in which pain was radical, integral; and with what sense of injury the language angled for an unhurt kingdom….I never knew“
The memory of these exile voices reminds Boland of her own exile from the darkness of Ireland and “the drizzle in the lilac, the dusk at the back door” but also of “the tinkers I was threatened with” She is imagining the guttural voices some forty years on and the sadness and pain mixed with these sounds as she reexperiences her loss of her homeland, now teaching in America.
These searing memories she recalls in a very different place-
“Among these salt boxes, marshes and the glove-tanned colours of the sugar maples, in this New England town at the start of winter. ” She appears to miss the past and its pains and ends by saying memorably that; “Here in this scalding air my speech will not heal.I do not want it to heal”
This poem I find appealing to the sense we presently have of dislocation due to the Covid crisis. Trying to retrieve some sense of the normal everyday and usual social interaction. In a sense we have all become exiles and I hear Leonard Cohen’s “and all men shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them” There are reminders for me in this poem of the sense of loss of control which so many feel with Brexit and the separation from the cultural and political values which Europe aspires.