by Eavan Boland
Where are the lives we lived
when we were young?
Our kisses, the heat of our skin, our bitter words?
The first waking to the first child’s cry?
With just three questions and four lines, Irish poet Eavan Boland pulls up memories for me so swiftly and so abundantly that the poem acts like an allergen. I have a physical reaction to reading it. My hearts beats faster and there’s a tingling in my hands that I can work into a tremble with a little concentration. Marcel Proust, the high priest of memory himself, explored similar themes through seven volumes and a million and half words: Boland does it in the seconds it takes to google “Remembrance of Times Past.”
Right away she puts her reader in a wistful mood with the musicality of the first two lines: “Where are the lives we lived/when we were young?” Try saying that out loud. It’s beautiful and intoxicating. The cadence and the emotional pull of those lines remind me of a French phrase my high school boyfriend used to recite after much teasing and begging on my part: Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan? But where are the snows of yesteryear?
I didn’t know it then, but that red-headed bespectacled beanpole of a boy who spoke a little French would become the father of my four children, my life’s partner of 30 years, my husband of 23. Like Proust’s madeleine, the smell of sawdust and body odor (we met as the set for the play we were in was being constructed in a boys’ gymnasium) brings me right back to the intensity and ripeness of our early lives. And so does this poem.
In the last two lines, the tempo picks up. Boland swoops through an overview of courtship and early marriage: the long, long kisses, the rip-your-blouse-off kind of sex, the lovers’ quarrels, the anxiety, exhaustion, and wonder of caring for the first baby.
And then the poem is over, just like that. Just as quickly as youth has passed for those on the other side.
On a hot summer evening I posted this little cherry of a poem on the seventh hole of a putt-putt golf course. I do not like putt-putt golf and never have, but I found myself feeling nostalgic about it when I accompanied two of my teenagers and their much younger cousins as they played. The joy of children who shout “Hole in one!”; the racing from hole to hole to see what kooky obstacles must be played through; the scowls and grins as scores are tallied—it was all so good. And so gone.
My fantasy was that an overtired parent or even a young couple on a date might happen upon Then and have the same visceral reaction to it that I did. The fullness and sweetness of life and all that jazz. Ah, youth!