I remember only one occasion when the immigration questions I had to answer at the airport were all about literature.
It was 16th June 2004. The 100th celebration of Bloomsday, the day at the heart of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Joyce industry, a prime mover of tourism and academic life in Ireland, had gone berserk in its celebration of Bloomsday 100, serving a mass breakfast on Dublin’s wide-open O’Connell Street, fare that had delighted the novel’s coarse and lovely protagonist, Leopold Bloom on the morning of 16th June, 1904: “grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine”.
I was a student, on my way to the festivities. My conversation with the immigration officer at Dublin airport, a thin bespectacled man who could have been Little Chandler from Joyce’s Dubliners, was simply a vibrant discussion of a chapter from Ulysses. With much delight, he had stamped my passport, waved me into Ireland.
A week of kidneys, Guinness, and literary festivities later, on my way back to Newark, New Jersey, I had chatted my eight-hour flight away with my friendly neighbour, a young Irish man, who seemed to know more about Irish history and literature than most academics. It was from him that I learned that Éamon de Valera, the great solider of Irish anti-colonial struggle against England, was an American citizen, which accounted for some of his immunity against British attempts to persecute him.
Before we parted, I’d asked him where he lived. “The Upper West Side,” he had said, naming the most affluent neighborhood in Manhattan. And then, as if adding a punchline of wistful humor, he’d said, “I’m a doorman.”
Of all the reasons to romanticise the popular and widespread Irish investment in literature, one was right there inside that Aer Lingus plane: poems printed on the back of the seats. Poems by Irish poets.
It was a story I heard from Alyce, an efficient department administrator who looked after faculty needs with much kindness and affection at Stanford during my years of teaching there. It was about my colleague, Eavan Boland.
One may find oneself facing the back of an airplane seat facing inanely cute airline logos; or instructions to tighten one’s seatbelt; or at best, selections from the bottom dregs of Hollywood.
Eavan found herself in an Aer Lingus flight facing lines from her own poem on the back of the seat before her.
She was my colleague for nine years – 2007 to 2016, the years I taught in that department. She chaired the Creative Writing Programme, overseeing Stanford’s celebrated Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program in Writing. A good deal of what I know about Creative Writing programmes – and how to make them tick, now that I try to run one – comes from watching this one, and the manner in which Eavan did it.
And among all that she did to run it, one that kept her much worried was getting health insurance for the Fellows. The Stegner programme was entirely funded by a private endowment, so its revenue source was atypical. So were the Fellows, who stayed in residence for two years working on their poetry or fiction; neither quite students nor quite employees. The source of things like health insurance for them was an administrative nightmare.
Eavan told me once that she loved being a bureaucrat; and loved the bureaucratic aspect of being a Programme Chair. It’s not something you’ll catch most academics saying – much less most poets. It’s something, she said, she’d inherited from her father, a bureaucrat who’d had a diplomatic career.
On Eavan’s faculty page at Stanford, this is the opening sentence: “Eavan Boland is Irish.”
That’s something Irish people do well in the US, more so the Irish who work in the fields of arts and culture. Being Irish; foregrounding that identity, in a world where the ideology of immigration, between the melting pot and the salad bowl and Donald Trump, can cower you down. As Éamon de Valera had done, a hundred years ago, as the friendly Upper West Side doorman on his way back to Manhattan from Dublin had taught me that post-Bloomsday.
Eavan led an Irish life, a life between Dublin and her apartment in Pierce Mitchell, one of the faculty housing enclaves on the Stanford campus, where I sometimes saw her on a walk with her husband, the writer Kevin Casey.
Earlier today, when I learned of her passing from a Facebook post by my former colleague, Blakey Vermeule, the current chair of the Stanford English department, I found myself wondering where she’d been. Of course she had passed away in Dublin. It was a silly thought; classes had gone online at Stanford several weeks earlier.
Had she? The tremor had passed through me. No! I looked it up. She’d died of a stroke.
But the tremor had returned. My favorite Eavan Boland poem, as perhaps that of countless others, is the unforgettable poem of love and death at the time of the famine, “Quarantine”:
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Not just Irish. Eavan Boland walked all her life, a journey with two maps, becoming a woman poet. Such was the title of her moving 2011 credo, and such was the title of her life.
Saikat Majumdar’s most recent novel is The Scent of God (2019).